Automation Can Be The Strongest Link In Protecting Your Most Sensitive Data.

A real-world guide to securing sensitive data with IT automation

by Erin Geiger, Director of Content at Lumos

So, let’s say you own a store. And at the end of every workday, you lock up and head home – register, expensive inventory, cash box, front and back doors, even one of those pull-down security gates, depending on the neighborhood. And of course, you turn on the security system. You’re all set, right?

…Except for the multiple employees (or sketchy former employees) who have the alarm codes or extra keys. And just happen to leave them sitting in their car, on the dining room table, or just happen to drop them on the sidewalk. Or the maintenance worker who came in overnight and forgot to lock the back door.

The point? Your security is only as good as your weakest link. And when it comes to your organization’s most sensitive data, let’s face it: you’ve got a lot of weak links. How many employees – or former employees – have access to your data? Should they? And for how long? What if, on the way out the door, an employee who should have been de-provisioned deletes virtual machines? Shuts down servers? Or flat-out steals information?

The rise in recent data breaches and cyber threats is unprecedented – and those are only the ones you’re hearing about. As an IT professional, you know that IT service management and safeguarding sensitive data have become top priorities for organizations of all sizes. And it’s a huge task for IT operations. But what if it all got locked down… automatically?

One of the most effective strategies for achieving robust data security is through IT automation. By automating security processes and workflows, you can proactively protect sensitive data, reduce human error, and respond swiftly to emerging threats. With that said, let’s get into some best practices for securing sensitive data with IT automation, including key principles and real-world examples.

Why Should You Care?

Well, first off, your job is on the line. And if you’re in any way responsible for a breach, it could damage your reputation, the reputation of your organization, and potentially your whole career. So, protecting sensitive data is critical, and includes personal information, financial records, intellectual property, and any data that, if compromised, could have severe consequences for your organization. Data breaches not only result in financial losses but also damage reputations and erode trust.

In addition, the repercussions of data breaches often go beyond financial losses. They can lead to regulatory fines, legal liabilities, and damage to an organization's brand and customer trust. To prevent these negative outcomes, organizations must prioritize data security.

What IT Automation Can Do For You.

IT automation plays a pivotal role in modern data security strategies. It provides a proactive and systematic approach to safeguarding sensitive data by reducing your attack surface, enabling real-time threat detection and response, and ensuring compliance with data protection regulations. Here are key ways IT automation contributes to data security:

1. Continuous Monitoring: Automation tools can continuously monitor network traffic, system logs, and user activity to identify anomalies and potential security breaches.

2. Rapid Incident Response: When security incidents occur, automation can trigger immediate responses, such as isolating affected systems, blocking malicious IP addresses, and generating alerts for security teams.

3. User Access Control: Automation of role-based access control ensures that users only have access to the data and systems they need for their specific roles, reducing the risk of unauthorized data access.  

4. Simplify On- and Offboarding of Staff: With automated user provisioning, you can automatically grant access during the onboarding process – and revoke access with offboarding automation.

5. Patch Management: IT automation can automate the deployment of security patches and updates, reducing the window of vulnerability to known vulnerabilities.

6. IT Support: Eliminate tickets and prioritize high-risk events/issues with real-time triage through automated IT support.

7. Data Encryption: Automation can enforce encryption policies, ensuring that sensitive data remains protected at rest and in transit.

8. Log Management and Analysis: Automation tools centralize log collection, analysis, and reporting, making it easier to detect unusual activities and maintain accountability.

9. Identity and Access Management (IAM): Automation helps manage user identities and access controls, ensuring that users are authenticated and authorized correctly.

Best Practices for Securing Sensitive Data with IT Automation

Now that we’re on the same page with what IT automation can do, let's delve into some best practices and real-world steps for securing sensitive data with IT automation, so you’re set up for success:

1. Identify and Classify Sensitive Data: First, you must identify and classify your organization’s sensitive data. This means understanding what data is sensitive, where it resides, and who has access to it. Data classification helps prioritize security measures and tailor automation efforts to protect the most critical information.

2. Implement Strong Access Controls: Next, implement robust access controls and authentication mechanisms. Automation should manage user access through IAM systems, enforce strong password policies, and incorporate multi-factor authentication (MFA) to enhance user identity verification.

3. Employ Encryption: Then, automate the encryption of sensitive data both at rest and in transit. Ensure that encryption keys are managed securely, and automate key rotation to maintain the confidentiality and integrity of data.

4. Continuous Monitoring and Alerts: Leverage automation to continuously monitor the environment for security threats and suspicious activities. Set up automated alerts to notify security teams when anomalies or potential breaches are detected.

5. Provision Users: Use an automated user provisioning tool to ensure that from first day to last, users only have access to the apps and data they need to do their jobs. Automating also allows you to track access and usage.  

6. Regularly Patch and Update Systems: Automate the patch management process to keep systems, applications, and software up-to-date. This reduces the risk of vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers.

7. Log Management and Analysis: Automate the collection, storage, and analysis of logs from various sources, including servers, applications, and security devices. Use automation to correlate and analyze log data to identify security incidents.

8. Incident Response Automation: Create incident response playbooks and automate response actions for common security incidents. Incident response automation can include isolating compromised systems, blocking malicious IP addresses, and initiating forensic investigations.

9. User Behavior Analytics (UBA): Leverage automation to implement UBA solutions that analyze user behavior patterns. Automation can trigger alerts and responses when user behavior deviates from established norms, helping detect insider threats.

10. Regularly Back Up Data: Yes, this old chestnut. Automate data backup processes to ensure data availability and recovery in case of a security incident or data loss. Store backups in secure, off-site locations.

11. Integrate Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR): Integrate SOAR platforms into your security automation strategy. These platforms centralize security automation efforts, orchestrate complex workflows, and provide a unified dashboard for incident management.

12. Compliance: Automate compliance checks and reporting to ensure adherence to regulatory requirements. This includes automating audits, generating compliance reports, and demonstrating compliance to auditors.

13. Third-Party Risk Management: Automate the assessment of third-party vendors and partners. Regularly evaluate their security practices and ensure they meet your organization's security standards.

What About Some Real-World Examples of IT Automation for Data Security?

User Account Management: We mentioned it above but it bears repeating: Automation can streamline the onboarding and offboarding of employees. When an employee joins the organization, automation can provision the necessary access and permissions. Conversely, when an employee leaves, automation can de-provision access immediately, reducing the risk of unauthorized data access.

Threat Detection and Response: Automation tools can detect unusual patterns in network traffic or user behavior and automatically trigger alerts and responses. For instance, if a user attempts multiple failed login attempts within a short period, automation can lock the account and notify the security team.

Patch Management: Automating the deployment of security patches and updates ensures that critical vulnerabilities are addressed promptly. Automation tools can schedule updates during non-business hours to minimize disruption.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP): DLP solutions can be integrated with automation to monitor and prevent the unauthorized transfer of sensitive data. When a DLP policy is violated, automation can block the transfer and notify administrators.

Incident Response Playbooks: Automation can facilitate incident response by executing predefined playbooks. For example, in the event of a suspected malware infection, an automated playbook can isolate the infected system, initiate a scan, and notify the incident response team.

What Challenges Should You Be Ready For?

Just being real here. While IT automation offers numerous benefits for securing sensitive data, it also comes with challenges and considerations:

It’s complex. Implementing automation can be complex, requiring careful planning and coordination to avoid disruptions and errors.

You have to make sure it plays nice with legacy systems. Confirm that any automation tools and processes are well-integrated with existing security infrastructure and technologies.

There’s a learning curve. You may be automating processes, but not learning. Adequate training and skill development are essential for managing automation tools effectively.

Even with automation there’s upkeep. Regularly monitor and maintain automation scripts and workflows to ensure they remain effective and up-to-date.

Understand all privacy concerns. Be mindful of privacy regulations when implementing automation, especially when handling personal data.

From automated user provisioning and role-based access control to IT service management and offboarding automation, securing sensitive data with IT automation isn’t just a good practice; it's a necessity. By automating critical security processes, you can help your organization better protect sensitive data, reduce vulnerabilities, and respond rapidly to security incidents.

However, implementing automation requires careful planning, ongoing monitoring, and integration with existing security measures. As cyber threats continue to evolve, IT automation will remain a key strategy for safeguarding sensitive data and maintaining the trust of customers, partners, and stakeholders. But most of all, whether you’re the last one out the door or not, you’ll know that you’ve done your best to mind the store.