Is Your Unstructured Data at Risk? 4 Steps To Protecting It

Unstructured data is a major oversight in many organizations' cybersecurity strategies


During the HBO cyberattack, hackers gained access to internal communications and intellectual property that can be categorized as unstructured data. And they did so by targeting one of its most common sources: the email inbox.

The HBO incident illuminates the difficulties companies often face in their cybersecurity strategies. While there are extensive protections in place for structured data that is collected in formal processes and stored in formal systems, such as financial information for payment processing, unstructured data is usually not subject to similar protocols. Unstructured data exists in an almost constant state of unrest within normal communication and workflows; yet, it's full of valuable information, including login credentials, intellectual property, and confidential correspondence.

Ultimately, unstructured data in general and email, in particular, are huge blind spots in many organizations' cybersecurity platforms. But they don't have to be.

Understanding the Value of Unstructured Data

Though the value of unstructured information is more difficult to quantify than financial records, it's exceedingly valuable from a qualitative perspective. For HBO, design documents and the script for a 'Game of Thrones' episode are fundamental to its organizational and marketplace identity. For others, confidential corporate data and correspondence are critical to their competitive advantage and reputation.

Understanding this value is essential to creating a protection strategy, namely because, unlike structured data, this data exists in myriad forms and locations, making its security more complicated and diverse. For instance, unstructured data is at risk both when it's at rest and when it's being transferred, and because large quantities of unstructured data are housed in personnel inboxes, gaining access to it can be as simple as introducing malware.

It’s estimated that 60% of security breaches begin through email. If delivered to an inbox and executed by an unsuspecting employee, malware can compromise that inbox and create a pathway directly into the company’s network, leaving any and all unstructured vulnerable.

Securing Unstructured Data on All Fronts

Though the nature of unstructured data varies across industries, all organizations can utilize these four steps to fortify their security measures and create a more comprehensive cybersecurity strategy:

1. Practice Good Governance

A comprehensive approach to good governance is the most thorough way to secure unstructured data. This approach ensures that you are protecting the most sensitive data you have, installing all patches and updates on schedule, responding to new threats as soon as they appear, and mitigating the damage of a cyberattack in the unfortunate event that one takes place.

2. Add Structure

Beyond good governance, adding as much structure as possible to unstructured data is essential. Systematically storing data in places like the cloud that are subject to careful access controls and constant monitoring provides organizations with an easy and economical solution. In general, cloud providers - like Salesforce and NetSuite - are in a much better position to secure data because they can encrypt it along transition pathways (from cloud-to-cloud) and while it's at rest.

3. Prioritize Email

The average inbox contains tons of unstructured data, and it doesn't take a sophisticated cyberattack to gain access, making the inbox the single most targeted venue for hackers. Phishing and business email compromise scams are just two of the common threats that put the inbox at risk. Worst of all, data that may be structured and protected elsewhere may be unprotected inside the inbox where users casually exchange documents and company details during normal workflow. Teaching your employees best practices so that they can avoid falling prey to cyberscams and implementing an email security gateway with multiple layers can help deflect many of these threats.

4. Manage Third Parties

Data that is shared between an organization and a third party - such as a vendor or contractor - is often stripped of security measures once it's transmitted. This oversight makes third parties a very vulnerable attack vector, but a collaborative approach to cybersecurity and an insistence on shared security standards close many loopholes. For instance, organizations can implement a shared solution that automatically encrypts emails, manages quarantines, and even protects data at rest.

Securing unstructured data may take time and investment to better understand and protect its value, but the cost of operating in our cyberthreat-addled world means that any extra steps are necessary. Although unstructured data may not have been your priority yesterday, it should be your priority today.


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