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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 may not realize that they have an issue in desperate need of rectification.

information that should be secured can go unprotected for a variety of reasons. Sometimes employees make mistakes or 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 While those databases may have been sufficiently secured in the past, their outdated security policies may not hold up against modern threats.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, so that companies can take steps to fix any outstanding security issues.

What is Sensitive Data Discovery?

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

Data Exploration

Data exploration is the first step in any sensitive data discovery project. The goal of this step is to identify all existing information that a company holds. As part of this step, businesses may ask 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?

Answering these questions manually can take a lot of time. The more information you store, the longer it will take. And a manual process is likely to be flawed. For example, current employees often overlook old databases that predate their employment. Or, data may be duplicated when a company migrates information to or from the cloud and forgets to delete the previous database. Consequently, data exploration is often better handled by a tool with data scanning capabilities, to uncover all locations where your company stores data, but may not necessarily be aware of. Automated sensitive data discovery software can also automatically classify data, so you know what data types you’re dealing with in each newly discovered location.

Data Preparation

Knowing your data’s location and type is only half the battle. Due to errors in content and structure, as well as commitments to data security and privacy, 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 with relevant regulations, eliminating ROT 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 Tool

One significant downside 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, and doesn’t even scratch the surface of the challenge that unstructured data presents.

Smart Data Discovery tool uses 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 scanning tools, you can schedule scans to ensure that your understanding and classification of your data system remains accurate even as your databases evolve.

Benefits of Sensitive Data Discovery

Sensitive data discovery has a ton of benefits, though different businesses may value some over others. Here are two that we believe most businesses would appreciate.

Data discovery accelerates data analysis. While the most commonly-understood benefit of data discovery is that it helps 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. Sensitive data discovery processes can also help you improve your future processes by tagging and categorizing data as it’s created. This means that analysis can be more complete and can work on fresher data, even providing real-time insights without compromising security or privacy.

Data discovery helps ensure that your organization complies with legal requirements. Sensitive 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 without data discovery helping your organization understand its data, you can’t proactively secure it and establish that you’ve done so.

Sensitive 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 effectively move forward with those critical tasks. Luckily, there are tools that help accelerate the process and perform more precisely and accurately than humans ever could.

Mage Sensitive Data Discovery features processes for both PHI and PII discovery 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 data scanning, 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.