How to Encrypt PII Data: A Guide to Securing Your Users’ Data

Personally identifiable information (PII) data is any sort of data that might reveal a person’s identity. Moreover, PII data includes data such as a person’s name, address, date of birth, credit card details, Social Security number, or even medical records.

In the digital age we live in, data has become the most valuable asset for a company. This means a company might hold a lot of PII data, making it a target for hackers to breach their data. Nowadays, PII data is considered to be highly sensitive data that needs to be properly protected.

Many organizations underestimate the effort to protect their users’ data. Besides that, many users aren’t aware of the number of companies holding PII data about them. Therefore, we need strong data privacy tools like encryption to protect users’ PII data.

This article will guide you through encryption methods and define a plan that will help you get started with implementing data encryption techniques. First, let’s introduce encryption.

What Is Data Encryption?

So, what is encryption? Encryption refers to algorithms that scramble your data. This means that the data becomes unreadable and doesn’t make sense.

Because we still need to use this data, the encryption algorithm comes with an encryption key. This encryption key can be used to unscramble data in its original state. It’s an essential part of encryption that we can unlock the information turning it back into its readable format.

To give an example, WhatsApp uses encryption for transferring messages between two or multiple users. Each message is encrypted using a shared encryption key between the recipients. This means that only the sender and recipient can unscramble the data to a readable message. Moreover, for every new conversation you start, a new encryption key is exchanged in a secure way between smartphones.

What’s the Importance of Data Encryption?

Data encryption acts as the last line of defense. In case of a data breach, the impact on the business will be minimal besides the reputational damage. The encrypted data is useless for the attacker without the encryption key. That’s why data encryption is so important to minimize the risks of a data breach.

An essential part of encryption is that we can unlock the information turning it back into its readable format

In addition, data encryption helps an organization comply with data privacy standards like the European GDPR standards. The GDPR standard doesn’t prescribe specific data encryption methods, but it does say that personal data needs to be encrypted and pseudonymized. Moreover, in case of a data breach that involves only encrypted data, the company doesn’t have to contact every affected user, which reduces the administrative costs and reputational damage.

Finally, data encryption helps ensure data integrity. You might wonder, how can data encryption enforce data integrity? By applying data encryption, you can ensure that only authorized users can access and modify the data. This means that an organization can have more trust in its data, improving the data quality.

Next, let’s explore four data encryption techniques.

4 Data Encryption Techniques to Secure PII Data

Many dozens of encryption algorithms exist for encrypting data. Let’s take a look at four common data encryption techniques.

1. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

AES is a trusted standard used by the U.S. government. The standard became popular through its low RAM usage and high-speed execution time. Also, AES works well for a wide range of hardware, which is important for the adoption of the algorithm.

Until now, no feasible attacks have been detected in AES. That’s the reason AES is widely adopted. For example, your WPA2 Wi-Fi network uses AES.

2. RSA

RSA is categorized as an asymmetric encryption algorithm. This means that both the encryption and decryption keys differ from each other. It’s a common encryption technique for securely transmitting data over the internet. Many PGP and GnuPG (GPG) software tools rely on RSA encryption.

RSA allows the user to pick the length of the encryption key. Typically, an RSA key consists of 1,024 or 2,048 bits. The only downside of using asymmetric encryption is a low execution speed.

3. Twofish

Twofish is a less-known encryption technique that uses symmetric encryption. This technique works with a smaller block size between 128 and 256 bits. This means that the encryption algorithm performs well on less-powerful hardware.

The major advantage of Twofish is that you can freely use it because it’s open source.

4. Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES)

At last, 3DES has been developed to replace the original Data Encryption Standard (DES). DES needed replacement because the standard used an encryption key length of only 56 bits. This meant that attackers could perform brute force attacks because of the short key length. The brute force attack is possible only because of major improvements in the hardware industry that created much more performant hardware.

Nowadays, 3DES uses a key length of 168 bits. The standard is mainly used in the financial industry. However, Microsoft uses 3DES for securing data for software like Microsoft Outlook or OneNote.

You need to know what kind of data you're handling.

How to Implement an Encryption Strategy

Many organizations struggle to implement a process or strategy for implementing encryption for PII data. Here’s a list of steps to follow when implementing a data encryption strategy.

Classify Data

First, you need to know what kind of data you’re handling. Therefore, I recommend identifying PII data that needs encryption, such as credit card details or customer information.

Pick an Encryption Tool

Now that you know which data needs encryption, it’s time to pick a tool that provides the required data security. You might need a tool that assists with encrypting data in the cloud, email data, or payment data. Make sure to consult a data security expert to help you select the right tools for your data.

Next, let’s look at encryption key management.

Explore Encryption Key Management

Data encryption is an important aspect of your encryption strategy. However, we also need to safely store the encryption key. Explore key management solutions that help you safely store encryption keys. A good key management solution must offer the ability to define permissions and access rights.

Go Beyond Data Encryption

Finally, remember that data encryption is one thing. However, data encryption alone doesn’t guarantee 100% data security. Data security is a continuous process. For example, implementing two-factor authentication might be part of your encryption strategy to increase the security for your key management tool. Other solutions include intrusion-detection mechanisms or antivirus solutions.

In the end, an encryption strategy will succeed only when everyone sticks to the strategy. Therefore, it’s important to educate employees or other involved parties that work with PII data. One single mistake can be disastrous for your data encryption strategy. Always handle PII data with extreme care!

Data security is a continuous process

Data Encryption Done Right

Data encryption helps an organization comply with GDPR standards and other regulations. However, data security includes many more items than just data encryption. Data privacy is a continuous process that needs to be revisited now and then.

Nowadays, it’s not necessary to understand all the technical details of data encryption. Many tools provide built-in options that help an organization with data encryption. However, I recommend performing a data audit on a regular basis to measure the quality of your data security.

In short, protecting your data means protecting your company—and users.

Michiel Mulders is the author of this post. 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!