Data Security: Definition, Explanation and Guide

Data Security is a process of protecting files, databases, and accounts on a network by adopting a set of controls, applications, and techniques that identify the relative importance of different...
David Harrington
8 min read
Last updated May 6, 2022

Data security is a set of processes and practices designed to protect your critical information technology (IT) ecosystem. This included files, databases, accounts, and networks. Effective data security adopts a set of controls, applications, and techniques that identify the importance of various datasets and apply the most appropriate security controls.

Effective data security takes into account the sensitivity of various datasets and corresponding regulatory compliance requirements. Like other cybersecurity postures — perimeter and file security to name a few — data security isn’t the end-all-be-all for keeping hackers at bay. Rather, data security is one of many critical methods for evaluating threats and reducing the risk associated with data storage and handling.

Want more insight into data security trends? Download our in-depth data breach statistics report.

Here, we’ll explain what data security is, measures to improve your data security, and how it interacts with regulation and compliance.

Why is Data Security Important?

data security importance

Data security is critical to public and private sector organizations for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the legal and moral obligation that companies have to protect their user and customer data from falling into the wrong hands. Financial firms, for example, may be subject to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) that forces companies to take all reasonable measures to protect user data.

Then there’s the reputational risk of a data breach or hack. If you don’t take data security seriously, your reputation can be permanently damaged in the event of a publicized, high-profile breach or hack. Not to mention the financial and logistical consequences if a data breach occurs. You’ll need to spend time and money to assess and repair the damage, as well as determine which business processes failed and what needs to be improved.

Types of Data Security

Access Controls

This type of data security measures includes limiting both physical and digital access to critical systems and data. This includes making sure all computers and devices are protected with mandatory login entry, and that physical spaces can only be entered by authorized personnel.


Similar to access controls, authentication refers specifically to accurately identifying users before they have access to data. This usually includes things like passwords, PIN numbers, security tokens, swipe cards, or biometrics.

Backups & Recovery

Good data security means you have a plan to securely access data in the event of system failure, disaster, data corruption, or breach. You’ll need a backup data copy, stored on a separate format such as a physical disk, local network, or cloud to recover if needed.

Data Erasure

You’ll want to dispose of data properly and on a regular basis. Data erasure employs software to completely overwrite data on any storage device and is more secure than standard data wiping. Data erasure verifies that the data is unrecoverable and therefore won’t fall into the wrong hands.

Data Masking

By using data masking software, information is hidden by obscuring letters and numbers with proxy characters. This effectively masks key information even if an unauthorized party gains access to it. The data changes back to its original form only when an authorized user receives it.

Data Resiliency

Comprehensive data security means that your systems can endure or recover from failures. Building resiliency into your hardware and software means that events like power outages or natural disasters won’t compromise security.


A computer algorithm transforms text characters into an unreadable format via encryption keys. Only authorized users with the proper corresponding keys can unlock and access the information. Everything from files and a database to email communications can — and should — be encrypted to some extent.

Main Elements of Data Security

There are three core elements to data security that all organizations should adhere to: Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability. These concepts are also referred to as the CIA Triad, functioning as a security model and framework for top-notch data security. Here’s what each core element means in terms of keeping your sensitive data protected from unauthorized access and data exfiltration.

  • Confidentiality. Ensures that data is accessed only by authorized users with the proper credentials.
  • Integrity. Ensure that all data stored is reliable, accurate, and not subject to unwarranted changes.
  • Availability. Ensures that data is readily — and safely — accessible and available for ongoing business needs.

Data Security Regulations

Data security is a critical element to regulatory compliance, no matter what industry or sector your organization operates in. Most — if not all — regulatory frameworks make data security a key aspect of compliance. Therefore, you’ll need to take data security seriously and work with an experienced compliance partner to ensure you’re employing all the right measures.

Some of the major compliance frameworks that put data security at the forefront are:

Data Security Technologies

data security technologies

Using the right data security technologies can help your organization prevent breaches, reduce risk, and sustain protective security measures.

Data Auditing

Security breaches are often inevitable, so you’ll need to have a process in place that gets to the root cause. Data auditing software solutions capture and report on things like control changes to data, records of who accessed sensitive information, and the file path utilized. These audit procedures are all vital to the breach investigation process. Proper data auditing solutions also provide IT administrators with visibility in preventing unauthorized changes and potential breaches.

Data Real-Time Alerts

Typically, it takes companies several months before they discover that a data breach has actually taken place. All too often, companies discover breaches via their customers or third-party vendors and contractors rather than their own IT departments. By using real-time systems and data monitoring technology, you’ll be able to discover breaches more quickly. This helps you mitigate data destruction, loss, alteration, or unauthorized access to personal data.

Data Risk Assessment

A data risk assessment will help your organization identify its most overexposed, sensitive data. A complete risk assessment will also offer reliable and repeatable steps towards prioritizing and remediating serious security risks. The process begins by identifying sensitive data that’s accessed via global groups, data that’s become stale, or data with inconsistent permissions. An accurate risk assessment will summarize important findings, expose vulnerabilities, and include prioritized remediation recommendations.

Data Minimization

Traditionally, organizations viewed having as much data possible as a benefit. There was always the potential that it might come in handy in the future. Today, large amounts of data are seen as a liability from a security standpoint. The more data you have, the greater the number of targets for hackers. That’s why data minimization is now a key security tactic. Never hold more data than necessary and follow all data minimization best practices.

Purge Stale Data

If data doesn’t exist within your network, it can’t be compromised. That’s why you’ll want to purge old or unnecessary data. Use systems that can track file access and automatically archive unused files. In the modern age of yearly acquisitions, reorganizations, and “synergistic relocations,” it’s quite likely that networks of any significant size have multiple forgotten servers that are kept around for no good reason.

Best Practices for Ensuring Data Security

There is no silver bullet that will guarantee 100 percent security of your data. However, there are several steps, tactics, and best practices that can help minimize the chances of a data breach, loss, and exposure.

Quarantine Sensitive Files

One common data management mistake is placing sensitive files on a shared or open drive accessible to the entire company. You’ll want to eliminate this practice, placing sensitive data into safely quarantined areas. Gain control of your data by using data security software that continually classifies sensitive data and moves it to a secure location.

Behavior-Based Permissions

Overly permissive behavior is another common misstep, where more people have access to data than is necessary. A convoluted web of temporary access and permissions quickly arises, with individuals having access to data that they shouldn’t. Limit over-permissioning by using software that profiles user behavior and automatically places appropriate behavior-based permissions via an entitlement review.

Prepare for Cyber Threats

Good data security is all about thinking ahead. You’ll want to have a solid cybersecurity policy that encompasses current and potential future threats to your data. This includes both external hackers and insider threats. Aside from your policy, employ software that provides real-time monitoring and alerts of suspicious activities.

Delete Unused Data

Storing stale data for longer than necessary presents a significant liability in terms of data security. You’ll want to have processes and technologies in place to eliminate sensitive data that’s no longer necessary for ongoing business activities. The last thing you want is a mountain of data that you’re unaware of as a sitting duck for hackers.

Capabilities and Solutions

data security capabilities

Aside from the right technologies and cyber hygiene best practices, your company should also have the following business process capabilities and solutions to ensure ongoing data security

Knowing Where Data Lives

It’s critical to know where all of your data resides at any given time. This includes data you’re currently using as well as data that should be deleted or retired. Make sure you have both technologies and processes in place that will give you visibility into your data at all times.

Tracking User Access

One of the biggest dangers to data security is internal personnel gaining access to data that they shouldn’t. Therefore, you’ll need to track user access to ensure only the right people are accessing the most sensitive data.

Blocking High-Risk Activities

Not all data handling actions are created equal. Individuals can engage in high-risk activities and data movements, such as sending sensitive information in a non-encrypted format via email. You want to have systems and software in place that block all high-risk activities.

How Varonis Helps with Data Security

For companies that have a hold on data and have security obligations due to GDPR or other regulatory requirements, understanding our mission at Varonis will help you manage and meet data protection and privacy regulations requirements.

The mission at Varonis is simple: your data is our primary focus, and our data security platform protects your file and email systems from malware, ransomware, APTs, and insider threats. We’re fighting a different battle – so your data is protected first. Not last.

We continuously collect and analyze activity on your enterprise data, both on-premises and in the cloud. We then leverage five metadata streams to ensure that your organization’s data has confidentiality, integrity, and availability:

  • Users and Groups – Varonis collects user and group information and maps their relationships for a complete picture of user account organization. We’ll help you with privacy design when creating users, groups, and role-based permissions.
  • Permissions – The Varonis platform adds the file system structure and permissions from the platforms that it monitors, and combines everything into a single framework for analysis, automation, and access visualization.
  • Access Activity – Varonis continually audits all access activity, and records & analyzes every touch by every user. Varonis automatically identifies administrators, service accounts, and executives creating a baseline of all activity. Now you can detect suspicious behavior: whether it’s an insider accessing sensitive content, an administrator abusing their privileges, or ransomware encrypting and exfiltrating data like CryptoLocker.
  • Perimeter TelemetryVaronis Edge analyzes data from perimeter devices such as VPN, proxy servers, and DNS – and combines this information with data access activity to detect and stop malware apt intrusions and data exfiltration.
  • Content Classification – Varonis scans for sensitive and critical data, and can ingest classification from other tools like DLP or e-Discovery. With added context around sensitive data, you can easily identify, lockdown and remediate overexposed data and other security vulnerabilities.

Data Security FAQs

Are there different types of data security?

Yes. While data security refers to the general practice of protecting sensitive information, it can take various forms. Firewalls, password protection, and multi-factor authentication are all types of data security measures typically employed.

What is the role of data security?

Data security functions to prevent data breaches, reduce risk of data exposure, and for regulatory compliance purposes. Within any organization, data security’s role is to ensure the ongoing safe and secure use of private data while minimizing exposure risk.

What does data security include?

Data security encompasses an array of technology, business, or organizational practices. This includes things like a comprehensive data security policy, cybersecurity software, and thorough data sanitization business processes.

Closing Thoughts

Data security isn’t simply a one-off project. There’s no magic wand to wave that will guarantee the complete security of your data around the clock. Instead, you need to view data security as an ongoing, company-wide endeavor. You’ll need the right practices, like data purging and quarantine, working in tandem with technologies like DatAlert.

Data classification software can also prove critical in managing your data for the purposes of knowing what to safeguard, from whom, and what to purge when necessary. You also shouldn’t overlook the importance of data security when it comes to regulatory compliance. Without adequate data security, you’re putting yourself at risk in terms of fines and penalties.

Data security is a team effort that should be tackled from all angles. By understanding what data security is — and the measures you can take to improve it — you’ll minimize the risk of breaches, hacks, or unintended data loss.

What should I do now?

Below are three ways you can continue your journey to reduce data risk at your company:


Schedule a demo with us to see Varonis in action. We'll personalize the session to your org's data security needs and answer any questions.


See a sample of our Data Risk Assessment and learn the risks that could be lingering in your environment. Varonis' DRA is completely free and offers a clear path to automated remediation.


Follow us on LinkedIn, YouTube, and X (Twitter) for bite-sized insights on all things data security, including DSPM, threat detection, AI security, and more.

Try Varonis free.

Get a detailed data risk report based on your company’s data.
Deploys in minutes.

Keep reading

Varonis tackles hundreds of use cases, making it the ultimate platform to stop data breaches and ensure compliance.

PCI DSS Explained: Our New White Paper Decodes the Complexity
The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is not just another list of requirements for protecting data. In 2013, the number of credit and debit card transactions worldwide...
The 12 PCI DSS Requirements: 4.0 Compliance Checklist
Version 4.0 of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is right around the corner. Prepare with our PCI DSS compliance checklist.
data-security-compliance-and-datadvantage,-part-iii:- protect-and-monitor
Data Security Compliance and DatAdvantage, Part III:  Protect and Monitor
At the end of the previous post, we took up the nuts-and-bolts issues of protecting sensitive data in an organization’s file system. One popular approach, least-privileged access model, is often...
What is Data Classification? Guidelines and Process
Data classification is the process of analyzing data and organizing it into categories. Learn how to mitigate and manage governance policies with Varonis.