Running any kind of business today without collecting user data is nearly impossible. All companies may hold confidential client information on their servers, whether they are privately owned enterprises or public healthcare institutions. Exposing such data to third parties or malicious actors could lead to hefty fines and irreversible damage to reputation, as Marriott Hotel leaks confirm.
Marriott was fined for not adhering to European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. The GDPR influence zone extends beyond European borders, and any business that handles EU citizens’ data is obligated to follow it. Moreover, it doesn’t matter whether the person in question is located outside of the European Union – if they hold EU citizenship, they are protected by GDPR.
In other words, most businesses are affected by this regulation. Simultaneously, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has similar laws designed after GDPR to protect California residents. It’s safe to assume that many nation-states will follow suit with their own alternatives to prevent data misuse.
GDPR clearly outlines the importance of data encryption, which is the process of converting plain text data into a coded language to prevent unauthorized access. In the current cybersecurity landscape, data exchange safety is a golden standard. The World Wide Web runs on a secure HTTPS protocol that uses AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) encryption algorithms. Password managers use even more sophisticated encryption algorithms, like XChaCha20.
It’s understandable if these names sound like gibberish to most business owners. However, it’s essential to have a dedicated person (or hire third-party professionals) who knows the different types of encryption and when to apply them.
Why Is Encryption Essential?
The Internet as we know it would not be possible without modern cryptography. We can perform online banking operations safely because they are protected from third-party spectators. Without encryption, cybercriminals could get credit card details, account passwords, and billing addresses just by using primitive online surveillance software.
Without encryption, the data flows and is stored in plain text format, which causes Lovecraftian nightmares for cybersecurity professionals. The Marriott hotel was not fined because talented cybercriminals managed to penetrate its systems – it was fined because it stored user data in plain text.
Storing confidential user data this way leaves it out in the open for anyone to grab. Hackers can use email addresses, telephone numbers, credit card details, or any other personally identifiable data for further malicious activity, such as Phishing scams. Businesses’ irresponsibility puts clients at risk, and it’s clear where the damage to reputation comes from.
What Business Data Should You Encrypt?
Two broad categories require data encryption: personally identifiable information (PII) and confidential business intellectual property. The former must be secured out of respect for the client’s privacy and to protect your clients from further harm.
Sometimes, it is one and the same. Consider the following example: when hackers stole and published 25,000 photographs from a Lithuanian cosmetic surgery clinic, it caused irreversible damage to the business reputation and severe stress and potential harassment to the victims.
Here’s a list of what’s considered personally identifiable information:
- First and last name;
- Date of birth;
- Home address;
- Driver’s license;
- Phone number;
- Medical data;
- Biometrical data;
- Internet Protocol (IP) address (in CCPA statutes).
All of this information must be encrypted if your business collects, stores, and utilizes it. However, it’s highly advisable to skip collecting any such data at all. GDPR advises collecting only the bare minimum required to maintain your services.
Encrypting confidential business intellectual property protects your trade secrets and your competitive advantage. Hackers sometimes steal this data to sell it to the highest bidder, but it wouldn’t be the first time unethical competitors paid cybercriminals to extract specific information.
Such data includes:
- Financial reports;
- Research and development data;
- Product release schedule;
- Copyrighted design layouts;
- Long-term business development documents.
If any of this lands in the wrong hands, it can cause tremendous damage to revenue or push a business out of competition. For example, Coca-Cola has been protecting its recipe for more than 130 years, and it’s considered one of the biggest trade secrets worldwide.
How to Protect Your Data
Essentially, businesses must hire a dedicated Information Security employee to handle encryption and other data security metrics. However, there are a few steps each business owner can take right now:
- Use additional third-party file encryption software to encrypt specific files, folders, or an entire hard drive;
- Protect all business-related accounts with a password manager and enable multi-factor authentication whenever possible;
- Ensure that hard drive encryption (like Windows BitLocker) is enabled on all BYOD devices;
- Ensure all employees use a VPN software for multiple devices whenever they work from home or public WiFi networks.
These general steps will significantly improve business data safety because hackers usually look for data in plain text. Breaking contemporary encryption algorithms would take decades with current technology, and until cybercriminals master Quantum cryptography, you can feel safe using discussed software.