11 expert tips to protect your data and prevent a data breach

If you’re an Australian business owner reading this, there’s a 30% chance you will suffer a data breach. Yes, that is what the statistics says.

Do you know that the average cost of a data breach in Australia is $3.35 million per breach, an increase of 9.8% year on year?

Keeping your data secure has never been more important, especially with the continued rise of fraud and scams in Australia. With the recent Optus data breach, we know that there are increasing concerns about keeping your data safe.

Michele Bullock, Deputy Governor for the Royal Bank of Australia says that cyberattacks targeting Australian financial systems are on the rise, and they’re getting increasingly sophisticated.

Before going into data protection, you need to first understand what these cyberattacks or data breaches are?

A cyberattack is any attempt to gain unauthorised access to a computer, computing system or computer network with the intent to cause damage.

Cyberattacks can take different shapes and forms. In a nutshell, the attacks can cause your system or server crash. They might alter, delete, or insert data in your system or enter into your system to cause damage or steal valuable information, or disable your system until you pay the attacker a ransom.

You may be surprised to learn how cybercriminals use sophisticated tools to launch cyberattacks against enterprises. They target everything ―personal computers, computer networks, IT infrastructure, and IT systems.

So, how do you prevent a data breach? To prevent a data breach, you must protect the enterprise data at the source.

But, with data being created and residing across users, networks, Clouds, and devices; protecting it is not that easy, it takes a lot of effort. Fortunately, technologies, frameworks, and procedures are available to help ensure its security.

October is Cyber Security Awareness Month and an annual reminder for all Australians to stay secure online. Hence we thought it is fitting to write about some of the steps you can take to protect your data from data breaches.

Below are 11 best data protection practices you can follow to prevent any data breach.

1. Take an inventory of your data

You can’t protect your data without understanding its nature. Data is of various types and your security teams must understand the nature of this data and how this data is created, used, stored, and destroyed. All data―from mundane to sensitive data―must be cataloged. This practice makes sure data is protected and not vulnerable. The first step is to create and maintain a comprehensive data inventory. But the huge amount of data created, stored, and used by organisations make gaining visibility into this data a challenging task. That is where a data discovery tool comes in to help to automate the process. These automated tools use various methods to find and identify structured and unstructured data.

2. Recognise data usage in your organisation

If you think data is stationary, you are wrong. It can be in different states―static, in motion, or use. You need to understand the complete movement of the data to safeguard it. Gaining an insight into the complete movement of the data (when it is static, when it is processed and when it is in motion) enables you to decide the best protection required.

3. Classify your data

Not all data are the same, their value differs according to their nature, for example personally identifiable information (PII) and financial data are more valuable than an educational white paper. After understanding and classifying data, you should label it with a digital signature that denotes its classification, so you can protect it following its value to the organisation.

You may use third-party tools that can make data discovery and classification easier and more accurate. These tools can also enforce classification policies to control user access and avoid storing it in insecure locations.

Later, you can update the classification when you create, modify, store, or transmit data. However, controls should be in place to make sure that only privileged users should be able to downgrade the classification of data.

Use different terminology to classify data depending on your organisation’s needs, but data generally falls into following four classes:

  • public
  • internal
  • sensitive
  • confidential

4. Use data masking to protect your data

You need to mask your data because it is an important step in data protection. Data masking or data obfuscation is the process of modifying sensitive data in such a way that it is of no or little value to unauthorised intruders while still being usable by software or authorised personnel. The main reason for applying masking to your data field is to protect data that is classified as personally identifiable information, sensitive personal data, or commercially sensitive data.

There are a lot of techniques involved in Data masking such as encryption, character shuffling, and character or word substitution. In tokenisation, one of the most popular techniques, real values are substituted with dummy data that is fully functional.

5. Use data encryption to hide your data

Data encryption is a method of protecting your data by encoding it in such a way that it can only be decrypted or accessed by an individual who holds the correct encryption key. If encrypted data is stolen by attackers, it appears scrambled or unreadable, and therefore, the attackers gain no value from the data.

Considering the elevated risk of cybercrime today, you and your staff should be familiar with and incorporate basic encryption techniques, at the very least.

Even though encryption is not the only solution for the data breach, it is one of the best ways to safeguard your valuable information.

6. Control access to sensitive data

Apply appropriate access controls to your data.  Access controls should restrict access to information based on the principle of least privilege.  You should give your users only those privileges that are essential to perform their intended function. This makes sure only appropriate staff can access particular data. Again, access controls can be physical, technical, or administrative. Authorisation and access controls range from passwords and audit logs to multifactor authentication, privileged access management, and mandatory access controls.

7. Create a data usage policy

You need to do more than just classify data. You need to create a policy that specifies access types, and conditions that determine the access based on classification, who has access to data, what constitutes correct usage of data, and so on. Any policy violations should have clear consequences. Data that does not adhere to data usage and retention policies should be removed.

8. Educate all employees on data security risks

Educate all employees on your organisation’s cybersecurity best practices and policies and how to recognise malware and social engineering attempts. Don’t forget to provide new training to give up-to-date information about the data threat landscape and to create classes for new employees.  Proper awareness provides the right knowledge and empowers your employees to support security efforts than undermine them by bypassing controls.

9. Back-up data

Duplicate your critical business assets to serve as backups.  This will help you to retrieve data in case the working copy becomes unavailable, deleted, or corrupted. Conduct backups on a scheduled basis. Be sure to keep any backups protected as they can also be a target of attack. From a security point of view, there are three primary backup types:

  • Full — All data is archived.
  • Differential — All changes since the last full backup are archived.
  • Incremental — All changes since the last backup of any type are archived.

10. Use Data Loss Prevention (DLP)

Data Loss Prevention (DLP) is nothing but detecting and preventing data breaches, exfiltration, or unwanted destruction of sensitive data. Use DLP to protect and secure your data and comply with regulations. DLP consists of technologies, products, and techniques that automate the tracking of sensitive data. They prevent data from leaving your organisation’s networks or being routed to internal resources that fall outside of policy.

11. Use endpoint security systems to protect your data

The endpoints of your network are open to attack constantly, so having the endpoint security infrastructure in place is crucial to preventing data breaches.

Automated tools that reside on the endpoint system are essential to mitigating the effects of malware. You should, at least, use the following technologies:

  • Antivirus software 
  • Antispyware
  • Pop-up blockers 
  • Host-based firewalls 
  • Host-based intrusion detection systems (IDSs

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