The Threat of Unstructured Data

by Danny Murphy
04.13.2018   Auditing

It’s true to say that the modern-day business is reliant on data. Organizations are constantly looking for ways to leverage data intelligence to improve marketing activities, sales and operations. But with this reliance comes a cost; the uncontrollable rise of unstructured data.

What is Unstructured Data and Why Does It Pose a Problem?

As an organization that deals with this every day, we sometimes assume that everyone understands the threat of unstructured data and why it’s important to keep a handle on it. But it’s always best to take a step back and define what we mean by unstructured data.

Traditionally, organizations have only had to deal with small amounts of structured data that has been organized into a formatted repository. In recent years, the trend has shifted towards sometimes uncontrollable amounts of unstructured data from emails, blogs, multi-media content, social media and much more. This type of data does not follow conventional data models and can therefore be difficult analyse.

The problem of unstructured data is compounded when you take into account that the majority of it is text heavy and often people-orientated. Meaning it’s more than likely that you have vast amounts of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) stored in your systems in the form of unstructured data. This could potentially be a problem when you’re required to satisfy a compliance mandate.

Why you Need to Take Unstructured Data Seriously

That brings us to the important question; why should you care about your unstructured data? To answer this, we have to first take a quick look at the current approach organizations take to IT security. We speak to all manner of businesses every day, from SMEs to Enterprises, and we’ve come to understand that the first step many of them take towards IT security is to build up expensive firewalls to defend against external threats. This hyper-focus on perimeter defences often leads to a lack of complimentary internal security and exposes organizations to one of the biggest security threats you are likely to face; the insider threat.

The data in your organization holds a real world monetary value, with recent research suggesting that data is now the world’s most expensive valuable resource over oil, and unstructured data is no exception. Insider threats are particularly dangerous because they are difficult to spot, with a lot of cases being down to accidental mishandling of data by legitimate users.

The many high-profile data breaches over the last few years occurring as a result of insider threats has brought unstructured data into the spotlight, so to speak. It has forced organizations to take data protection more seriously. Compliance requirements have also increased in regularity, strictness and punishment severity.

How Should You Approach Unstructured Data?

I’ve gone into more detail in a separate blog about how you can secure your unstructured data, but I will summarize the points here. Really, the only way to ensure that your unstructured data doesn’t spiral out of control is to maintain strict policies when it comes to auditing, monitoring and alerting on changes taking place to that data.

First, you need to ensure you have a way of identifying where your sensitive data is residing. You can do this through what is known as Data Discovery and Classification. That is, the process of discovering, tagging and classifying the data you deem to be at risk. Once you’ve done this, you should run regular reports on the data that is most at risk to ensure you are aware of the changes being made to it. If possible, deploy a solution such as the (File Server auditing component of LepideAuditor) that allows you to monitor and alert in real time of changes made to the data and the permissions surrounding the data.

If you need more help securing your unstructured data, contact us today.


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