Data security is important nowadays. We see data breaches all over the news, but companies still don’t protect their users’ data accordingly. So how do you handle PII data in a database?
This post will explain important practices about storing personally identifiable information (also called PII data) safely in a database. We’ll explore topics including data encryption, data permissions, and the usefulness of a database management system.
Why Is Data Security Important for PII Data?
First of all, why is data security such an important element for protecting your personally identifiable information?
In case of a data breach, your data will leak, and malicious people will get access to the PII data. Therefore, it’s vital to protect your data through encryption. Encryption scrambles your data, which helps ensure that the wrong people can’t read it. Moreover, data security is the last line of defense for your sensitive data.
In short, data security for PII data helps to reduce the risk to your reputation because it means no sensitive data will leak. Besides that, it saves you from a lot of administrative overhead. In case of a data breach that involves unencrypted data, you’ll have to notify every affected user. That’s a slow and painful process that will probably heavily affect the normal operating procedures of your organization.
Use Case: Ashley Madison Data Breach
The Ashley Madison data breach might be one of the most notorious of all data breaches. During the data breach, 300 gigabytes of user data was exposed, including PII data. The data included real names, credit card transactions, and even information about sexual orientation and preferred sexual practices.
Besides the fact the PII data had been leaked, this breach had a disastrous effect on many people’s personal lives. As Ashley Madison has been designed to facilitate adultery, many users of the site had to deal with negative impacts on their relationships or their personal lives. Some even lost their jobs.
This use case demonstrates that a data breach can affect even more than your organization’s reputation. It can also have a serious impact on people’s personal lives.
Next, let’s get into the specifics of data practices related to this issue.
5 Essential Practices to Handle PII Data in a Database
Let’s take a look at the five most important data security practices to safely handle PII data in a database.
1. Identify PII and Non-PII Pata
Let’s start by segregating PII data from data that doesn’t classify as PII. This step helps you identify what kind of data your company actually holds about its users. After all, you can’t protect information if you don’t know you’re gathering that information.
PII data includes any data that contributes to the unique identification of a person. It includes:
- Name, address, age
- Date of birth and birth location
- Credit card details and transactions
- Medical records
It’s important to identify this data so you can properly secure it.
Next, let’s think about building a data architecture.
2. Create a Data Architecture
A data architecture acts as a blueprint for organizing your data across databases. It helps you and your organization create a clear plan with well-defined responsibilities about which data goes where.
In general, a data architecture reduces the chance data gets stored in the wrong location and improves the data quality. Besides that, a data architecture will help your organization get a better overview of the data it holds. You might discover you’re logging more PII data than you initially expected.
Now that we’ve identified all data and defined the needed database architecture, it’s time to get into the details of protecting PII data.
3. Safely Store PII Data With Encryption
As you know, encryption refers to scrambling data using an encryption key to make that data unreadable. You can apply this technique to PII data. You can encrypt the PII data using an encryption key and then save the encrypted data in the database. If a data breach happens, the data will be useless for the intruder because he or she doesn’t own the encryption key. The intruder needs the encryption key to decrypt the data.
Here are three important data encryption algorithms:
- Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA): Commonly used for securing internet traffic.
- Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): The U.S. government designed the AES encryption technique, which is accepted as an industry standard for encrypting PII and other sensitive data. This encryption standard is also the preferred encryption technique for Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) networks.
- Twofish: This technique uses a shorter encryption key length, which implies that it’s faster, but it’s easier to break the key. The advantage of Twofish is that it’s open source, so anyone can freely use and modify the algorithm. Companies often use Twofish in combination with less powerful hardware.
In short, encryption is a great protection strategy for PII data. It helps you keep private information out of the wrong hands if there’s a data breach.
4. Set Permissions
Let’s take a look at permissions and how they can help you protect PII data.
Let’s say you’ve bought a new house and have installed a lot of security measures. However, you leave the door open, so anyone can come in and take a look at your furniture. This is what it’s like if you create a database without setting permissions. Permissions is important yet often overlooked.
How can you set reasonable permissions? Give employees access to the minimum amount of data they need to do their jobs. This helps minimize the risk that an employee accidentally modifies data in the wrong place. Also, if a malicious person hacks an employee’s account, the attacker will gain access to only a small subset of the data.
Next, let’s explore the need for a database management system (DBMS).
5. Reap the Benefits of a Database Management System
A database management system sits between the end user and the underlying databases. It creates an easy-to-use interface for managing underlying databases without having to worry about the actual database setup. Some well-known DBMSs include MySQL, SQL Server, Oracle, and dBASE.
Database administrators commonly use a DBMS to safely create, update, delete, or read data from a database. Besides those actions, you can also use a DBMS for many other things:
- Creation and deletion of databases
- Ability to configure role-based access control (RBAC)
- Implementing automatic data backups
- Assist with automated rollbacks, restarts, and data recovery
- Log all actions, which makes it easier to audit database activity and detect anomalies
Many organizations underestimate the power of a DBMS. It helps with data security, data integrity, and data quality. Moreover, it provides a standardized way of accessing and modifying data, thereby reducing the risk for mistakes. I definitely recommend using a DBMS for protecting your users’ PII data.
We started this post by asking how do I handle PII data in a database. By now you should have a good idea of some measures you can take to protect your users’ PII, but there are a few more things you should remember.
Never assume you’re done with securing your PII data in your database. Data security is a continuous process. This means you have to check your databases’ health regularly. The most important aspect is software updates. Some administrators prefer to use automatic updates for minor versions or patches. However, I don’t recommend using automatic updates for major versions, as these can include breaking changes.
Besides software updates, take care of other aspects, including encryption strength, data permissions, and data architecture. Moreover, audit your data every few months, as you might be capturing new data that isn’t properly secured or that isn’t included in your data architecture. Best of luck to you as you secure your highly sensitive data!
This post was written by Michiel Mulders. Michiel is a passionate blockchain developer who loves writing technical content. Besides that, he loves learning about marketing, UX psychology, and entrepreneurship. When he’s not writing, he’s probably enjoying a Belgian beer!