What is data protection?
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Published: 5 April 2024
Contributors: Annie Badman, Matthew Kosinski

What is data protection?

Data protection is the practice of safeguarding sensitive information from data loss and corruption. Its goal is to protect data and ensure its availability and compliance with regulatory requirements.

An effective data protection strategy does more than simply protect data. It also replicates and restores data in the event of loss or damage. This is because the main principles of data protection are to safeguard data and support data availability. Availability means ensuring users can access data for business operations, even if data is damaged, lost or corrupted, such as in a data breach or malware attack.

This focus on data availability helps explain why data protection is closely related to data management, a larger practice focused on managing data throughout its entire lifecycle to ensure it is accurate, secure and capable of being leveraged for strategic business decisions.

Today, data protection strategies encompass both traditional data protection measures, like data backups and restore functions, and business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) plans. For this reason, many organizations are adopting services like disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) as part of their broader data protection strategies.

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Data protection vs. data security

While many use the terms data protection and data security interchangeably, they are two distinct fields with crucial differences.

Data security is a subset of data protection focused on protecting digital information from unauthorized access, corruption or theft. It encompasses various aspects of information security, spanning physical security, organizational policies and access controls.

In contrast, data protection encompasses all of data security and goes further by emphasizing data availability.

Both data protection and data security include data privacy. Data privacy focuses on policies that support the general principle that a person should have control over their personal data, including the ability to decide how organizations collect, store and use their data.

In other words, data security and data privacy are both subsets within the broader field of data protection.

Why data protection is important

To understand the importance of data protection, consider the role of data in our society. Anytime someone creates a profile online, makes a purchase on an app or browses a web page, they leave a growing trail of personal data.

For businesses, this data is critical. It helps them streamline operations, better serve customers and make essential business decisions. In fact, many organizations rely on data so much that even a short downtime or a small amount of data loss could severely injure their operations and profits.

According to IBM's Cost of a Data Breach, the global average cost of a data breach in 2023 was USD 4.45 million—a 15 percent increase over three years.

As a result, many organizations are focusing on data protection as part of their broader cybersecurity efforts. With a robust data protection strategy, organizations can shore up vulnerabilities and better protect themselves from cyberattacks and data breaches. In the event of a cyberattack, data protection measures can be lifesaving, cutting downtime by ensuring data availability. 

Data protection measures can also help organizations comply with continuously evolving regulatory requirements, many of which can carry hefty fines. For instance, in May 2023, Ireland's data protection authority imposed a fine of USD 1.3 billion on the California-based Meta for GDPR violations (link resides outside ibm.com). Data protection—through its emphasis on data privacy—can help organizations avoid these infractions.

Data protection strategies can also provide many benefits of effective information lifecycle management (ILM), such as streamlining the processing of personal data and better mining critical data for key insights.

In a world where data is many organizations' lifeblood, it is becoming increasingly necessary for businesses to know how to process, handle, protect and leverage their critical data to the best of their abilities.

 

Data protection regulations and standards

Recognizing the importance of data protection, governments and other authorities have created a growing number of privacy regulations and data  standards that companies must meet to do business with their  customers.

Some of the most common data regulations and standards include:

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a comprehensive data privacy framework enacted by the European Union (EU) to safeguard the personal information of individuals, referred to as “data subjects.” 

GDPR focuses primarily on personally identifiable information, or PII, and places stringent compliance requirements on data providers. It mandates that organizations within and outside Europe  be transparent about their data collection practices. Organizations must also adopt some specific data protection measures, like appointing a data protection officer to oversee data handling.

The GDPR also grants EU citizens greater control over their PII and more protection of personal data such as name, ID number, medical information, biometric data and more. The only data processing activities exempt from the GDPR are national security or law enforcement activities and purely personal uses of data.

One of the GDPR's most striking aspects is its uncompromising stance on non-compliance. It imposes substantial fines for those who fail to adhere to its privacy regulations. These fines can reach up to 4 percent of an organization's annual global turnover or EUR 20 million, whichever is greater.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA,  was passed in the United States in 1996. It establishes the guidelines for how healthcare entities and businesses handle patients' personal health information (PHI) to guarantee its confidentiality and security.

Under HIPAA, all “covered entities” must uphold certain  data security and compliance standards. These entities encompass not only healthcare providers and insurance plans but also business associates with access to PHI. Data transmission services, medical transcription service providers, software companies, insurance firms and others must comply with HIPAA if they handle PHI.

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is a landmark data privacy law in the United States.

Like the GDPR, it places the onus on businesses to be transparent about their data practices and empowers individuals to have more control over their personal information. Under the CCPA, California residents can request details about the data collected on them by businesses, opt out of data sales and request data deletion.

However, unlike the GDPR, CCPA (and many other US data protection laws) are opt-out rather than opt-in. Businesses can use consumer information until specifically told otherwise. The CCPA also only applies to companies that exceed an annual revenue threshold or handle large volumes of personal data, making it relevant for many, though not all, California businesses.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS)

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) is a set of regulatory guidelines to safeguard credit card data. PCI-DSS is not a government regulation, but a set of contractual commitments enforced by an independent regulatory body known as the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC).

PCI-DSS applies to any business that handles cardholder data, whether by collecting, storing or transmitting it. Even if third-party processors are involved in credit card transactions, the company accepting the card remains responsible for PCI-DSS compliance and must take the necessary measures to manage and store cardholder data securely.

Data protection trends

As the data protection landscape evolves, several trends are shaping the strategies organizations use to safeguard their sensitive information.

Some of these trends include:

Data portability

Data portability emphasizes the seamless movement of data across platforms and services. This trend gives individuals greater control over their data by facilitating its transfer between apps and systems. Data portability also aligns with the general trend toward greater customer transparency and empowerment, allowing users to manage their personal data more efficiently

Mobile data protection

With the widespread use of smartphones, organizations are increasingly concerned with data security on mobile devices. As a result, many businesses are focusing more on mobile data protection, which implements robust data security measures for smartphones and tablets, including encryption and secure authentication methods.

Ransomware attacks

The rise of ransomware attacks has caused many organizations to adopt advanced data protection strategies. 

Ransomware is a type of malware that locks a victim’s data or device and threatens to keep it locked—or worse—unless the victim pays a ransom to the attacker. According to the IBM Security X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2023, ransomware attacks represented 17 percent of all cyberattacks in 2022. Additionally, ransomware attacks are expected to cost victims an estimated USD 30 billion overall in 2023 (link resides outside ibm.com).

The evolving nature of these attacks requires organizations to implement proactive security measures such as regular backups, real-time threat detection and employee training to mitigate the impact of ransomware and protect sensitive information.

 

Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS)

As cyberattacks become increasingly advanced, organizations are recognizing the critical importance of maintaining continuity during a disaster. The result is that many are investing in Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS).

DRaaS is a third-party solution that delivers data protection and disaster recovery (DR) capabilities. It uses a high level of automation to limit downtime and outsource disaster recovery services, providing a scalable and cost-effective solution for organizations to recover their critical data and IT infrastructure during a catastrophe.

When deciding on a DRaaS solution, organizations can choose between three options: data centers, cloud-based solutions and hybrid backups that combine physical data centers and cloud storage.

 

Copy Data Management (CDM)

Copy Data Management (CDM) helps organizations better manage and control duplicate data, thereby reducing storage costs and enhancing data accessibility. CDM is an essential part of information lifecycle management (ILM) because it helps to maximize data value while minimizing redundancy and storage inefficiencies.

Data protection solutions and technologies

Organizations often use several data protection solutions and technologies to protect against cyberthreats and ensure data integrity, confidentiality and availability.

Some of these solutions include:

  • Data loss prevention (DLP) encompasses the strategies, processes and technologies cybersecurity teams use to protect sensitive data from theft, loss and misuse. DLP tracks user activity and flags suspicious behavior to prevent unauthorized access, transmission or leakage of sensitive information.
  • Data backups involve regularly creating and storing a secondary version of critical information. Backups support data availability by ensuring that organizations can swiftly restore their systems to a previous state in the event of data loss or corruption, minimizing downtime and potential losses.
  • Firewalls act as a first line of defense for data by monitoring and controlling incoming and outgoing network traffic. These security barriers enforce predetermined security rules, preventing unauthorized access.
  • Authentication and authorization technologies, such as multi-factor authentication, verify the identities of users and regulate their access to specific resources. Together, they ensure that only authorized individuals can access sensitive information, enhancing overall data security.
  • Identity and access management (IAM) solutions centralize the administration of user identities and permissions. By managing user access based on roles and responsibilities, organizations can mitigate the risk of unauthorized data access and reduce insider threats, which can put critical data at risk. 
  • Encryption transforms data into a coded format, rendering it unreadable without the appropriate decryption key. This technology safeguards data transfers and data storage, adding an extra layer of protection against unauthorized access.
  • Endpoint security focuses on securing individual devices, such as computers and mobile devices, from malicious activities. It can include a range of solutions, such as antivirus software, firewalls and other security measures.
  • Antivirus and anti-malware solutions detect, prevent and remove malicious software that could compromise data, including viruses, spyware and ransomware. 
  • Patch management makes sure that software, operating systems, and applications have the latest security patches. Regular updates help close vulnerabilities and protect against potential cyberattacks.
  • Data erasure solutions ensure secure and complete data removal from storage devices. Erasure is particularly important when decommissioning hardware to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information.
  • Archiving technologies facilitate the systematic storage and retrieval of historical data. Archiving  aids in compliance and helps organizations manage data efficiently, reducing the risk of data loss.
  • Certification and auditing tools help organizations assess and demonstrate compliance with industry regulations and internal policies. Regular audits also ensure data protection measures are effectively implemented and maintained.
  • Disaster recovery solutions, such as DRaaS, restore  IT infrastructure and data following a disruptive event. Disaster recovery often includes comprehensive planning, data backup strategies and mechanisms to minimize downtime.
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