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October 12, 2022

Data Discovery 101: What Every Business Needs to Know to Secure its Data

Like homeowners who only discover that their roof leaks during a storm, many companies only uncover data security issues during a breach. Breaches can happen to companies with solid data security plans. And like that homeowner with a leaky roof, they can’t fix the problems they know nothing about.

With data security, there can be many reasons that information that should be secured goes unprotected. Sometimes employees make mistakes and don’t follow official security policies to the letter. Or, old databases don’t appear on data inventory audits. While those databases may have been sufficiently secured in the past, their outdated security policies may not hold up against modern threats.

In these situations, data discovery comes to the rescue by exposing all data in a system, including areas where it’s fallen through the cracks.

What is Data Discovery?

While there are many tools for data discovery, data discovery itself is a process—the process of uncovering and organizing all data sources so that all data is both known and accessible. While the steps taken in data discovery vary, two of the most common are data exploration and data preparation.

Data Exploration

Data exploration is the first step in any data discovery project. The goal of this step is to identify all existing information. Towards that end, you might seek answers to questions like:

  • How many discrete databases do we have?
  • How do the databases relate to each other (if at all)?
  • What types of data are stored? Is any of it private data?
  • How is the data secured? Who has access to it?

Doing this process by hand can take a lot of time. The more information you store, the longer it can take. Current employees often overlook old databases that predate their employment. Data may also be duplicated when a company migrates information to or from the cloud and forgets to delete the previous database. If this is the case for you, be sure to pay careful attention to your cataloging process.

Data Preparation

Knowing your data’s location and type is only half the battle. While you could use your newly found and categorized data for analysis or improved security processes, not all data is usable right away. Data preparation is the process of ensuring data is both usable and free of bloat.

The first step in data preparation is to identify any Redundant, Obsolete, or Trivial (ROT) data. ROT data consumes storage space and incurs costs even though it has no benefit to your organization. As long as you remain in compliance, eliminating it saves money in the long run and simplifies the task of analyzing and securing your data.

A common source of redundant data is your internal employee intranet. Because it’s often easy to duplicate information in an intranet, people often do so,. This leads to files that exist dozens of times when only one canonical copy is necessary. Intranets are also a common source of trivial or obsolete data.

However, trivial or obsolete data are often found in other databases, too. Examples include:

  • Information about customers from retired product lines
  • Medical files past the legal date of disposal
  • Duplicate emails or old server session cookies

Once you’ve cleaned your data to improve its overall quality and usefulness, the next step is to start visualizing your data. Visualizations help others understand what data your company possesses and how each dataset relates to others.

Smart Data Discovery

One of the downsides to manual data discovery is that nearly every step can take an incredible amount of time. As the size of your data warehouse grows, so too does the challenge, to the point where it can become impractical or impossible to perform the process manually. Even if you can accurately identify all your organization’s databases, you still need to categorize every type of data in each column in each database, which is an even more extensive project.

Smart Data Discovery tools use artificial intelligence and natural language processing to identify each data type and flag those containing especially sensitive data such as PHI or PII. This process alone can save a ton of time and get you back to higher-level activities sooner.

Since databases grow and change over time, data discovery is an ongoing process. With the right smart data discovery tools, you can schedule scans to ensure that your understanding of your data system remains accurate even as your databases evolve.

Benefits of Data Discovery

Data discovery accelerates data analysis. While the data discovery’s biggest benefit is helping organizations avoid costly data breaches, it helps in other ways, too. Understanding the types of data you have and where it’s stored accelerates the analysis process. Data discovery processes can also help you improve your future processes by tagging and categorizing data as it’s created.

Data discovery helps ensure that your organization complies with legal requirements. Data discovery is vital when ensuring compliance with legislation like HIPPA or the CCPA. It’s not enough to claim that you take the appropriate privacy and security steps. Instead, you have to demonstrate that your company is actively taking the proper measures to secure your data. And if you don’t know what data you have, you can’t proactively secure it and establish that you’ve done so.

Data Discovery for Your Company

Data discovery is a roadblock to important analysis, compliance, and security operations. As long as it isn’t complete, you can’t move forward with those critical tasks. Luckily, there are tools that help accelerate the process and perform it to a greater deal of detail than humans ever could.

Sensitive Data Discovery by Mage Data features sensitive data discovery to help you find the PHI and PII in your database, even if it isn’t correctly labeled. This enables you to find and mitigate potential security risks, even when they present in unorthodox ways. Plus, with regular scans, you’ll be able to ensure compliance with privacy regulations like the GDPR, CCPA, or HIPPA. And its accessible visualizations make it easy to understand your data quickly Learn more about Mage Sensitive Data Discovery today or get a demo to see how it works for your company.