Data is a valuable asset in modern business, and your security program is there to protect it and ensure your assets remain safe. Data can take the form of files, databases, communications, intellectual property, passwords, and more. While some of your organization’s data is purposely shared with the public, other data is increasingly sensitive and needs to be handled accordingly.
Your data classification and handling policies are complementary to each other. They work together to define the different types of data at your organization and communicate how your employees need to approach each type to best protect your organization.
Data classification and handling policies are essential documents in your security program.
Well-communicated policies become cultural documents that outline how employees will work together to take care of your organization’s data. The guidelines they provide increase the likelihood that employees will make decisions that protect your organization.
Your policies should cover these four data classes.
Different pieces of data carry various levels of risk to your organization. Data is used to store and communicate a variety of information types, each with a unique risk profile. Losing control of sensitive and valuable data, like personal customer information or credit card numbers, creates a much larger business impact on your organization compared to data designed to communicate ideas with the public.
The data at your organization can belong to the following four data classes:
Public data: data that is published or intentionally unprotected.
Examples of public data include information and resources that are published on your organization’s website, like whitepapers, blogs, or statements. Employees can feel safe to store or share public data as needed because there is no risk they will expose sensitive information that negatively impacts your organization. Employees are often encouraged to share public data, like in the case of marketing and sales materials.
Sensitive data: data that only people in your organization should know.
Examples of sensitive data include client presentations, intellectual property, and company emails. Employees should store sensitive data in an approved secure system like Gmail, Dropbox, etc. Adding this protective barrier between sensitive data and the public makes it more difficult for malicious hackers to gain access to data your organization values.
Need-to-know data: data accessible only to people who need it to complete their job duties.
Examples of need-to-know data include salary data accessible to only human relations employees and direct managers and a production environment password accessible only to the team directly responsible for running it. Employees should store need-to-know data in approved, secure systems with restricted access granted only to necessary employees, and access should be reviewed regularly.
Customer data: data that doesn’t belong to your organization.
Examples of customer data include your customer’s intellectual property, client information, business details, and more. Any data your employees have access to that doesn’t belong directly to your organization should be treated with the utmost care. Employees should store customer data in an approved, secure system with restricted access granted only to necessary employees.
Now is the right time to provide data classification handling guidelines to your organization.
Introduce data classification and handling policies early to set your organization up for success.
Data classification and handling policies are foundational and should be implemented early in your security program to strengthen your organization’s security culture. Employees that understand how to classify the data they encounter at your organization will be empowered to choose the appropriate level of handling for the data they encounter throughout their work.
Write effective data classification and handling policies.
The goal of your data classification and handling policies is to motivate employees to practice risk-reducing behavior that protects your organization. Don’t make the mistake of trying to cover every piece of data individually in your policies; instead, craft your data classification and handling policies to enable your employees to think and make decisions about data on their own.
An overly complicated policy full of specific details is overwhelming and less likely to be comprehended and retained by your employees than a concise, easy-to-read policy with clear direction.
For more guidance on writing effective security policies, read this blog post by Joan D. Pepin, experienced CISO and founder of ZeroWall, an information security company: Write a Security Policy Your Employees Will Remember
Comprehensible data classification and handling policies help your organization keep control of its valuable data.
Your data classification and handling policies help define the security culture at your organization. Effective data classification and handling policies are guides employees use as they make decisions for your organization in their everyday work. Providing data classification and handling policies early in your organization’s life increases the strength of your security program. It empowers your employees to make informed decisions on how to best protect your organization while they are handling data.
When you know your sensitive and valuable data is stored and used properly across your organization, you gain confidence that your security program is successfully reducing the risk of threats that could compromise your valuable assets.
Are you providing your employees with the right security policies?
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