Why Data Erasure Is Vital in Protecting Sensitive Information24 Oct 2023 | Sam O’ Brien (Guest Writer)
As a business or organization, you will likely be aware of the threat of data breaches. While we often associate breaches with high-profile cases like the Microsoft email server hacking back in 2021, small businesses are also heavily impacted by cybersecurity threats.
Luckily, there’s a way to protect the sensitive information of your business, employees and customers: with data erasure. This article will delve into the world of data erasure, from what it is to how you can use it to protect your company from virtual harm.
What Is Data Erasure?
Data erasure, in the world of data management and security, is the deliberate and systematic process of permanently removing all digital information from a storage device. It's the digital equivalent of shredding confidential paper documents.
When you delete data from a device, it's not necessarily gone forever. Instead, it's typically marked as "deleted" and may remain recoverable until new data overwrites it. So, even though you think you’re wiping all sensitive data, your device may still store it. Leaving any room for potential recovery can pose a significant security risk.
Data erasure takes this risk head-on because it goes beyond mere deletion or formatting. Using specialized algorithms, it overwrites every piece of data on the storage medium multiple times. This results in a thorough digital clean slate, where the previous data is completely irretrievable.
As a business, you don’t just need to remove data from hardware like laptops or company phones. You also need to erase all your company software periodically to ensure data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. This includes your office productivity software, communication tools, and security software. Even reliable VNC security systems need data erasure to remove sensitive information from storage.
What Happens When Sensitive Data Falls into the Wrong Hands?
Sensitive data getting into unauthorized hands is a major invasion of privacy. Whether it's personal information, medical records, financial details, or trade secrets, the individuals or organizations involved didn't sign up for this data exposure. This could damage the reputation of your brand, especially if private customer information is exposed on the internet.
Laws and regulations set by your country or jurisdiction will likely require strict protection of sensitive data. Falling short can result in hefty fines or even criminal charges. This is no joke. Businesses that go through a GDPR violation or a HIPAA breach investigation find it difficult to recover – both financially and reputationally.
If your business doesn’t perform data erasure regularly, you could face a data breach. This can have serious consequences for your business, your employees, and your loyal customers.
Cybercriminals can take sensitive data and cause damage with:
- Data Theft
In a data breach, unauthorized individuals gain entry into a company's database or systems and steal confidential information, including customer records, employee data, and financial records.
- Identity Theft
The stolen data, which includes personal and financial details, can be exploited for identity theft purposes. Cybercriminals may assume someone else's identity to engage in fraudulent activities such as opening accounts, obtaining loans, or filing false tax returns.
- Financial Fraud
Cybercriminals can utilize pilfered credit card information or bank account details to carry out financial fraud schemes. This could involve making unauthorized purchases, initiating wire transfers, or withdrawing funds from the victim’s accounts.
- Phishing Attacks
Armed with email addresses and personal information obtained through the breach, cybercriminals can launch highly targeted phishing campaigns. These campaigns deceive individuals into divulging further sensitive information like passwords or login credentials.
In certain cases, hackers manage to infiltrate a company's systems with the intention of deploying ransomware. This malicious software encrypts valuable information, and the hackers demand a ransom in exchange for decrypting it. They even go as far as threatening to expose the data or disrupt business operations if the demanded ransom goes unpaid.
- Corporate Spying
When cybercriminals successfully breach a company's security system, they can steal intellectual property, trade secrets, and confidential data. These stolen assets are then exploited by both cybercriminals and competitors alike, who seek to gain valuable insights into the targeted company's strategies, technologies, or innovations.
- Data Sale
Another avenue cybercriminals explore is selling pilfered data on underground markets or dark web platforms. The buyers of this illicit information can range from other criminals seeking to exploit it for their own purposes to individuals looking for opportunities to engage in various unlawful activities.
How Data Erasure Protects Sensitive Information
As we’ve discussed, data breaches can be catastrophic for organizations. When sensitive data is not properly erased, it can be accessible to unauthorized individuals who can exploit it maliciously. With just a few clicks of your mouse, you can ensure that deleted data is fully wiped from your devices.
Here’s how wiping your data periodically protects the sensitive information of your company, your staff, and your customers.
#1 Disposing of Equipment Safely
When organizations upgrade or retire their IT equipment, such as computers, servers, and storage devices, they often sell or dispose of these assets. If data is not thoroughly erased from these devices, it can be recovered by the new owners or scavengers who may buy them, potentially leading to data breaches.
If you have an IT support team that uses remote computer support, they may be able to access any remanence of data stored on the system when retiring your devices. Properly erasing all your data prevents it from being accidentally seen by your IT personnel.
#2 Ensuring Environmental Responsibility
Secure data erasure is not only essential for security but also for environmental responsibility. Recycling or disposing of electronic equipment without erasing data can result in sensitive information ending up in landfills, posing both security and environmental risks.
#3 Preventing Data Residues
Deleting files or formatting drives may not completely remove data. In many cases, traces of the data can remain on storage devices. Data erasure tools use algorithms to overwrite data multiple times, making it extremely difficult or even impossible to recover.
#4 Mitigating Insider Threats
Employees and contractors with access to sensitive data can pose an insider threat. Proper data erasure procedures help mitigate this risk by ensuring that data cannot be easily stolen or leaked by individuals with access to it.
For instance, if you have a customer support team using a VoIP virtual PBX, you should wipe all call records regularly to reduce the threat of your employees inadvertently accessing sensitive data.
#5 Supporting Data Lifecycle Management
Proper data erasure is a fundamental aspect of data lifecycle management. It ensures that data is retained only for as long as necessary and is securely destroyed when it reaches the end of its lifecycle. It also ensures that any data remanence is wiped so unauthorized parties cannot access sensitive information from retired hardware.
#6 Protecting Brand Reputation
Mishandling sensitive information and experiencing data breaches can have a negative impact on an organization's brand and reputation. If you make it easy for cybercriminals to take and share your customer’s sensitive information, they will likely never use you again and may actively discourage other potential customers from working with you.
How Can You Implement Data Erasure Practices into Your Business?
Now you know the power of data erasure, you’re ready to implement cybersecurity best practices to ensure you meet your obligations as a business. Here’s how to implement data erasure into your business practices to protect sensitive data.
#1 Establish Data Erasure Policies
Start by setting up clear data erasure policies. Think of them as the rulebook for your data security game. These policies should outline when and how data will be securely wiped.
#2 Identify What's Sensitive
Figure out what sensitive data you're dealing with. It could be customer records, proprietary information, or financial data. Knowing your assets is half the battle. With this information, you can prioritize what you should wipe.
#3 Sort Data by Its Sensitivity
Categorize your data based on how sensitive it is. This helps prioritize your erasure efforts and ensures you stay in control of your data. High-risk data should be at the top of the list.
#4 Determine How Long to Keep Your Data
Create data retention guidelines that define the appropriate duration for retaining various categories of data. This ensures you're not holding onto data longer than necessary.
#5 Pick the Right Tools
Invest in top-notch data erasure tools and software. Look for solutions that comply with recognized standards to ensure a thorough job. Additionally, consider tools that encompass various aspects of data security, including cloud email security, to guarantee comprehensive protection for your sensitive information.
#6 Train Your Team
Provide thorough training to your team about the significance of data erasure. It's crucial for them to fully grasp the potential ramifications of data breaches and recognize the critical role that data erasure has in preventing this from happening.
#7 Create Erasure Procedures
Develop documented procedures for data erasure. These guides should detail how data can be securely wiped from various types of devices.
#8 Keep an Eye on Things
Regularly audit and monitor your data erasure processes. You want to be sure everything's running smoothly and securely.
#9 Deal with Old Hardware
When it's time to retire or recycle hardware, ensure data erasure is part of the process. This includes devices like laptops, servers, and even company smartphones.
#10 Consider Professional Services
For particularly sensitive data or complex erasure tasks, think about using professional data erasure services or certified vendors. They often provide certificates of data destruction for added peace of mind.
#11 Keep Updating Your Policies
Regularly update your data erasure policies and procedures to keep up with changes in technology, regulations, and your business needs.
Protect Your Sensitive Data with Data Erasure
As a business, you have both an ethical and legal requirement to keep sensitive data from ending up in the wrong hands. Without paying attention to data erasure, you not only risk the future of your business, but the financial well-being – and trust – of your customers.
With customer data, cybercriminals can do untold damage: they can sell credit card information, perform a phishing attack, and even commit financial fraud. Simply wiping or destroying your hard drive won’t suffice.
You need to ensure that your data is inaccessible to third parties by having a carefully implemented data erasure plan in place. By following the step-by-step instructions in this article, you can rest assured that all sensitive information held by your business is protected.
Sam O’ Brien (Guest Writer)
Sam O’Brien is the Vice President of Marketing for RealVNC, leading providers of secure, reliable remote access solutions. He is a growth marketing expert with a product management and design background. Sam has a passion for innovation, growth, and marketing technology.
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