Tuesday 14 April 2015

Information Vs Data Vs Security

A subject that has been close to my mind recently, is as to when data becomes information, and how the security of that asset is managed - and by whom.

We have probably all seen the triangle:
By Longlivetheux (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Which as you will gather, denotes that Information is comprised of (useful sets of) Data. There's also the concept, at least in UK law, of data, which comprises of Information:

Data means information which –(a) is being processed by means of equipment operating automatically in response to instructions given for that purpose,
(b) is recorded with the intention that it should be processed by means of such equipment,
(c) is recorded as part of a relevant filing system or with the intention that it should form part of a relevant filing system,
(d) does not fall within paragraph (a), (b) or (c) but forms part of an accessible record as defined by section 68, or
(e) is recorded information held by a public authority and does not fall within any of paragraphs (a) to (d).

So it is clear that these terms are not defined exclusively, and that the terminology alone may present a problem.

The business often has a nominated Information Asset Manager, who looks after the types of information an organisation processes, and is responsible (perhaps to a Senior Information Risk Officer, or SIRO). The organisational policy may well give this person (delegated from the SIRO) the last word on policy - however this doesn't mean this person has the technical background to ensure that policy is implemented - or even practical.

There may also be someone in the IT infrastructure whose remit is security - either a dedicated IT Security Officer, or perhaps someone who has this responsibility as part of their work. Again, this is quite a wide ranging remit, and this person may feel it is better left to subject matter experts in specific systems, and lay guidance as to the principles to be observed.

This leaves the DBA with two potential places to go for security instructions, yet neither may understand the detailed technical processes necessary to actually undertake the remit, as their remit is either business focused or too wide for the focus on the specific technology of databases. That's where the DBA brings his or her expertise to bear, and as such brings value to the business.

Often the DBA role is also to mediate where the tension exists between data security and information use. This is because they are the guardian of the security on the data - and so the first place that gets approached when technical permission is denied. This brings to light the difference between a technical prevention measure, and a business policy allowing, forbidding, or laying restrictions on a course of action.

Whilst clearly data security will almost always win the balance between security and flexibility, the role of the data professional is increasingly to suggest a way to merge the data once permission is secured and in accordance with best practice. This is a difficult balancing act, which may not be fully understood by information users.

So how can we alleviate the issues this generates? Firstly - publicity. Explain what is necessary, and have a ready to roll out example of why you wouldn't like your data to be misused. Perhaps an example might be of sensitive personal data being unexpectedly available to the world for misuse, or the potential for processing of data in a way it wasn't gathered for - both breaches of the DPA, but still things that get requested disturbingly often.

A second avenue is to engage with the other data professionals in a proactive way, and ensure that clear paths are laid down to get issues circulated for discussion - and engage with the business to resolve them. Generally, there's a good way to do things, and a bad way - for example, would anonymised data do for a task? Could the risk be mitigated somehow? Perhaps we can't do something with the data we have, but changing how it is captured to ensure the correct permissions are granted gives us the ability to do this in the future. If the policies don't exist (or haven't been reviewed recently) then these can be bolstered to ensure they are fit for purpose - and in line with recent changes to regulation.

With these approaches, we lay down a safe way of working, that also keeps us within legal boundaries and hence providing value to the business with both of these points.