Data Privacy Week: Can Businesses Navigate the PII Labyrinth in the Age of Cyber Threats?

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In the age of rapid technological advancement comes an ever-increasing cyber threat landscape. With this comes a heightened emphasis on data privacy.

Today, many organizations are now at a critical juncture when it comes to safeguarding personal identifiable information (PII).  

Stricter security regulations, security challenges, and consumer expectations around data management beg a crucial question: do businesses need to reconsider how they source and keep customer personal identifiable information?

And if so, what should that look like? 

The Evolving Threat Landscape 

The type of information being stored by organizations is now, generally, far more complex and in much greater quantity than it was ten years ago.

With this comes a significant increase in the associated risks businesses face when handling a range of data, whether it be customer information or operational data. 

In fact, this risk is growing daily. We live in a world where an unreal estimated 328 million terabytes of information is created each day. 

With advanced technologies, interconnected IT systems and, unfortunately, the increasing value of personal data to threat actors, it’s a big responsibility with high stakes for all firms. 

We saw the first nine months of 2023 had a greater number of data breaches compared to the number recorded throughout the entirety of 2022.  

Sophisticated ransomware attacks are now far more commonplace, with attackers able to infiltrate even the most advanced systems and encrypted data.

Likewise, phishing attacks have become more targeted and convincing, with many exploiting human vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to corporate information and IT systems.  

A holistic approach to cybersecurity and information management is now essential, and businesses must recognize that a one-size-fits all approach is insufficient and ineffective.

In short, PII policies must be tailored to align with the unique needs and risk profiles of an organization and its customer base. 

Data is the New Oil 

With threats growing, businesses must take a closer look at the type of personal information they are storing and for how long.

Adopting a ‘data reduction and minimization’ approach encourages organizations to focus only on collecting and storing information that is essential. When it comes to customers, this can be as simple as a first name and email address.  

“Businesses must take a closer look at the type of personal information they are storing and for how long.”

Existing privacy laws encourage organizations to adopt an approach for compliant data retention that lends itself to the storage of vast quantities of PII, which can be a problem.

With the phrase ‘data is the new oil’ front of mind for many organizations, there is a temptation to store as much data as possible - and for as long as possible.  

Many businesses make the mistake of thinking this provides a unique edge to business operations or customer marketing efforts.

In fact, the risk of storing large amounts of this data probably outweigh the benefits. This is because such data is only beneficial if you know what to do with it - and give it sufficient protection. For many organizations, data can sit dormant and unutilized.  

The greatest lesson here for all types of businesses is that protecting PII isn’t about bolstering the data storage and other supporting IT systems that are already in place.

In fact, it’s about revising the types of data stored on file, the supporting policies that protect the storage of this data and, crucially, reducing the amount of data stored altogether. 

Small Business Versus Big Problems 

Regardless of business size, all organizations face the same hefty penalties in the event of a data breach, particularly when it comes to personal information.

Therefore, smaller businesses with limited resources should take extra precautions when dealing with customer data.

The easiest way to do so is by rethinking customer data profiles, and as far as possible, only store data that is publicly available.

For example, names and email addresses are not as sensitive as home addresses, dates of birth, or other more personal information. 

Limiting the ways in which staff can store intimate customer information is an effective way to reduce risk, particularly in smaller business settings where those dealing with customer enquiries also have access to, or responsibility for, other operational parts of the business.

“Managing unsecured PII is just like protecting a precious treasure.”

So, reducing the opportunities for staff to note down sensitive data in free text fields ensures that sensitive information is not unnecessarily recorded and stored.  

Managing unsecured PII is just like protecting a precious treasure and, if smaller businesses don’t have the skills, facilities or policies to keep it safe, it’s worth reconsidering if you need to seek alternate solutions or suppliers that can help and protect the information. 

Undergoing active data purging to reduce unnecessary PII is a core part of risk reduction when it comes to data storage.

However, it isn’t as straightforward as simply deleting the data. Effective data purging requires its own policies, underpinned by well documented and understood architecture and knowledgeable staff, to remove such data from complex internal IT ecosystems. 

Data With Purpose 

Successfully protecting PII data from risk of attack involves far more than building greater, more advanced security systems. You also need to invest in revising information storage practices and stripping policies right back to basics and rethink them from the ground and up.  

Without addressing these risks in a broader sense with new eyes, businesses of all sizes are far more likely to experience more serious cyberattacks and issues around storing PII over the next few years. 

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