Data is one of the most sought-after commodities in the world. Created and collected by organizations of all types and sizes and stalked and stolen by equally varied criminal elements, data is a prized asset. Data access is vital to releasing the value of data and protecting it from unauthorized use. 

What is data access?

Data access refers to making it possible for users (i.e., people or systems) to retrieve, modify, copy, and move data between digital systems on demand, regardless of whether the data is in motion or at rest and where it is stored. Included in data access are security protocols that control who and what can use specific data and how it can be used.   

Data access policies help address common data management challenges, such as: 

  • Assigning and enforcing data access privileges and restrictions 
  • Managing data access controls 
  • Monitoring data access   

Three foundational principles for data access are codified in the CIA triad. Striking the right balance between the three components of the CIA triad to support ease of use and security requirements ensures optimal data access: 

  • Confidentiality
    Data access is restricted to authorized users.  
  • Integrity
    Data access operations should not compromise the integrity of data by allowing loss or errors to occur.
  • Availability
    Data access should be seamless and timely for authorized users.   

Data access involves a variety of systems, technologies, and processes, including: 

  • Application programming interfaces (APIs) that provide data access between software  
  • Data repositories (e.g., database management systems, data warehouses, data lakes, hard drives, and magnetic tape) to store and retrieve data 
  • Data security systems and protocols to prevent unauthorized access 
  • Data analytics tools to process data and present insights

There are two basic types of data access—random access and sequential access. 

  1. Random data access
    Random data access is a method used to retrieve data from any location on a storage disk rather than searching for data a user requests sequentially. Examples of random-access devices are hard drives, CD (compact disc) writers, DVDs (digital versatile disc), and RAM (random-access memory) devices. 
  2. Sequential data access
    Sequential data access uses a seek operation to move data on a storage drive until the required information is located. Data is read in sequential order. An example of a sequential data access device is magnetic tape.

Establishing data access requirements and standards

Data access requirements and standards are primarily driven by an organization’s internal security protocols and standards set forth by regulations and best practices. Regulations that dictate controls over data access include the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) details best practices and guidelines for data access controls. 

Best practices that should be considered when establishing data access requirements include: 

  • Define and enforce comprehensive security policies 
  • Encrypt data at rest and in transit  
  • Establish network access controls 
  • Require strong authentication 

The following are several core considerations when developing and implementing data access policies and controls. Note that the specifics will vary for each organization. Regardless of the approach, organizations are encouraged to make data access programs flexible to accommodate changing circumstances and use cases. 

Data categorization

To ensure that the right data access controls are applied to information, it needs to be categorized. The four main categories of data are:   

  1. Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
    Sensitive information about individuals, such as Social Security Number (SSN), passport number, and driver’s license number
  2. Sensitive business information
    Any information that would harm an organization if it were made public or acquired by a third party (e.g., competitor), such as intellectual property and trade secrets
  3. Low-risk information
    Data whose loss does not pose a security risk, such as anonymized customer data or publicly available
  4. System-generated data
    Information that systems generate automatically, such as network logs and error reports

Compliance requirements assessment

Data access policies must take into account applicable regulatory requirements, including: 

Data centralization

A centralized data structure approach facilitates and streamlines data access management. Storing all data in a central repository, such as a database management system or data warehouse, makes data more accessible and easier to protect from unauthorized access. 

Role-based access

Role-based access is an approach that assigns access rights to users based on certain criteria, such as job title and department. 

Data usage monitoring and logging

Data access should be monitored and recorded to ensure visibility and accountability. Logs are also helpful for audits and incident reviews.   

Why data access is necessary

Data access is vitally necessary for many reasons, including the following. 

Drives innovation

Data access gives organizations the information they need to create new products and services, improve existing offerings, and grow by identifying new opportunities.   

Fuels critical insights derived from data analysis

Reliable data access helps organizations use data to perform analysis that reveals trends, patterns, and insights that guide data-driven decision-making. 

Gives organizations a competitive edge

The broader the data access, the deeper the insights that can be discovered, which can give organizations a competitive advantage. Data-driven insights help organizations adapt to changes more quickly and effectively, as well as anticipate and respond to needs. 

Increases operational efficiency

Data access can improve operational efficiency by making information more easily and readily accessible, streamlining processes, and improving productivity.   

Supports legal and regulatory compliance

Data access rules are embedded in many laws and regulations. Implementing data access controls ensures that requirements are met. 

Why data access is important

  • Enables data-driven decision-making and drives innovation with insights derived from data analysis 
  • Enhances collaboration by providing unified data access 
  • Ensures data confidentiality, integrity, and availability  
  • Facilitates audits 
  • Improves operational efficiency  
  • Makes data available for reuse across multiple use cases 
  • Powers predictive artificial intelligence (AI) 
  • Prevents unauthorized data access 
  • Provides details about what was done to data and when 
  • Restricts data access to only authorized users 
  • Supports regulatory compliance (e.g., GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI-DSS) 

Data access turns inert information into an active asset

The power and value of data is indisputably beyond calculation. It is arguably an organization’s greatest asset. However, without data access, it is simply a jumble of powerless information.  

Data access brings information to life, allowing it to be used by people and systems. The speed and agility of data access enhance its power and capabilities, increasing the value of the information. 

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