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Data Privacy Day 2021: Purpose-Driven Data



January 28th marks international Data Privacy Day: a day dedicated to raising awareness around the issues of Privacy and Data Protection. At Ekata, data protection is central to our business. Being good stewards of the data we are entrusted with underpins all aspects of our product life cycle, from design to implementation. Codified in one of our Key Operating Imperatives, “Elevate Security and Privacy at Every Turn”, ensuring Data Privacy and Protection best practices are being followed is the responsibility of all members of the Ekata team.

Customer information is both an asset and a liability. As more consumer data is collected for business purposes, more attention is being paid to enforcement of standards for storage, transmission and retention. In order to be effective, data handling best practices must be tailored to the unique needs of an organization. Below we have outlined some of the ways in which Ekata frames this unique challenge, and provide tangible examples of how our company has upheld our high standards for Data Privacy and Security.


Framing Requirements

When designing a system that will collect and use customer data, it pays to plan for the security of that collection and retention during the design phase. The following guiding principles should help ensure security and privacy are fundamental aspects of your system design:


Understand your data sources

Not all data is created equal, and therefore cannot be uniformly protected. The billing information collected from customers at an eCommerce vendor is more sensitive than the connection data in the web server logs, and hence the corresponding data protection methods aren’t going to be identical for those sources.

How to protect data on Data Privacy Day

Understanding your data sources via proper Data Categorization helps you build a model for security that is appropriate to the kind of data you are protecting.

This categorization process helps you to identify the right “bucket” for your data to live in. Some examples may be:

  • Customer Data: Data about a customer that is collected during a transaction.
  • Proprietary Data: Data purchased or otherwise obtained through partnerships with other businesses.
  • Technical Data: Data derived from logging, usage monitoring, etc.

Appropriately categorizing your data can simplify the process of deciding how that data can be stored, how it should be protected, and how long it should be retained.



Be purpose-driven

Data collection should be driven by a clear business purpose. That purpose could be as trivial as gathering statistics on the kinds of web browsers used to visit your company homepage, or as regulated as processing billing information after a purchase. Whatever the case may be, that purpose will help guide decisions about how that data is stored and protected.

Clearly defining your purpose for collection and retention of data also helps determine the appropriate timelines for purging information that is no longer needed. Data does not stay relevant forever, but the storage of data does come at a cost. Data kept beyond its usefulness not only costs the company money to retain, but also increases their liability should a breach happen. When scoping a data retention policy, it is important to determine the purpose that data is serving, and retain it only long enough to serve that purpose.

In addition to data retention considerations, being purpose-driven in your data collection helps scope which teams will require access to that information. Employing Role Based Access Control – or RBAC – ensures that only employees with a legitimate business need can access the data. Actively controlling access by job role, rather than by the individual, eases the burden of access control management while ensuring that an individual can only access those systems that are within their scope of work.



Security is a feature, not an afterthought

You wouldn’t build a bank vault by allowing people to deposit money, and then figuring out ways to keep that money safe. You’d want to have a plan for keeping that money safe before it was your responsibility to protect. The same principle applies for data storage: building in security from the ground-up helps ensure that potential gaps are addressed prior to implementation. 

As a general rule, steps should be taken to ensure that customer data is protected both “in transit” (the process of collecting the information from the source) and “at rest” (the final storage point for the data). The extent to which you need to protect that data, the ways in which you implement that protection, and the length of time you retain that data should all be purposefully designed based on your data categorization and use case.


Data Protection vs Business Value

Once you have developed an understanding of the data you are collecting and the requirements around its collection, you can start to define how you plan on implementing the necessary protections. This is where being purpose-driven will help, as the ways in which you protect the data will need to bear in mind the business need that data fulfills. Just as inadequately protecting data can lead to data theft or spillage, overly securing data can also inhibit the usability of that source for your business.

At Ekata, our APIs and web endpoints encrypt customer data in transit using Transport Layer Security (TLS), ensuring that the data cannot be modified or copied when it is sent to us. Once we have processed the data and want to store it in our databases, we use a combination of SHA-512 cryptographic hashing, as well as both row-level and database-level AES encryption to protect any sensitive PII collected in that query. This helps guarantee that even if the contents of the database were to be compromised, it would be too computationally expensive to ever reverse that data and retrieve the plaintext PII.

Hashing data for privacy

The solution you ultimately choose to implement should balance security and useability. For instance, while one-way hashing is great for security, you sacrifice any ability to get back to the original plaintext data. Depending on what you intend to do with that data, this may or may not be a feasible solution. Likewise, usage of SHA-512 results in the generation of a hash that is 512 bits long. If your input data was very small before processing, this may result in a much larger amount of data being stored. Each data use case is unique, and the methods of protection must weigh the balance of keeping the information safe with keeping the information usable.


Data Retention

Companies should also consider their policy for data retention. While it can be tempting to retain records indefinitely, the value of that information will likely grow stale with time. In order to both keep data relevant and to keep the scope of data you are protecting reasonable, companies should consider aging off data that is no longer needed to fulfill a specific business purpose. 

This is another process that can go more smoothly with the help of the work you did in the framing requirements phase. Understanding your data and being purposeful in why you are collecting it are the key factors in determining a reasonable retention policy. You may only need to retain the data for a short time (such as technical logs used for debugging purposes), or you may need to retain it in anticipation of a future event (such as billing records until the next tax season). Whatever the case may be, the goal should be to keep the data for the minimal time necessary to fulfill its reason for collection.

While legal regulations (such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR) do not provide specifics for how long different types of information can be retained, they do expect organizations to be able to prove what purpose that data serves.


Data Redundancy and Availability

While less related to the privacy of data storage, data redundancy and availability should also be considered a part of data security. Just as organizations should take steps to mitigate the risk of data theft or spillage, they should also consider the risk of data loss in the event of a catastrophic failure. If the server hosting your customer transaction database failed tomorrow, would you be able to recover that data? How long would it take to transition that functionality to a new server, and get back to business as normal?

Fortunately, modern cloud providers make it simpler than ever to ensure data redundancy. At Ekata, we’ve engineered our platform to leverage Amazon S3, which provides us with both ease of access and inherent redundancy across AWS availability zones.

Whether you use AWS, Azure, other cloud providers, or an on-premises solution, taking steps to ensure the redundancy and availability of your data is critical for business continuity.  


Final Thoughts

At Ekata, our business is driven by data. Our Identity Network improves as we analyze how it is used, which is only possible when customers trust us with their data. Data security is more than a tenant of our business; it is a foundational commitment to our customers and partners. 

A version of this blog originally appeared on Dataversity

Ben Kelley

Original Post by Ben Kelley, Director of Security, Ekata

Ben Kelley, Director of Security at Ekata, leads the company’s information security efforts. He joined Ekata after 6 years of conducting, and later leading cyber operations within the Department of Defense. A hacker at heart, Ben is an active member of the greater information security community and seeks to bring a pragmatic approach to security and privacy leadership.

Follow Ben and Ekata at Twitter, LinkedIn


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