Securing Sensitive Business Information: How to Protect Unstructured Data

Busy executives in companies of every size have enough balls to juggle in the current global and highly competitive marketplace. Isn’t it the IT team’s task to focus on securing company data?

It turns out that in today’s business environment, your enterprise’s data is always at risk for IT-related security breaches. This blog, Important Lessons from Data Breaches in the News, outlines the scope of the data breach problem.

If you believe your data is indeed secure, it may be time for the C-Suite to take a closer look at your enterprise’s potential vulnerabilities in the area of unstructured data; perhaps the final frontier when it comes to secured business data. To support that effort, we will look first at what constitutes unstructured data, and then offer advice for companies looking to protect their unstructured data.

Why? The short answer is that securing unstructured data is as important to your customers, your company’s reputation, regulatory compliance, and therefore your bottom line as is securing structured or big data. Also, data analysts report that fear of security breaches still drives many companies to continue to pull key business information out of unstructured data using the painstaking method of manual extraction from paper forms—inefficient at best and ineffective and costly at worst.

What is unstructured data?

It’s an awkward term for a sizeable vulnerability: TechTarget has noted IDC’s claim that unstructured data comprised as much as 80 percent of your business data.

Unstructured data is an umbrella phrase that encompasses all your business information that is not available in a structured, classified format such as a data base or spreadsheet. Think of it as all the paperwork on top of all your employees’ desks, as opposed to all the paperwork that has been classified and filed.

Unstructured data includes information available in a multitude of formats: word processed documents, email or text messages, pdfs, graphics, shared files (perhaps stored in Dropbox or Slack, for instance), slide decks, and even information extracted from a structured format.

Note that it is not enough to understand which formats may contain unstructured data. TechTarget advises that a key to closing the vulnerability gap is to identify three areas of potential vulnerability:

  • data sensitivity levels—including your company’s regulatory environment, level of risk aversion, and corporate culture.
  • sensitive data location—identifying environments appropriate for storing sensitive data and environments considered “open access” for public information only. A company with multiple sites and/or employees bringing their own devices to work heightens the need to review access to sensitive business information within the framework of its location.
  • inappropriate access to data—reviewing at regular intervals exactly who has access to sensitive business data and asking whether that access is appropriate.

What is at risk?

In addition to the obvious—leaked intellectual property, for example—there is all the data you collect about your employees along with information about customers and potential customers.

As icrunchdata.com warns, “Customer data needs to be protected from the start to avoid unnecessary risk to customer intimacy (the latter being marketing’s goal). As such, data security needs to be viewed holistically and as a business and IT priority. Otherwise, organizations could find themselves hostages of public scrutiny and income and business loss as a result of their attempts to enhance the customer experience.”

Without the right protections in place, the necessary and invaluable work of marketing to customers typically includes compiling non-secured unstructured data. That risk is costly: icrunch.com quotes one CIO as saying, “A company’s reputation is built over years but can be destroyed in minutes. Information security is business critical in digital times.’”

  • Protecting all your data, structured and unstructured, protects your brand’s reputation, customer relationships, employee data, and intellectual property—well worth the effort if you stop there. But the right protections also lead to efficiencies, improved compliance, and enhanced customer relations as well.

Protecting your unstructured data

Undertaking the protection of your unstructured data may sound like herding cats to executives just starting down the path of securing all their business information. Viewed as a logical process, however, the six steps that follow make sense. The key is to start right away.

1.  Become a cheerleader for data security. The drive to create a secured data environment needs to become an intricate part of the fabric of your corporate culture. The most successful enterprises employ a carrot-and-stick employee approach to ensure compliance across the enterprise. Consult with your HR department for tools that will be effective with your employee cohort.

2.  Define what specifically constitutes “sensitive data” that needs to be secured. Remind employees at regular intervals of the company’s definition of “sensitive data.”

3.  Review your company’s sensitive data location policies and revise as needed. As icrunchdata.com states:

“CIOs say that security today needs to be systematic, with the ability to centrally govern data access and enforce protection policies across every location that data flows – at rest, in use or in motion. This is essential regardless of the nature of data (structured, semi-structured or unstructured) and irrespective of how it is stored….”

4.  Access to sensitive business data needs a business-related justification, along with accountability for how that sensitive data is handled. The C-Suite can best address this area as a team. As job tasks and personnel change, so will the need-to-know basis for accessing sensitive data. And some data needs to be handled in a process specific to that type of data. It is recommended that you implement a routine review of current access levels and a regular internal audit of accountability related to the secure handling of all data.

5.  Invest in new technology that classifies your unstructured data, as well as secures it and supports your accountability policies. New technologies also facilitate data searches and recovery since formerly unstructured data will become classified and structured—a boon for customer service and compliance.

6.  Update your employee training program to cover changes regarding how unstructured data will be processed, and accountability for the handling sensitive unstructured data.

The upshot

Going forward, data digitization will increase in every industry across the globe. Savvy executives plan to stay ahead of that curve by taking the steps above to start securing their unstructured data.

Fortunately, Tie National, LLC (TIE), offers IT managed services that simplify your conversion to securing your unstructured data, as well as maintaining the best practice processes over time. TIE ensures that your enterprise is equipped with the just the IT tools your enterprise needs now—and can grow with your enterprise into the future. To learn more, please contact us today.

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