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Keeping confidential data private and secure is one of the top challenges for any company. No matter how heavily connected you are to technology, chances are you rely on digital databases to store sensitive information about your employees, customers, and finances. When that information gets out, the risks to your business are significant.

The average data leak costs almost $4 million. Globally, there is a 27% chance your business will suffer a leak within the next 12 months. Mitigating those risks isn’t just helpful IT best practice – it could be crucial to the survival of your business.

Fortunately, you’re not helpless. Far from it. The chances of data leaks for companies worldwide might be increasing, but so are opportunities to mitigate those chances and minimize associated risks. You just have to know how to approach it.

Let’s talk about that part. These 9 tips can help you minimize the risk of a data leak, protecting your company and reducing a crucial risk factor. They apply regardless of industry and often, even regardless of your IT expertise.

1) Define Your Security Policy

It’s difficult to prevent a leak if you don’t tell your employees how. More likely than not, a number of people have access to sensitive data, and could (intentionally or unintentionally) be the cause of a leak. It’s up to you to help them prevent that.

The first step to making that happen is building a clear and defined security policy. That document needs to outline exactly what data can and cannot be used for, how to access it, and how to handle technology.

Elements of this policy might seem  pretty obvious to you. For instance, it makes sense to include guidelines of logging out of a computer after hours. Still, simply writing them down and making sure they get distributed to the right people can go a long way towards building a more secure workplace culture.

2) Build Permission Structures

Don’t just rely on an honor system. Instead, limit your accessibility to make sure that only team members who actually need access to certain data can reach it. Most security experts recommend a system of Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): 

Employees are only allowed to access the information necessary to effectively perform their job duties. Access can be based on several factors, such as authority, responsibility, and job competency. In addition, access to computer resources can be limited to specific tasks such as the ability to view, create, or modify a file.

How you build these roles depends on the size of the organization and the type of data to be secured. A role-based system also helps you de-personalize your controls, making access depend not on individuals but their tasks.

3) Restrict Data Downloads

Data leaks tend to originate in databases, but their distribution happens outside that database. An Excel file in a team member’s Downloads folder is much easier to access or lose track of than the source from which that information is pulled. Keep that in mind as you work to prevent leak.

One way to combat the dangers resulting from downloaded data files is to restrict download to them. If your teams only need access to the data in their original (database) state, there should be no reason for them to download it into a spreadsheet. 

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Restricting downloads will also prevent the subsequent transfer of that information. Many data leaks actually come from inadvertent sharing of the wrong file. If the data can’t be downloaded or emailed, you take out a significant factor in that information becoming vulnerable to your organization.

4) Clarify Your BYOD Policy

Unsecured data is often connected with unsecured devices. That problem isn’t going away anytime soon; if anything, it’s becoming more prevalent. According to one survey, almost 70% of employees use their personal devices to access business apps. Given the increased use of mobile devices, that number will only rise in the future.

If you cannot get a handle on this practice, you expose your company to significant risks of a data leak. A personal device is likely not as secure as a company device. And of course, the same is true in reverse as well: If 83% of employees use their work computer for personal use, they’ll make them less secure in the process.

There is no easy way to get a handle on this problem. You can’t just forbid your teams to use a cell phone when working from home. You can, however, implement some measure of control. A defined BYOD (bring your own device) policy helps you set parameters for how personal devices can be used and restricted, and what that does to your data security.

5) Take Care of the Hardware Side

Most efforts to prevent data leaks focus on the databases and platforms that actually host the information. That’s important, but it doesn’t mean you should ignore the physical items that can lead to leaks as well.

Hardware destruction isn’t as simple as throwing away an old flash drive. Even throwing your hard drive into a lake might not be enough. To truly erase the data, you might need more specialized services particularly for this task. So-called hard drive crushers help you accomplish it.

In one case, the loss of unencrypted hard drives led to data leaks for almost 1 million health records. It’s not always that drastic, but the general point still stands. You need to get the disposal of your equipment right.

6) Scrub Your Data Regularly

Old data is probably no longer useful for your company. That doesn’t mean it cannot still harm those of whom the record is collected. While you don’t need the social security number of a customer from a decade ago any longer, that customer probably still wouldn’t appreciate the information getting out.

That’s why it makes sense to build a policy specifically designed to help you understand what data you need to archive, and what to scrub. Make sure that policy complies with current regulations, which generally require regular cleansing of data you no longer need.

For the information you do need in order to run historical reports, ramp up the security level. The sales person might not need access to it anymore. Instead, build security roles specifically for reporting to minimize the exposure and resulting risk of data loss.

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7) Monitor for Suspicious Activity

Security measures like scrubbing old data and clarifying your BYOD policy are important. They’re also not a guarantee that you will be protected from a data leak. Often, though, that risk announces itself. If you listen closely, you might find it before anything actually leaks out.

A number of tools can help you monitor and audit your files and databases. They flag any access that has not been authorized through your security structure, or unusual patterns that might show an external individual trying to gain access. You just need to put them in place and pay attention.

Another step to take might be taking occasional ‘expeditions’ to see what types of data are being leaked, and how they could be connected to your company. Combining both of those is a major task, but one that’s essential engage in early detection and minimize risks.

8) Train Your Employees

Data leaks are not always technical. Far from it. In fact, one study found that 40% of data leaks are caused by simple employee negligence. That’s a major number, and one that suggests there is work to do in educating your teams.

Everyone that has access to sensitive data should be engaged through regular training and education on why keeping that information safe matters, and how they can go about doing so. That training might be as simple as going over your security policy, or providing tips on a safe password. The goal is general awareness, which tends to translate to more attention and less negligence.

Don’t take this step too far. The average front desk professional might not need an education on how your firewall works. Instead, they’ll be interested in how that applies to their daily task. The more relevant you can make the education to them, the better.

9) Prepare for the Eventuality of a Leak

All of the above strategies can help you minimize the chances that your data leaks. They don’t eliminate that chance. That’s why, as part of your strategy, you need to make sure that you take the necessary steps to prepare for the possibility to mitigate its risk after the fact.

Early detection, as mentioned above, is absolute key. You have to make sure that, if a leak occurs, you can control it early. To make that happen, you need a contingency plan.

A data breach response plan needs to include a list of team members responsible for the response, along with action steps for how to handle the leak and a clear-cut procedure for follow-up. You hope that you never need it, but you need to have it in place just in case you do.

A data leak can be absolutely devastating to businesses of any size. It’s not always possible to prevent, but you can take steps to both minimize the risk of a breach itself and its fallout once it occurs. To get there, you might need help. Contact us to learn about a potential partnership, designed to keep your business safe and secure as you strive towards growth.

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About Jeff Collins

Experience and Expertise make the difference when searching for top cloud providers. Appliedi has provided managed cloud services since 1999.

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