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Cybersecurity: the word conjures up images of software engineers in lab coats feverishly analyzing cryptographic code in an effort to thwart an attack from a country somewhere on the other side of the globe. Seemingly daily reports of major data breaches are now coupled with warnings about a cybersecurity “talent gap,” meaning that there is a critical shortage of the highly technical professionals in the workplace who are specialized in cybersecurity.

This is true. However, much of the work necessary to protect business data does not fall within the purview of the technical cyber-specialists. The foundation of any good information security program is good information governance. In short, before you secure your data, you have to know your data. You have to know what data you have, where you have it, why you have it and how you use it. This may seem like a seductively simple task, but often it is not.

Why Do You Need To Know Your Data?

The explosion of cheap electronic media, in the form of hard drives, flash drives, discs, tape, etc., has made it all too easy to keep data indefinitely, and many businesses do—sometimes unknowingly. Just as an attic in a home becomes a repository for unmarked boxes of items that should probably be discarded, archived server space, forgotten CDs and rarely used networked devices over time end up with a wealth of data that no one wants to go back to review and dispose of appropriately. Why is this important? Because even organizations with the best cybersecurity are susceptible to a data breach, and when a data breach occurs, the more sensitive information exposed, the worse the data breach is.

One place where there should be no cybersecurity “talent gap” is the University of Maryland. Despite being at the forefront of cybersecurity education, and priding itself on its heavily federally funded “Maryland Cybersecurity Center,” the university recently suffered a major data breach. Sensitive to the reputational damage to the institution, the university’s president was quick to characterize the breach as resulting from a “sophisticated” cyber-attack. However sophisticated the attack was, those in the cybersecurity field were asking a more fundamental question: Why did the University of Maryland even have Social Security numbers and other personal student information in its computer system that dated back over 15 years? The lesson here is that while security breaches are inevitable, the information an institution chooses to retain is entirely within its control.

But information governance is more than just records management and deleting unnecessary data. Properly practiced, information governance entails not only documenting the status quo with data maps and data flows but critically revising or creating policies and business practices that relate to the treatment of information throughout its life cycle. The work of information governance requires a cross-functional team of business, information technology and legal resources with the support of a CIO or equivalent high-level management. The team must review the business need for information, retention, employee access, sharing with third parties, destruction and, above all, accountability—all this while balancing risk, efficiency and profit.

Knowing the type of data a business has and the means by which the data was acquired will also determine how the data must be protected from a legal perspective. A business may have protected health information subject to HIPAA; it might have financial information governed by Gramm-Leach-Bliley; it may have personally identifiable information of a Massachusetts resident, or information that the business seeks to protect legally as a trade secret. The list goes on, each category of information implicating its own set of standards, and most businesses have information in multiple categories. A business that embarks on a thorough data inventory process will likely find information it never knew it had.

Software manufacturer Adobe, another organization that should have no shortage of technical cybersecurity resources, also suffered a recent data breach on a massive scale. Adobe is reported to have learned of the data breach in September 2013. It did not report the breach for about two weeks, and then said that roughly three million user accounts were affected. Weeks later, Adobe reported that 38 million records were accessed, and a month after that, the figure stood at 150 million. Regardless of the strength of Adobe’s cybersecurity defenses, its staggered reporting of the data breach, ballooning in scope, gave an impression of an organization that did not have a handle on the situation, further damaging its reputation.

In the Event of a Potentially Major Data Breach, an Organization Needs Immediate Forensic and Legal Cybersecurity Support

And every minute counts.Regulators and customers have little tolerance for delays in reporting a breach, and the law imposes short deadlines for doing so. Yet, there is little an organization can report until it determines the scope and nature of the breach. Therefore, a data breach becomes a race to identify what records were compromised and who the affected individuals are. That daunting task, under extreme time pressure, can be made nearly impossible in an organization that does not practice good information governance.

Documenting and understanding business data flows, data storage and data backup makes the task of cybersecurity far more effective and manageable. Tying data to its business use allows technology professionals to, for example, restrict specific data access to the appropriate individuals. It allows targeted encryption of data. It enables operational data to be protected differently than data that is being kept for document retention purposes or pursuant to a litigation hold. In the example of the University of Maryland, it might identify data that is obsolete and a potential cybersecurity liability. And in the case of Adobe, it might have allowed a faster, more accurate report of the breach, minimizing its reputational damage. All of these are valuable tools to mitigate an organization’s cybersecurity risk.

Information governance is not a substitute for cybersecurity, but it is a groundwork that is lacking or incomplete even at some of the most cyber-savvy organizations. Businesses evolve, and computer systems change constantly, so information governance is an ongoing practice and not a once-and-done undertaking. Nationwide, surveys show that most organizations, large and small, know they have experienced a data breach and even more have been breached without knowing. Therefore, the question is not if, but when.

When it happens, organizations that practice good information governance will be far better positioned to weather the storm than those that do not.

Brian Y. Boyd,CIPP/US, is an attorney at the law firm of Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, LLP. Brian counsels clients on information technology, intellectual property and information security matters and represents them in related transactions and litigation. Prior to law school, Brian was a senior consultant in the data warehousing practice group of an international information technology consulting firm serving Fortune 500 clients.

Written By

Brian Boyd, CIPP/US


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