Critical Data Discovery: Embarking on a Digital Treasure Hunt

Are you ready for 32 times more data in the next five years? How will you execute data discovery at that time? In an environment of big data, social media, mobility and cloud platforms, effective application of security controls throughout the critical data discovery life cycle is increasingly challenging. A company may amass a significant amount of information assets over time, consisting of trade secrets, proprietary designs, merger and acquisition plans, board deliberations and other highly sensitive data. These assets must be properly controlled and protected to avoid exploits that can damage the brand and impact competitiveness.

For this reason, protection of the most valuable data — the organization’s “crown jewels” — should be a central, clearly defined, constant component in an overall security strategy. The theft, misuse or corruption of critical data can cripple operations, severely damage brand reputation and dramatically reduce shareholder value; 70 percent of the value of publicly traded corporations is estimated to be in their critical data.

Defending the Crown Jewels

Unlike traditional crown jewels locked securely in a safe, critical data’s value is realized through constant access and exchange. Large enterprises are faced with the challenge of having massive amounts of data — intellectual property data, regulatory data, etc. — but not always knowing where to locate it or who has access to it.

Intelligence and visibility are key in any cyber security-related activity, including data protection. We can leverage a massive amount of intelligent feeds to help identify existing exposures of, and potential targeted attacks against, your critical data.

With so much attention focused on internal processes, an organization’s senior management may neglect the fact that data-driven processes extend well beyond the walls of the enterprise. Vendors, supply chain partners and other players may have a need to access and use critical data, yet it is not uncommon for organizations to expect those third parties to maintain their own security and data control.

Can your executive team identify the 0.01 to 2 percent of data that determines whether your enterprise will survive and thrive?

Data Discovery: A Tech Treasure Hunt

Once you’ve defined your crown jewels, it’s time to discover them. There are three key ways an organization can execute an effective critical data discovery program:

  1. Focus: Good luck trying to discover all your sensitive data in one shot using your favorite data loss protection (DLP) tool; this will get overwhelming quickly. You’ll want to pick the right starting point. Given the complexities of defining large volumes of information, it is critical to recognize the relative value of different classes of data and establish clear priorities. Start with your “crown jewels” first and then move to the other “gems” within your organization.
  1. Map: Critical data discovery must account for the data life cycle. Organizations should understand not only where the data is stored, but also where it originates, who uses it and how it flows in and out of your organization. Next, understand how that life cycle is associated with the business processes and the control points that can impact operations. This is usually accomplished by performing data flow mapping in addition to tool-based discovery.
  1. Repeat: The last key to critical data discovery is establishing an iterative process. Data is dynamic and moves around constantly. New sets of data emerge continuously, so organizations must diligently execute data discovery even if a program has been established. The business is ever-evolving, but the pressures and threats to critical data will never go away; repeating the discovery process is the only way to keep up.

Every corner of the organization — from human resources to operations to marketing — is generating, acquiring, processing, storing and sharing more data every day. Critical data protection must account for the data life cycle, associated business processes and the proper control points along the way.

After discovery, in order to secure your organization’s data and infrastructure, you must create a protection baseline and a risk remediation plan to prioritize and validate solutions and implement an operational framework. This is where you take the steps necessary to ensure that your company is aware of potential threats and working proactively to defend itself against them on an ongoing basis.

Good luck on your treasure-hunting journey.

Erkang Zheng

Cybersecurity Strategist, IBM Security Services

Erkang is the Cybersecurity Strategist and Global Program Director for Consulting Product Management at IBM Security...