Navigating regulatory compliance during data disclosure

A wall of data on a large screen.
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In an age where data transparency and security are widely discussed, public sector organizations find themselves both accountable for the protection of public information, and vulnerable to the evolving security risks that come with such a significant task. Indeed, our recent research revealed that 70% of public sector organizations consider data security a top business risk. These risks have become even more apparent with the frequent reports of data breaches occurring during the processing of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. These breaches cast doubts on the safeguarding of sensitive information and highlight the intricate challenge of balancing the public's right to access information with the obligation to protect confidential data.

When handled appropriately, FOI requests can empower greater transparency and accountability between public institutions and citizens. They facilitate more informed decision-making and enhance public understanding and trust.

Yet, mishandling FOI requests carries the potential for severe financial consequences and reputational harm. While the implications can vary depending on the nature of the data breached, accidental disclosure of sensitive information such as personally identifiable information (PII) through an FOI request can have significant legal consequences, including penalties and fines for mishandling data.

But the reputational damage can far outweigh any financial repercussions. Public disclosure of a data breach resulting from an FOI request can erode the trust of the public and stakeholders. This can invite longer-term scrutiny, impacting the organizations' credibility and potentially hindering its ability to fulfil its purpose effectively.

Ajay Bhatia

Global VP & GM of Digital Compliance at Veritas Technologies.

Five tips for ensuring data compliance

Mitigating the risks of data breaches begins with fostering a culture of cyber resilience where data protection becomes a shared responsibility. Regular training and education as well as the potential risks and consequences, can help employees become wise to phishing attempts, social engineering tactics, and other common vectors for data breaches.

With clear guidelines and policies for remote work, including the use of secure VPNs, encrypted communication tools, and secure file sharing methods, businesses can instill best practices into employees to prevent future data breaches.

In addition to a shift in culture, organizations should have robust data protection policies, incident response plans, and security measures in place. Being able to promptly address the breach, notify affected individuals as required by law, cooperate with authorities, and take steps to prevent future breaches, can help manage the fallout and demonstrate a commitment to rectifying the situation. The following five key technical measures can be implemented to help to regain trust and demonstrate that organizations take data protection seriously:

1. Ring-fence data: segmenting organizational data into different networks or containers and restricting access between them can strengthen data security. Strong authentication and authorization controls must be used to secure every post of the data fence.

2. Classify data: organizations should categorize data based on its sensitivity level (e.g., public, internal, confidential, highly confidential). Applying appropriate access controls and encryption based on the data's classification and encrypting sensitive data at rest and in transit, can ensure that even if data leaks occur, confidential information remains unreadable without the decryption key.

3. Implement robust monitoring and logging mechanisms: robust monitoring and logging mechanisms can help businesses track and record user activity on critical systems and databases. And, if sensitive data is spread across different cloud locations, this monitoring must span across all the multi-cloud environment. To ensure this is successful, organizations must review logs and audit trails to detect unusual or suspicious behavior.

4. Deploy data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions: DLP solutions can identify and prevent the unauthorized transmission of sensitive data outside the organization's network. Businesses can set up alerts or automatically block data transfers when certain predefined rules are triggered. A comprehensive incident response plan that outlines steps to take in the event of a data leak should also be in place. This plan should be regularly tested through simulations to ensure a swift and effective response.

5. Carry out regular security assessments: conduct regular cyber resilience assessments and penetration testing to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in systems. Businesses must also evaluate the security practices of third-party vendors and partners that have access to their data. It’s also vital to ensure third party contracts include data protection clauses and require compliance with the same security standards.

As data plays an increasingly pivotal role in the operation of public services and how citizens engage with them, the protection of it is as vital as the principles of transparency and accountability. By cultivating a culture that places data responsibility at its core and embracing technologies that fortify security defenses, public sector organizations can establish themselves as reliable gatekeepers of the information that underpins our societies, promoting transparency and building trust.

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Ajay Bhatia is Global VP & GM of Digital Compliance at Veritas Technologies.