How to Prevent Data Loss: 9 Strategies to Secure Your Company Data

By Elaine Atkinson

Published on February 7, 2024

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Today’s businesses (regardless of industry) have to protect the data they inevitably accrue. It’s generated by customers, and it’s vital in digital marketing strategies. With many weak links in today’s digital systems, data loss is a constant concern as it can cost a business anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars

Fortunately, there are several ways we can address this problem. Throughout this article, we’ll examine the key causes of data loss, as well as several different methods of eliminating it from your own company. Below is a snapshot of the nine strategies we will cover:

  • Understanding Data Loss Causes

  • Reducing Human Error

  • Refining Offboarding Processes

  • Enabling Regular Backups

  • Utilizing Data Loss Prevention Tools

  • Maintaining and Upgrading Hardware

  • Identifying and Prioritizing Key Data

  • Documenting Data Loss Prevention Strategies

  • Defining Success Metrics for Data Loss Prevention

Let's dive into each strategy to understand how it can fortify your company's data against loss.

1. Understand why data loss happens

Knowing the root of data loss problems allows organizations to move from fear to empowerment and action to minimize risk. By identifying key sources of data loss, tangible steps can be taken to prevent most risks. 

In many cases, data loss is the result of user error. Users might think it is harmless, but leaving passwords on sticky notes attached to computers, walking away from a machine without putting the screen to sleep to grab that Starbucks order, and machine damage from liquids that would damage a hard drive can create data loss risks. Data loss can also be the result of inadvertently inviting a bad actor into the environment via phishing. 

A sticky note with 'My Password 123456' written on it, placed on a laptop keyboard next to a marker, highlighting poor password security practices.

Another situation that presents significant risk is weak links in offboarding and data loss prevention processes. If an employee is planning to depart from a company — on positive or negative terms — it is not uncommon to see major amounts of document sharing to personal emails outside of the organization.  

2. Reduce human error

Two coworkers focused on their work in a bright office setting.

Free to use image sourced from Unsplash

Human error is surprisingly hard to mitigate, but there are proven techniques for reducing risks in this area. 

Most cloud solutions will have automatic backups enabled, but employing a more robust backup software solution is also an important maturity move. This is admittedly an expensive endeavor, so organizations can start small by backing up critical systems first, then iteratively adding other important systems as funds are available. Surprisingly, many people still back data up to hard drives. A simple solution to this is moving to cloud storage, even if it may feel unfamiliar. Cloud storage contains redundancy, so if a document is lost, searching for it in the cloud will show deleted documents and historic versions. 

Spilled liquids are a very easy way to damage hardware and lose vital data in the process. Sugary or acidic drinks are particularly damaging, but any kind of liquid can compromise a hard drive. Think about where you place drinks, and try to keep them as far away from hardware as you can.

Another key way to prevent data loss involves some employee education; 1.2% of all emails sent are malicious, and not all of these will be filtered by firewalls or VPNs. Launch regular phishing campaigns to teach users how to spot phishing emails, and how to report clicking on a phishing email promptly to the information security team. Considering the largely remote nature of work in the tech sector, train staff to protect their equipment when working in public locations, avoid connecting to any open WiFi, and be sure that a VPN or the like is used to ensure a secure connection.

3. Refine offboarding processes and access reviews

Keeping a “clean house” with offboarding and access control can be much more difficult than it sounds. Manual offboarding processes and access reviews can leave room for a different type of human error, no matter how well documented and communicated. 

Leveraging IdP and HR tools to assist with offboarding creates a more reliable system — and less of a hustle for HR and IT to adjust access and deprovision users who have left the company, changed departments, or taken leave. 

Access reviews should be conducted regularly to compare existing access to what it should be in critical tools, at the very least, and system owners should adjust access to be right-sized and based on role, expertise and training, and current status with the organization. If a full-time employee is converted to a contractor to cover a more limited body of work, for instance, the access of that individual should be analyzed and adjusted appropriately in a timely manner. Identity and access management tools can assist with this burdensome but vital task.

4. Enable backups

If data loss happens from accidental deletion by an employee, it usually only takes a few clicks to recover the data in cloud solutions that naturally back up work. A more serious situation would be if an attacker were to gain admin access and encrypt (for ransom) or delete the data permanently. Purchasing a robust data backup tool for critical systems is essential to preventing such damages.

5. Use a data loss prevention tool (DLP) and data handling and labeling procedures in tandem

Data loss prevention tools (DLP) are built into certain platforms out of the box, such as with Google Workspace and Microsoft Office. Leveraging these capabilities can enable organizations to track data that is leaving the business. Additionally, adding a broader DLP solution that can span a fuller stack is also a great advantage. 

Data loss prevention tools can be configured to a custom threshold to send alerts if a documents are shared. For instance, if an employee is planning on leaving the organization and sends 50 documents to a personal email, the DLP tool can send an email alert. Drilling down, the admin can view document titles, time sent, and the destination email address. If an unauthorized data share such as this is detected, steps can be taken with HR, legal teams, and breach council to mitigate the risk.

A nice compliment to DLP tools is establishing clear data handling and labeling procedures, and then executing on those procedures in documentation software. Enabling automatic data handling and labeling within composition software is a great way to eliminate the issue of employees having to manually label what they are working on. By automatically labeling everything “confidential,” alerts can pop up before sharing externally. Expirations for documents can also be put into place to limit the time that documents are accessed to limited time users.

6. Maintain your hardware

Close-up view of server rack panels with yellow and red LED lights on.

Free to use image sourced from Unsplash

Of course, user error is not the only cause of data loss. The hardware used to sustain data is another weak link. In 40% of cases, data loss is caused by hardware failure. Luckily, there are a few ways to address this issue.

If hard drives are used to preserve data, awareness thatthese are vulnerable to being dropped, overheated, exposed to electromagnetic fields, or just wear and tear over time. Signs of a faulty hard drive include strange noises, increased temperatures of hardware, or even files mysteriously vanishing. 

Power failures and power surges can cause damage to specific computer components, which accumulate if power failures and surges happen several times. Hardware developments such as surge protectors can help to mitigate these issues.

The unfortunate truth is that all hardware has a finite lifespan; backing up data diligently and treating our hardware with respect can help to eliminate this issue.

7. Identify key data

While — in an ideal world — no one would want to lose any data, it’s also likely there is some data you can’t lose under any circumstances, so classify your data and consider what you need to prioritize.

A blurred computer monitor displaying multicolored code.

Free to use image sourced from Unsplash

Some pieces of data will always be seen as more valuable. If you’re a business, your key data might be intellectual property such as a piece of source code or a recipe. This idea can also apply to other important information such as health records and user information. Other data (like marketing performance data) may be relatively lower on the ladder. 

Ensuring the quality of your data is as important as safeguarding it, as high data quality is fundamental to data-driven decision-making and operational efficiency.

Naturally, every business will have its own concept of what’s valuable. If huge amounts of data are being managed, implementing an ETL pipeline can make data more manageable. This can potentially help identify and prioritize valuable data.

8. Document your data loss prevention strategies

Policies and procedures regarding security and data governance should be composed in a formal document and reviewed regularly. Data security is not just about preventing loss but also ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of your data across all platforms.

An open laptop on a wooden table displaying a programming environment with code on a dark blue background.

Free to use image sourced from Pixabay

Make it clear what the parameters are, what needs to be done and who needs to be doing it. It’s highly likely there will be a baseline set of responsibilities for all employees; everyone should avoid posting passwords in visible locations, for example. However, other tasks (like maintaining equipment) may be the responsibility of a specific employee or department instead. 

Formalizing your prevention strategy like this serves two key purposes. The first is that it brings current employees up to speed with what’s expected of them (and what they should expect from their employers in turn). It also gives new employees a comprehensive guide to best practices and requirements.

9. Decide What Success Looks Like

It’s a good idea to define a metric of success for data loss prevention or to aim for a numerical reduction in the amount of data loss or data breaches. Having a clear idea of this helps you to understand if your efforts are working, or if you’re improving upon previous efforts to safeguard your data. 

By tracking this information, informed decisions can be made iteratively for continual improvement.

Making data loss a preventable problem

Unlike some other business problems, data loss prevention has some solutions that are easy to identify. Backing up data (with encryption) may be one of the most obvious, but educating employees on proper prevention techniques and examining other tools and processes are essential. 

Fostering a robust data culture within the organization ensures that every team member understands the value of data and is aligned with the protocols to protect it. 

At the end of the day, it is self-evident that organizations have limited budgets to invest into security, but taking steps towards maturity is the goal, showing consistent progress year over year. A well-defined roadmap with milestones and metrics can guide the journey.

  • 1. Understand why data loss happens
  • 2. Reduce human error
  • 3. Refine offboarding processes and access reviews
  • 4. Enable backups
  • 5. Use a data loss prevention tool (DLP) and data handling and labeling procedures in tandem
  • 6. Maintain your hardware
  • 7. Identify key data
  • 8. Document your data loss prevention strategies
  • 9. Decide What Success Looks Like
  • Making data loss a preventable problem
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