It’s old news, but data is – and will remain for the foreseeable future – king. It has to be dealt with and handled responsibly, assigned to the right boxes, and stored properly. Why? Because everyone wants it, and there are increased efforts to obtain it by ever-more sophisticated and subtle bad actors. You wouldn’t put a piece of junk mail in a high security vault. Nor would you trust a crown jewel to a locked desk drawer. Similarly, since data is now the “object” in question of every digital heist, it must be properly identified, allocated, and secured in order to remain valuable to the organization – and only them.
If data classification is new to you, it shouldn’t be. However, with the abundance of digital information and the preponderance of cloud assets, it can be hard to grasp fully. This 5-minute guide will give you the run-down of how data can be classified, who is responsible for it, and what that means for security.
What is Data Classification?
Data classification is the act of organizing your data by certain criteria to make access, use, and security easier. When done right, proper data classification lets you find what you want when you want it. It lets you assign groups, permissions, and protections and makes it easier to keep track of information by criticality. As such, it’s also a helpful boon for risk management and compliance.
What is the criterion for separating data by categories? Sensitivity. For the most part, information is striated by how confidential it is to an organization and is assigned different levels of security from there. Other than internal organization and ease of use, that is its sole purpose and certainly its main one.
What are the Benefits of Data Classification?
As stated above, security is the prime benefit of good data classification. It protects the confidentiality, availability, and integrity of data – without wasting resources by protecting too much or exposing your network by protecting too little.
Additional benefits include:
- Data privacy compliance
- Role-based access made easier
- Best practice for data storage – how long to keep it, and what gets stored
- Supports a Zero Trust environment
- Simplifying data access in the cloud
On that last note, the cloud has made information more available to users, but also more vulnerable to threats. Data classification in the cloud is vital to a secure network as what was once putting up a pet gate is now herding cats. Without custom allocation of data in the cloud, governance, data loss prevention, digital rights management, and access becomes an overwhelming feat rife with errors, holes, and vulnerabilities.
Categories and Criteria of Data Classification
Now let’s talk specifics. How do you classify data? Remembering that the guiding principle is confidentiality, here is an example of how data can be classified in a modern organization:
- Public data. This needs to be easily (even freely) accessible for obvious reasons. Everyone has a right to it, so privacy here is null. This often includes names, dates of birth, press releases, job postings, and even license plate numbers. Although key pieces of information, they are classified as harmless in and of themselves. Note: while contact information is great to make public for customer service reasons, careful about sharing work-only email addresses as they are a major gateway for phishing attacks.
- Private data. While this may sound confidential, it doesn’t warrant the highest levels of security. Private data is often protected by biometrics or a password, such as email inboxes, a smartphone, or browsing history. This is information that could prove detrimental if it leaked but is not necessarily damaging itself.
- Internal data. This is business-related information that employees have access to. The list might include budgets, slide decks, internal emails or memos, business plans and the company intranet. Securing this information is of greater importance due to the sensitivity of the data and its direct impact on the organization.
- Confidential data. Just like it sounds, this category is on a need-to-know basis and is kept from even other employees. This type of information requires special authorization or clearance and includes social security numbers, insurance provider information, medical records, biometrics themselves, and financial accounts. Obviously, this warrants an even higher level of security.
- Restricted. The most sensitive level of data is reserved for the strictest controls. Restricted data is often (almost always) encrypted security requirements limit who can access it and on what systems it can reside. This is information that, if breached, could cause immediate and severe damage to the organization, to individuals, or to public health and safety. Cyberattacks compromising this classification are typically illegal and subject to fines and government jurisdiction, and include tax information, protected health information (PHI), and information bound by legal and binding confidentiality agreements.
Other ways include:
- Content-based classification: This method protects the file based on what’s inside.
- Context-based classification: This type looks for clues to how the data is being used in order see if it is sensitive or not – where is it being moved, who moves it, and when it is accessed.
- User-driven classification: This falls on the user/employee themselves to classify, based on their knowledge, training, corporate policy and security mindset. A well-defined workflow is an obvious prerequisite.
For best results, a combined method is often used that mixes user-driven with automated classification techniques. In this way, technology and critical thinking can check the other for the desired best result.
Roles and Responsibilities Over Data
Once these policies and data classification limits are in place, it is up to the organization to enforce them. Roles and responsibilities can be arranged as follows:
CISO | The CISO (and CIO) and responsible for spearheading data classification initiatives, getting C-level buy-in where necessary, and holding the bag should anything ultimately fail.
IT System Administrators | This is where the boots hit the ground and the initial ideal (from the CISO) becomes real strategy.
Department Managers | Managers across the board hold equal weight to their IT counterparts because a data classification scheme is only as good as it’s used. This buy-in is integral, and department managers are key liaisons between the workforce and IT. They make sure adoption is smooth and worked into the workflows, and provide key knowledge to IT teams regarding which data is sensitive, how it is used, and where it can be stored.
End Users | Everyone has a part to play, and this is where security awareness training comes in. Educating employees on the necessity of data protection - and training them on how to comply with the various new data classification requirements and culture - is really where the rubber hits the road.
Legal and Compliance | This is the ultimate muscle behind the whole approach, and the backbone against which it is built. What is data security if it isn’t compliant, and what is data classification if it’s not geared towards security? Legal should work hand-in-hand with the CISO and IT Admins during the creation process to bake in the guardrails that will hold the whole strategy together in the future.
Data Classification is Data Security
The rationale behind good Data Classification is as simple as the old IT adage, “You can’t defend what you can’t see.” And it’s true. With more threats and more room for error – remote work, Zoom calls, cloud assets, APIs, and more – it's more important than ever to get a handle on your data (before somebody else does).
Classifying data by type, confidentiality, and security requirements ensures all information is accounted for and not found first by an attacker. They don’t hesitate to leverage any information available against the organization, so it’s the organization’s job to not make it available. This is what Data Classification does and is a logical requirement for any sensible security plan - especially one revolving around Zero Trust.
To have Zero Trust, you need to see all your assets, know the level of security they each require, then build accordingly. And the data is encouraging: according to a recent study, 97% of organizations report that their security budget will increase during 2023, or at least stay level. No one is backing down on defenses now, and Data Classification is the underpinning of any sustainable data protection approach.