The continued emergence of various types of data breaches and the need for companies to align with rigorous compliance requirements have complicated the management of toxic data. In addition, organizations have been dealing with exponential data growth that has caused a compounding effect on the amount of toxic data available within their systems.
The problem with toxic data is that it increases the risk surface, which makes it essential to put appropriate data management policies in place to ensure effective management. We recommend the use of appropriate tools, such as Microsoft 365, to enhance the security and integrity of toxic data within organizational settings.
This guide defines toxic data and explains how administrators can leverage Microsoft 365’s Microsoft Information Protection, Data Loss Prevention, Log Analytics, and Microsoft Sentinel to manage it better.
What is Toxic Data?
Toxic data refers to live, or legacy data that is not needed for business purposes and whose presence within a business’s systems increases the risk surface.
Practical examples of toxic data include advertising data that has been collected without consumers’ explicit consent, inadvertent combinations of data elements that can lead to the unauthorized re-identification of individuals, or credit card-holder data that you have no use for anymore.
As is the case with other forms of data, organizations must put appropriate data management policies in place to control toxic data. Using appropriate tools and technology to protect the data against cyber-attacks is also essential.
The Negative Impact of Toxic Data on Organizations
Although organizations may do their best to mask the identities of their consumers and customers, certain combinations of data elements may make the re-identification of individuals possible.
Such toxic combinations can be found in data lakes, since these systems contain diverse data sources and types, including unstructured, structured, and semi-structured data.
There are other negative factors associated with toxic data combinations, and we have summarized some of them below.
- Reputational damage: There can be a loss of trust, business, or opportunities when toxic data leaks to the wrong individuals. This can damage the reputation of individuals or organizations.
- Financial loss: Data breaches can attract regulatory fines, legal action, or compensation claims.
- Mental and emotional harm: Toxic data combinations that fall into the wrong hands will often be used for the wrong purposes, such as ransom demands, cyberbullying, or even theft. Some of these practices can take a toll on consumers, customers, and other stakeholders whose data has been compromised.
Why Is It Important To Address Toxic Data?
Due to the associated adversity that can follow toxic data combinations, it becomes crucial for organizations to put systems in place that will address toxic data.
Companies are increasingly becoming vulnerable to data-related threats, which makes it logical that businesses implement solutions to toxic data.
These solutions can be in the form of well-defined data protection strategies. For example, a company can implement data retention, sharing, and usage policies. There is, of course, the possibility of holding less onto data to limit the chances of it turning toxic.
Whichever data protection strategy a company implements, the aim is to:
- Provide data privacy and security.
- Maintain brand reputation because toxic data leaks may be damaging to an individual or organization.
- Prevent cyber-attacks and other forms of threats.
- Ensure the ethical use of data.
- Comply with regulations such as DOJ and CJIS Compliance and the NIST 800-171 Compliance.
How Microsoft 365 Helps Control Toxic Data
Microsoft 365 suite is a cloud-based version of the original Microsoft Office 365 software. The program integrates several productivity applications that help individuals and organizations manage workloads, including Microsoft Office Web Apps, Lync Online, Exchange Online, and SharePoint Online.
Apart from the widely used tools and features such as Microsoft Editor and Microsoft Money in Excel, Microsoft 365 also integrates several security features that help to protect data.
In this section, we discuss Microsoft 365’s central security and compliance capabilities that enable organizations to control toxic data—Microsoft Information Protection, Data Loss Prevention, Log Analytics, and Microsoft Sentinel.
Identifying and Classifying Toxic Data Using Microsoft Information Protection
Microsoft Information Protection (MIP) is a framework that lets administrators identify, protect, keep, and govern information. This collection of services, features, and controls enables users to manage information compliance in Microsoft 365, and one of the key features is the ability to identify and classify data.
Data classification should be at the core of any data protection strategy. The process guarantees data confidentiality, eases access to data, and fosters data integrity.
Microsoft Information Protection allows users to create and apply labels to their data based on sensitivity and classification. This occurs through the unified labeling client that allows administrators to configure policies and apply labels automatically.
For administrators, data classification is the first step toward identifying and segregating toxic data. Any data that increases the risk surface can be labeled based on its content, such as by considering specific patterns or keywords.
Once you have these labels in place, you can then use MIP to track and monitor the usage of toxic data. It becomes easier to detect any attempts to access, modify, or share the data. You can then use the MIP framework to remediate actions immediately, such as blocking access to the data or revoking permissions.
Protecting Against Data Leakage and Exfiltration With Data Loss Prevention
All businesses maintain confidential and sensitive information that they want to keep secure to prevent losses, reputation damage, and regulatory noncompliance. In this regard, frameworks such as Microsoft 365’s Data Loss Prevention (DLP) are critical to any organization’s efforts to protect sensitive information from unauthorized access, use, or disclosure.
Data Loss Prevention leverages rules and policies to identify confidential, critical, or sensitive files and data, then helps you protect them from sharing or transmission. The objective is to prevent data loss from within Office 365 environment. The framework prevents data leakage and exfiltration through various processes, including encryption, content inspection, access controls, user behavior monitoring, and real-time alerts.
Monitoring and Reporting on Data Usage and Access With Log Analytics and Microsoft Sentinel
Log Analytics and Microsoft Sentinel are vital in tracking the use of toxic data and controlling access to the same. Log Analytics’ primary purpose is to collect and analyze data from various sources, servers, devices, and applications and to provide relevant insights regarding said resources. Microsoft Sentinel has been designed to provide administrators with security analytics and threat detection across entire information technology environments.
Utilizing both gives you a better chance of maximizing your organization’s data protection strategy. Both Log Analytics and Microsoft Sentinel can be vital resources in the collection of usage logs from operating systems, applications, network devices, cloud services, and other sources. They can also analyze usage logs in real-time through machine learning capabilities and create dashboards that allow users to monitor and report on key metrics.
Finally, you can configure Log Analytics and Microsoft Sentinel to provide timely alerts when suspicious activity is detected.
Best Practices for Using Microsoft 365 To Control Toxic Data
Some of the best practices for leveraging Microsoft 365 in controlling toxic data within an organization include developing data governance policies, creating retention and deletion policies, using labels and sensitivity settings to control access and usage, and training and educating users on how to handle toxic data. We discuss each point in detail.
Developing a Data Governance Plan and Policy
A data governance plan and policy document are critical in ensuring the effective management of data and enhancing compliance with regulations. It is vital first to define the goals and objectives of your policies. For example, enhancing data quality, integrity, and security can be an excellent place to start. You can then assign roles and responsibilities, train users on Microsoft 365 best practices regarding toxic data, and periodically audit and monitor progress.
Creating and Applying Retention and Deletion Policies
Retention and deletion policies are critical components of any Microsoft 365 data governance plan. Organizations can use these policies to manage the toxic data lifecycle—from data creation to disposal.
To create excellent policies, you can follow these steps:
- Establish the types of data your organization maintains and categorize them based on sensitivity.
- Define the recommended retention periods and create a retention policy.
- Monitor policy compliance and plan for legal holds.
Using Labels and Sensitivity Settings To Control Access and Usage
As we have already stated, utilizing data labels and classifying toxic data based on sensitivity is integral to data protection and management. We recommend creating a policy around the Microsoft Information Protection (MIP) framework as long as you can sporadically audit progress and improve the policy based on gathered insights.
Training and Educating Users on How To Handle Toxic Data
Any program that helps train and educates your system’s users about handling toxic files and data must provide a sufficient definition of toxic data so that the risks can be easily communicated.
It is also vital to use real-world examples during training, test and reinforce the procedures, and update the training manual based on gathered insights.
Common Challenges and How To Address Them
Using Microsoft 365 to control toxic data can be complex, and some challenges can emerge. We have gathered a list of a few hurdles you are most likely to face when implementing the best practices that we shared earlier.
- Ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements: Many laws, regulations, and industry standards help manage different types of data, and it is sometimes difficult to keep up with these requirements. We recommend performing consistent regulatory and legal assessments and basing your internal compliance policies on industry standards by using Microsoft Compliance Manager.
- Managing large volumes of data and avoiding false positives: Identifying toxic data can be challenging, especially when dealing with large volumes of unstructured data. It is also possible to flag legitimate data as toxic data incorrectly when dealing with big data. A feasible solution is to automate data classification.
- Balancing security and productivity needs: Maintaining access to data systems while simultaneously applying data government security protocols can slow down productivity. However, you can solve this challenge through employee training, where you make them understand your organization’s data governance plan and policy.
In this article, we have discussed various benefits and considerations of using Microsoft 365 to control toxic data. Controlling toxic data allows organizations to provide data privacy and security, maintain brand reputation, prevent cyber-attacks and other forms of threats, ensure ethical data use and comply with regulations such as DOJ and CJIS Compliance and the NIST 800-171 Compliance.
The key takeaway is that companies should take action and protect their data from harm by implementing data governance and protection strategies.
If you need assistance in identifying and mitigating toxic data in your organization, Agile IT can help. Using best practices learned in managing Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) in Microsoft 365, we are prepared to help tackle the toughest data governance and protection challenges across any industry.