If your organization processes personally identifiable information (PII), you need to take proactive measures to protect it. PII security matters because it puts people at risk personally, which is why PII is heavily regulated. Luckily, there are several strategies available to protect it.
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PII Data Security 101
Most cybersecurity concerns revolve around preventing unauthorized access to sensitive data, systems, and networks. Cybercriminals seek access to them so that they can directly steal resources or leverage their sensitivity for ransom. One of the most common targets of cybercrime is PII, since attackers know that organizations are required to keep it private.
As such, proactively protecting PII data should be a top priority. Below, we’ll discuss:
- Why proactive measures specifically are needed for PII security
- How your organization can approach proactive protections for PII
Ultimately, keeping PII secure will garner trust and buy-in for your organization, from both individual customers and potential partners—they want to know you’ll keep their data safe.
Why Proactive PII Security Matters
PII security is critical because PII is among the most sensitive types of data any organization can come into contact with. It is defined disparately by various regulations that govern different kinds, but most converge on one point: it is information that could be used to identify someone.
Typically, PII is identifiable in a context where specific, protected facts about a person could also fall into the wrong hands. For example, access to PII might disclose a person’s name alongside their credit card or social security numbers. This could allow an attacker to steal directly from them or target them in a fraud scheme. If the person is a client, they could blame your organization for not preventing the attack. If they’re a staff member, you could be at risk.
Proactive protection makes attacks less likely to be attempted and to succeed if they are.
On a practical level, one of the biggest reasons organizations need to protect PII proactively is that compliance frameworks governing specific kinds of PII require them to. Failure to prevent breaches or leaks of PII can lead to devastating consequences for both the individuals named in the data and the organization responsible for protecting it—which makes it a prime target.
Industry Standards and Regulations
Some of the most widely applicable regulations concerning PII are those that apply ostensibly to particular industries. In many cases, they also apply widely outside of the industry to any party that works with sensitive data germane to it. They’re more about the kind of PII, not the niche.
For example, these standards apply to PII in healthcare, payment processing, and government contract work, respectively, prescribing specific proactive controls for regulated PII data classes:
- HIPAA – The Health Insurance Portability and Availability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) regulates protected health information (PHI). PHI comprises documents that contain information on patients’ health conditions, treatment, and payment alongside PII such as names or addresses. To protect this PII, HIPAA requires Covered Entities to install Administrative, Physical, and Technical Safeguards and conduct risk assessments to prevent breaches.
- PCI-DSS – The Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS) regulates cardholder data (CHD) pertaining to credit card transactions. CHD includes information about purchase histories, cards used, and individuals associated with them. To protect it, organizations need to implement proactive protections from the 12 DSS Requirements.
- NIST – The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication (SP) 800-171 governs protections for Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). CUI covers several kinds of PII and other sensitive data associated with contract work for US governmental agencies, which NIST prescribes 110 individual Requirements to protect.
If your organization comes into contact with any of these forms of PII, you’ll need to install the protections the frameworks call for—and, generally, conduct assessments to prove you have.
Government Mandated Protections
There are also regulations that apply explicitly irrespective of industry or niche, so long as your organization operates within a location or handles PII belonging to or concerning people there.
The best example of government-mandated PII security is the European Union (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It establishes data privacy rights of EU data subjects, or European residents whose personal information is identifiable in PII. The GDPR protects these rights globally, requiring organizations that process EU subjects’ PII to meet certain standards for protecting it. These include securing a Data Protection Officer (DPO) and installing security monitoring, access control, and notification infrastructure to prevent threats to privacy breaches.
The GDPR is a gold standard for PII security worldwide, with harsh penalties for violations.
In the US, several states have passed or are considering data privacy regulations based loosely on the GDPR. One of the most prominent is California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which was augmented in 2020 with the addition of the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA). Both work together to ensure that organizations that operate in the state or process its residents’ PII take proactive measures to protect it. Similar bills exist in Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia.
Regardless of where your organization operates, it will likely be subject to one or more such regulations in the future, if it isn’t already—another reason you need proactive PII security.
Proactive PII Security Strategies
Given the importance detailed above, it’s clear that a reactive posture is not ideal when it comes to protecting PII data. Reactive approaches spring into action once threats, risks, or incidents have already arisen. Instead, your organization should look to implement robust, proactive controls and systems, beginning with security governance and training exercises.
Cybersecurity awareness training should be an integral part of onboarding for all staff. They should know what kinds of PII your organization processes and what responsibilities they must uphold to prevent breaches. The best practice is to assess their competency with real-time exercises, such as incident response tabletop scenarios. You can simulate attacks on PII specifically and ensure employees know who to contact to prevent a costly data breach.
Another option is to focus primarily on controls themselves. Access management and data segmentation are logical places to start, but organizations can also implement customized solutions like a dedicated PII scanner. These tools work by focusing solely on PII, identifying where it exists, and monitoring access and changes to it for irregularities or attack indicators.
Working with a security program advisor will help you determine which tools and solutions are best suited to the specific kinds of PII in your networks and any threats they’re subject to.
Conducting Targeted Penetration Tests
One of the most impactful proactive protections you can implement for PII or any other kind of sensitive data is penetration testing. It’s a form of “ethical hacking” wherein experts simulate attacks on your system in real-time to assess how effective your defenses are at stopping them.
Most penetration tests fall into one of two categories, both of which can target PII specifically:
- External – Testers begin from a position outside your organization, with no prior access or knowledge of your defenses. The goal is to see how well your perimeter defenses prevent them from entering into your networks and systems to seize or damage PII.
- Internal – Testers begin with some prior knowledge or access to your systems, to mimic an attack from an insider threat such as a disgruntled employee. Here, the goal is to see how easy it is for an attacker to leverage that position for unmitigated access to PII.
Organizations can also consider hybrid tests, incorporating elements of both external and internal attacks, to better understand their defenses against persistent threats. In any case, these proactive protections use offense to inform your defense, optimizing PII security.
Optimize Your PII Security Today
When it comes to data security, PII should be your top priority. Given the threats posed to both individuals identified in PII and your organization, you should install proactive protections that minimize the likelihood and success rate of attacks. And the best way to do so is working with a quality Managed Security Services Provider (MSSP) who will streamline the process for you.
RSI Security has worked with organizations of every size and across every industry to protect PII proactively. We understand that the right way is the only way to keep that data secure, and we’ll work with you to strategize, implement, and manage a proactive PII security program.
For further guidance on optimizing your PII security, contact RSI Security today!