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Managing the risks of data sprawl

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For two decades, the security of federal information systems has been a mainstay on the Government Accountability Office's biennial governmentwide risk evaluation report -- the High-Risk List.

As more and more information is moved to the cloud and corresponding attack vectors open for cybercriminals, the majority of agency security concerns have understandably revolved around the prevention and detection of threats, both internal and external. However, while these threats are very real and not to be taken lightly, they do not wholly encompass the government's exposure to information-related risk.

As it currently stands, agencies have another significant gap in the security ecosystem -- the data itself.

More specifically, the problem is that too many agencies lack an enterprise-wide view of all of their information assets. Without a comprehensive understanding of agency-owned information, it is impossible to completely secure it against a multitude of cyberattacks, insider threats, general misuse, obscurity or a wide variety of other risks. After all, how are agencies supposed to be able to secure information if they don't even know what they have?

So how can agencies address the problem of unseen, non-governed information? The answer is by implementing a formalized risk framework that incorporates a blend of elements, from risk management, to automated retention, compliance and disposition. By doing so, agencies will gain control of their entire information lifecycle, from creation and identification to operationalization.

To establish an information framework, agencies must first be aware of the requirements and rules that govern the information they store. This will give them a high-level outline of their framework that will serve as the basis for improving their overall control of information.

However, with the vast web of rules and regulations that govern federal information management, it is very often easier said than done. That does not mean that agencies are without recourse. With the rapid development of technology and spread of automation, agencies can easily communicate their retention schedules and future changes to their schedules, keeping policy directly tied to content at an operational level. This will ensure that all subsequent steps maintain compliance with established retention policies.

The next, and perhaps most vital, step is to identify agency-owned information assets. This entails investigating and indexing both structured and unstructured data sources in order to identify stored records, and then designating assigned repositories for individual information assets. Without visibility into what information is stored, where it's stored, and in what format, agencies lack the knowledge they need to make optimized decisions related to compliance concerns, risk management and resource redundancy.

To address these problems, one of the most effective solutions is for agencies to build a data map. A data map is a database inventory of what systems, applications and repositories an agency has, where they are, and who is responsible for managing them. With a data map, agencies will be able to track systems and the records contained within, determine whether systems contain sensitive information, gain insight into how information assets are being used, apply advanced data analytics and keep information stores updated. The end goal for this step is to establish an ideal "should be" scenario at a macro level, before moving into the operational phase.

Following this phase, agencies will be ready to progress on to operationalizing policy and managing the granular realities of their data in a continuous fashion. At this point, agencies have already laid the necessary foundation for effective information governance. The challenge before them is now keeping that foundation applicable and up-to-date with a dynamic enterprise by consistently and regularly managing information, while evolving retention schedules and compliance mandates. By publishing and making that information available, either to staff or stakeholders via online portals and reports, or publishing directly to content repositories, agencies will have the solid metrics and data they need to prove compliance with government directives, citizen FOIA requests and everything in between.

After completing these steps, agencies will have taken monumental steps forward in managing their overall information risk profile. As the volume of collected data continues to grow exponentially, the threat of information obsolescence attributable to data sprawl remains one of the forefront risks for federal agencies.

Every agency needs to take immediate and proactive steps to manage the continual and rising growth of their data inventory. By keeping their information assets continuously managed and updated, they will not only be addressing the risks of unidentified and unutilized information assets, but will also be in a better position to manage internal and external threats to information security. Ultimately, properly managing agency information risk starts with properly managing agency information.

About the Author

Michael Lewis is vice president and general manager of Iron Mountain Government Services.

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