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Data Security Meaning and Definition

Data security is the process of safeguarding digital information throughout its entire life cycle to protect it from corruption, theft, or unauthorized access. It covers everything—hardware, software, storage devices, and user devices; access and administrative controls; and organizations’ policies and procedures.

Data security uses tools and technologies that enhance visibility of a company's data and how it is being used. These tools can protect data through processes like data masking, encryption, and redaction of sensitive information. The process also helps organizations streamline their auditing procedures and comply with increasingly stringent data protection regulations.

A robust data security management and strategy process enables an organization to protect its information against cyberattacks. It also helps them minimize the risk of human error and insider threats, which continue to be the cause of many data breaches

Why Is Data Security Important?

There are many reasons why data security is important to organizations in all industries all over the world. Organizations are legally obliged to protect customer and user data from being lost or stolen and ending up in the wrong hands. For example, industry and state regulations like the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) outline organizations’ legal obligations to protect data.

Data cybersecurity is also crucial to preventing the reputational risk that accompanies a data breach. A high-profile hack or loss of data can result in customers losing trust in an organization and taking their business to a competitor. This also runs the risk of serious financial losses, along with fines, legal payments, and damage repair in case sensitive data is lost.

Benefits of Data Security

What is data security? In a way, data security is easier to define by looking at the benefits, which are explained in more detail below:

  1. Keeps your information safe: By adopting a mindset focused on data security and implementing the right set of tools, you ensure sensitive data does not fall into the wrong hands. Sensitive data can include customer payment information, hospital records, and identification information, to name just a few. With a data security program created to meet the specific needs of your organization, this info stays safe and secure.
  2. Helps keep your reputation clean: When people do business with your organization, they entrust their sensitive information to you, and a data security strategy enables you to provide the protection they need. Your reward? A stellar reputation among clients, partners, and the business world in general.
  3. Gives you a competitive edge: In many industries, data breaches are commonplace, so if you can keep data secure, you set yourself apart from the competition, which may be struggling to do the same.
  4. Saves on support and development costs: If you incorporate data security measures early in the development process, you may not have to spend valuable resources for designing and deploying patches or fixing coding problems down the road.

Data Security vs. Data Privacy

Data security and data privacy both involve protecting data, but they are different. Data security entails controlling access to data using stark, black-and-white terms. For example, a data security policy may dictate that no one other than someone troubleshooting a database issue is allowed to see customer payment information—period. In that way, you reduce your chances of suffering a data security breach.

Data privacy, on the other hand, involves more subtle, strategic decisions around who gets access to certain kinds of data. Using the same example, another organization may say, “Well, it may help the development team to know if a lot of customers have been paying using PayPal. Then they could decide whether it would be wise to start accepting Payoneer, Skrill, or Stripe, too. Let’s give them access to payment info for the next two weeks.”

When it comes to data security in cloud computing or on-premises environments, these kinds of decisions fall more under the purview of data privacy.

Learn more about Cloud Data Protection: Secure what you store in the cloud.

Best Practices for Ensuring Data Security and Privacy

Why is data security important? Primarily, it keeps your data secure and builds confidence among your customers. Here are some best practices that have been effective for other organizations:

  1. Secure your information: This means managing who has access and encrypting your data. Only people who need it to perform essential functions should have access, and information should be encrypted as it goes back and forth between the database and their computer or device.
  2. Prepare ahead of time for threats: You can get ready for a potential data security incident by testing your system, educating employees, devising an incident management plan, and creating a data recovery plan.
  3. Delete data you are not using: You should get rid of both digital and physical copies of data you no longer need. In this way, you reduce the chances of a hacker discovering it and using it for profit.

Types of Data Security

Organizations can use a wide range of data security types to safeguard their data, devices, networks, systems, and users. Some of the most common types of data security, which organizations should look to combine to ensure they have the best possible strategy, include:


Data encryption is the use of algorithms to scramble data and hide its true meaning. Encrypting data ensures messages can only be read by recipients with the appropriate decryption key. This is crucial, especially in the event of a data breach, because even if an attacker manages to gain access to the data, they will not be able to read it without the decryption key. 

Data encryption also involves the use of solutions like tokenization, which protects data as it moves through an organization’s entire IT infrastructure.

Data Erasure

There will be occasions in which organizations no longer require data and need it permanently removed from their systems. Data erasure is an effective data security management technique that removes liability and the chance of a data breach occurring.

Data Masking

Data masking enables an organization to hide data by obscuring and replacing specific letters or numbers. This process is a form of encryption that renders the data useless should a hacker intercept it. The original message can only be uncovered by someone who has the code to decrypt or replace the masked characters.

Data Resiliency

Organizations can mitigate the risk of accidental destruction or loss of data by creating backups or copies of their data. Data backups are vital to protecting information and ensuring it is always available. This is particularly important during a data breach or ransomware attack, ensuring the organization can restore a previous backup.

Biggest Data Security Risks

Organizations face an increasingly complex landscape of security threats with cyberattacks being launched by more sophisticated attackers. Some of the biggest risks to data security include:

Accidental Data Exposure

Many data breaches are not a result of hacking but through employees accidentally or negligently exposing sensitive information. Employees can easily lose, share, or grant access to data with the wrong person, or mishandle or lose information because they are not aware of their company’s security policies.

Phishing Attacks

In a phishing attack, a cyber criminal sends messages, typically via email, short message service (SMS), or instant messaging services, that appear to be from a trusted sender. Messages include malicious links or attachments that lead recipients to either download malware or visit a spoofed website that enables the attacker to steal their login credentials or financial information. 

These attacks can also help an attacker compromise user devices or gain access to corporate networks. Phishing attacks are often paired with social engineering, which hackers use to manipulate victims into giving up sensitive information or login credentials to privileged accounts.

Insider Threats

One of the biggest data security threats to any organization is its own employees. Insider threats are individuals who intentionally or inadvertently put their own organization’s data at risk. They come in three types:

  1. Compromised insider: The employee does not realize their account or credentials have been compromised. An attacker can perform malicious activity posing as the user.
  2. Malicious insider: The employee actively attempts to steal data from their organization or cause harm for their own personal gain.
  3. Nonmalicious insider: The employee causes harm accidentally, through negligent behavior, by not following security policies or procedures, or being unaware of them.


Malicious software is typically spread through email- and web-based attacks. Attackers use malware to infect computers and corporate networks by exploiting vulnerabilities in their software, such as web browsers or web applications. Malware can lead to serious data security events like data theft, extortion, and network damage.


Ransomware attacks pose a serious data security risk for organizations of all sizes. It is a form of malware that aims to infect devices and encrypt the data on them. The attackers then demand a ransom fee from their victim with the promise of returning or restoring the data upon payment. Some ransomware formats spread rapidly and infect entire networks, which can even take down backup data servers.

Cloud Data Storage

Organizations are increasingly moving data to the cloud and going cloud-first to enable easier collaboration and sharing. But moving data to the cloud can make controlling and protecting it against data loss more difficult. The cloud is critical to remote working processes, where users access information using personal devices and on less secure networks. This makes it easier to accidentally or maliciously share data with unauthorized parties.

Critical Data Security Solutions

There is a wide range of solutions available to help organizations protect their information and users. These include: 

Access Controls

Access controls enable organizations to apply rules around who can access data and systems in their digital environments. They do this through access control lists (ACLs), which filter access to directories, files, and networks and define which users are allowed to access which information and systems.

Cloud Data Security

As organizations increasingly move their data to the cloud, they need a solution that enables them to:

  • Secure data while it is moving to the cloud
  • Protect cloud-based applications

This is even more crucial for securing dynamic working processes as employees increasingly work from home.

Data Loss Prevention

Data loss prevention (DLP) enables organizations to detect and prevent potential data breaches. It also helps them detect exfiltration and unauthorized sharing of information outside the organization, gain improved visibility of information, prevent sensitive data destruction, and comply with relevant data regulations.

Email Security

Email security tools allow organizations to detect and prevent email-borne security threats. This plays an important role in stopping employees from clicking on malicious links, opening malicious attachments, and visiting spoofed websites. Email security solutions can also provide end-to-end encryption on email and mobile messages, which keeps data secure.

Key Management

Key management involves the use of cryptographic keys to encrypt data. Public and private keys are used to encrypt then decrypt data, which enables secure data sharing. Organizations can also use hashing to transform any string of characters into another value, which avoids the use of keys.

Data Security Regulations

Data security allows organizations to comply with industry and state regulations that include:

General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)

The GDPR legislation is a piece of law that protects the personal data of European citizens. It aims to increase people's control and privacy rights over their data and places strict controls on how organizations process that information. GDPR ensures that organizations process personal data securely and protect it from unauthorized processing, accidental loss, damage, and destruction. It also carries a fine of 4% of a company’s annual turnover or €20 million, whichever is highest.

California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)

The CCPA aims to give consumers more control over how businesses collect their personal data. This includes the right to know what information a business has and how it is shared or used, the right to delete that information, the right to opt out of that data being sold to third parties, and the right to avoid discrimination for exercising these CCPA rights. Organizations must provide consumers with notice of their privacy practices.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

HIPAA is a federal law that protects patients’ health data from being exposed without their consent or knowledge. HIPAA contains a privacy rule, which addresses the disclosure and use of patient information and ensures that data is properly protected. It also has a security rule, which protects all individually identifiable health information that an organization creates, maintains, receives, or transmits electronically. 

Compliance failure can result in fines of up to $50,000 per offense, a maximum annual fine of $1.5 million, and a potential prison term of up to 10 years.

Learn more about Healthcare Data Security. 

Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act

Sarbanes-Oxley is a federal law that provides auditing and financial regulations for public organizations. The regulation protects employees, shareholders, and the public from making accounting errors and committing fraudulent financial activity. The primary aim of the regulation is to regulate auditing, financial reporting, and other business activity at publicly traded organizations. Its guidelines also apply to other enterprises, private organizations, and nonprofit firms.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

The PCI Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) ensures organizations securely process, store, and transmit credit card data. It was launched by the likes of American Express, Mastercard, and Visa to control and manage PCI security standards and enhance account security during online transactions. PCI DSS  is administered and managed by the PCI Security Standards Council (PCI SSC). Failure to comply can result in monthly fines of up to $100,000 and the suspension of card acceptance.

International Standards Organization (ISO) 27001

ISO 27001 is an international standard for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and improving information security management systems. It provides organizations with practical insight on how to develop comprehensive security policies and minimize their risks.

How Fortinet Can Help

Fortinet enables organizations to protect all their information through various types of data security solutions. Its comprehensive FortiGate solution provides DLPnext-generation firewalls (NGFWs), and SD-WAN tools, which give organizations everything they need to protect their data and users and prevent data breaches.


What is data security?

Data security is the process of safeguarding digital information throughout its entire life cycle to protect it from corruption, theft, or unauthorized access. It covers everything—hardware, software, storage devices, and user devices; access and administrative controls; and organizations’ policies and procedures.

Why is data security important?

Organizations are legally obliged to protect customer and user data from being lost or stolen and ending up in the wrong hands. Data cybersecurity is also crucial to preventing the reputational risk that accompanies a data breach. A high-profile hack or loss of data can result in customers losing trust in an organization and taking their business to a competitor.

What are the types of data security?

Some of the most common types of data security, which organizations should look to combine to ensure they have the best possible strategy, include: encryption, data erasure, data masking, and data resiliency.