United States

What types of data need protecting?

In my first article on the topic of citizens’ digital health and safety we looked at the states’ desire to keep their citizens healthy and safe and also at the various laws and regulations they have in place around data breaches and losses. The size and scale of the problem together with some ideas for effective risk mitigation are in this whitepaper.

The cost and frequency of data breaches continue to rise
The cost and frequency of data breaches continue to rise

Let’s now start delving a little deeper into the situation states are faced with. It’s pretty obvious that citizen data that enables an individual to be identified (PII) needs to be protected. We immediately think of the production data: data that is used in integrated eligibility systems; in health insurance exchanges; in data warehouses and so on. In some ways the production data is the least of our problems; our research shows that the average state has around 10 to 12 full copies of data for non-production (development, test, user acceptance and so on) purposes. This data tends to be much more vulnerable because it is widespread and used by a wide variety of people – often subcontractors or outsourcers, and often the content of the data is not well understood.

Obviously production systems need access to real production data (I’ll cover how best to protect that in the next issue), on the other hand non-production systems of every sort do not. Non-production systems most often need realistic, but not real data and realistic, but not real data volumes (except maybe for the performance/stress/throughput testing system). What need to be done? Well to start with, a three point risk remediation plan would be a good place to start.

1. Understand the non-production data using sophisticated data and schema profiling combined with NLP (Natural Language Processing) techniques help to identify previously unrealized PII that needs protecting.
2. Permanently mask the PII so that it is no longer the real data but is realistic enough for non-production uses and make sure that the same masking is applied to the attribute values wherever they appear in multiple tables/files.
3. Subset the data to reduce data volumes, this limits the size of the risk and also has positive effects on performance, run-times, backups etc.

Gartner has just published their 2013 magic quadrant for data masking this covers both what they call static (i.e. permanent or persistent masking) and dynamic (more on this in the next issue) masking. As usual the MQ gives a good overview of the issues behind the technology as well as a review of the position, strengths and weaknesses of the leading vendors.

It is (or at least should be) an imperative that from the top down state governments realize the importance and vulnerability of their citizens data and put in place a non-partisan plan to prevent any future breaches. As the reader might imagine, for any such plan to success needs a combination of cultural and organizational change (getting people to care) and putting the right technology – together these will greatly reduce the risk. In the next and final issue on this topic we will look at the vulnerabilities of production data, and what can be done to dramatically increase its privacy and security.