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7 Steps to Effective Data Classification

7 Steps to Effective Data Classification

Digitalization and cloud storage have given businesses the opportunity to easily store vast amounts of data. However, some businesses fall into the trap of hoarding too much data, and if it’s not properly organized, it can be easy to lose the important stuff in a sea of redundant information.

Furthermore, the majority of business data is highly sensitive and should be protected from breaches. In 2019,  the number of reported breaches was up 54% compared to the midyear of 2018 and the number of exposed records was up 52%, reaching more than 4 billion records, according to the QuickView Report. With the number of breaches rising each year, it’s clear that every business should make data protection one of its top priorities.

However, you can’t protect your data adequately if you don’t have a seamless classification policy that will enable you to effectively identify and organize your most sensitive data. Here are seven steps that will lead you to effective data classification.

Identify Your Sensitive Data

First, you have to understand that not all data is created equal. If you fail to accurately identify which data is the most sensitive and needs the most protection, you might end up wasting valuable resources using the same security protocols for all of your data.

Most business data requires strict security measures; however, some data needs no protection at all. That’s why it’s essential to determine your priorities and optimize your data protection to avoid wasting your time and money.

Discover Where Your Data Is Located

Creating a centralized database can be challenging, if not impossible as data is probably entering your organization via multiple different channels and is being stored all over the place. Luckily, there are tools you can use to help you find and organize your data.

For example, an on-premise email archiving solution can help you store and organize your email correspondence and other enterprise information and make it more manageable and easily searchable. This will not only help you optimize your daily data management, but also ensure regulatory compliance and serve as a useful tool for ediscovery in case of litigation.

Email archiving solutions and other data classification tools will also enable you to create labels and keywords that will make your data organization efforts much more manageable, and help you find your data quickly when needed.

Classify Your Data According to Its Value

You should also create a well-defined data classification system that will specify different data types and different sensitivity levels. Make sure to communicate it with every member of your organization and make the materials easy to understand and follow.

Here’s an example of data classification categories.

  • Public
  • Internal
  • Confidential
  • Restricted

Once you have some essential categories set up, you can create sub-categories for your most sensitive data. However, be careful not to make your classification too granular, as it can easily get overwhelming and too confusing.

Data classification will not only help you protect your sensitive data, but it can also be used for analytics and performance improvement. Up to 73% of business data goes unused for analytics, and that’s because, even though they store a lot of data, businesses don’t know how to read and interpret that data. Having a clear data classification strategy can help you make sense of the data you already have and use it to improve efficiency.

Ensure Consistency

Once you’ve established the optimal categories and labels, you need to ensure that they’re being used consistently across different departments. Everyone needs to abide by the same rules in order to avoid inconsistencies.

It is also crucial to make sure that all of your employees are actually classifying the data all the time, and that nothing is slipping through the cracks. Forcing employees to classify every file, document, and email will cause them to take a step back and really think about the nature of the information they’re handling, as well as its sensitivity level. This will increase awareness about security risks throughout the organization.

Make Sure Your Data Is Secure

Once you’ve established the sensitivity of data and classified it into relevant groups, it’s time to take the necessary steps to protect your high-risk data. From data loss prevention to encryption, it is essential to enforce data security measures that will protect confidential data about your business, clients, and employees, and help you avoid any accidental mishandling, or even legal issues.

Monitor and Maintain Your Classification Policy

A data classification policy isn’t something you can just set and forget. It should be dynamic and constantly updated. Regulations change and so do your company goals and needs, so you need to make sure that your data classification policy follows along with these changes.

Create a Retention Policy

Lastly, you need to decide how long you will keep your data. Not every piece of information needs to be kept for the same amount of time. That’s why you should have a clear retention policy for each specified category. Make sure to consider all the rules and regulations to avoid any legal issues due to deleted or lost data.


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by Hayley Hoskins // Hayley Hoskins is a San Francisco-based business and tech blogger, internet nerd, and data enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @hay_hoskins.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.