Data Scanning Explained: What Scanning Data Can Do For You

From 2010 to 2020, the amount of data being generated, stored and shared grew by nearly 5000%. During the COVID-19 pandemic, data breaches also spiked in the US. Makes sense, then, that protecting this valuable asset has become a top priority for businesses.

Enter data scanning — a powerful process that helps organizations identify and safeguard sensitive data.

In this blog post, we will delve into the concept of data scanning, its importance and the key benefits it brings to the table. We will also introduce some popular data scanning tools and differentiate between data scanning and data loss prevention.

What is Data Scanning?

Data scanning is the process of identifying sensitive data stored in various formats, such as:

The primary purpose of sensitive data scanning is to identify all PII-related data within an organization, determine the quantity and location of such data, and assess the security of the data. Scanning data might go by similar names such as sensitive data discovery tools, PII scanning tools and confidential data scanning.

Data scanning is done using tools that have different features, such as detecting sensitive data as it is stored or transferred. Some others can also evaluate the vulnerability of every piece of data and its importance regarding data security standards.

This results in an assessment report outlining data stores that require increased protection and methods to manage sensitive data and improve security.

(Read our primer on information security, aka InfoSec.)

The importance of scanning sensitive data scanning

Sensitive data scanning is essential for organizations to find sensitive data and ensure sensitive data protection from unauthorized access and malicious attacks. Data scanning also helps your business comply with regulations such as:

Unsecured sensitive data exposes organizations to significant risks, including cybercrime, financial losses and reputational damage. On average, as of 2022, a data breach costs $4.35 million, highlighting the crucial need for effective sensitive data scanning.

The consequences of neglecting to secure sensitive data can be detrimental to businesses, with long-lasting ramifications.

Data scanning vs. data loss prevention

While both data scanning and data loss prevention (DLP) are essential components of a comprehensive data protection strategy, they serve different purposes and functionalities:

  • Data scanning focuses on inspecting files to identify which ones contain confidential data.
  • DLP is a suite of tools and procedures to ensure that sensitive data is not lost, misused or accessed without authorization.

For example, when using a stateless DLP service like Google's, supplementary services such as a proxy need to be created for traffic management in conjunction with the DLP to identify personal data in the cloud. On the other hand, data scanning tools are specifically designed to recognize all PII-related data within an enterprise, enabling organizations to manage and protect their sensitive information more effectively.

Benefits & outcomes of data scanning

Let's dive deeper into the key benefits of data scanning (the outcomes you can expect) and explore how these advantages contribute to your organization's overall data security and protection strategy.

Minimize sensitive data breaches

Data scanning plays a crucial role in minimizing sensitive data breaches by several approaches. By conducting data scanning, you'll be detecting potential data leak risks within the organization, which can stop further damage to your data before they escalate into major issues.

Locates & protects unstructured data

Data scanning provides significant advantages in locating and protecting unstructured data, which often goes unnoticed in traditional data storage systems. By conducting regular scans, you can detect — and have control over — sensitive data stored in unstructured formats such as audio files, videos, emails, and documents.

Businesses can recognize and safeguard confidential information and ensure compliance with data regulations in three phases:

  1. Aggregating all available data.
  2. Identifying the data that’s integral to the problem at hand.
  3. Conducting a comprehensive inventory of all files stored as unstructured data.

Data scanning also aids in maintaining data quality by identifying data previously undetected in data lakes and repositories.

Facilitates data classification

Data classification, the process of organizing data into distinct groups based on their shared characteristics, is made easier with data scanning.

Data scanning enables automated discovery and organization of data into relevant groups based on their shared characteristics, streamlining data classification and making it more efficient. Better classified data can facilitate better downstream data analytics efforts, as having structured, categorized data can reduce data cleaning efforts.

Assists in data querying & retrieval

Data scanning can facilitate data querying and retrieval by traversing table items from beginning to end and assessing each item for the specified values.

Yes, data scanning can be a costly and time-intensive process for large tables. Still, it offers a more efficient way to search for and access data compared to traditional methods. Data scanning can be used to quickly locate and access data stored in silos not known much by data teams that would otherwise be difficult to find.

Ensures compliance with data regulations

Data scanning plays a vital role in ensuring compliance with data regulations. Scanning data enables privacy, security and governance programs that require comprehensive identification of sensitive information to protect data integrity.

Regular scanning for changes in data and notifying administrators when modifications are detected helps maintain data protection measures and meet regulatory requirements.

Examples of data scanning tools

Several data scanning tools are available in the market, each offering unique features and capabilities to help organizations identify and protect their sensitive data. In this section, we will explore three popular data scanning tools and discuss their features.

ManageEngine DataSecurity Plus

ManageEngine DataSecurity Plus is an advanced data scanning tool with modules for File Server Auditing, Data Leak Prevention and Data Risk Assessment. (The Data Risk Assessment module contains a sensitive data discovery tool that uses fingerprinting techniques to identify combinations of fields that may contain PII.)

The tool is suitable for businesses of all sizes and can help you stay GDPR and HIPAA-compliant.

Netwrix Auditor

Netwrix Auditor is a comprehensive security solution that helps organizations meet compliance and operational requirements by providing valuable insights into changes, access and configurations in a hybrid IT environment.

The tool examines changes, access, and configurations to identify and address security risks, comply with data regulations, and optimize operational efficiency. This data classification software also helps reduce exposure to data leaks by automated risk remediation and data classification through keywords and Regex matching.

Endpoint Protector PII Scanner

The Endpoint Protector PII Scanner is a cloud-based tool designed to help companies scan for sensitive data stored on Windows, Mac and Linux endpoints. The tool enables businesses to identify PII, Social Security Numbers (SSNs), and other confidential information remotely, ensuring regulatory compliance and preventing data loss.

(Learn all about endpoint monitoring.)

Who uses data scanning?

Data scanning is beneficial for any organization that stores sensitive data, particularly those that are subject to regulatory compliance requirements. (That’s most of them!) In addition to organizations in the finance and healthcare sectors, educational institutions, government agencies, and law firms should also consider using data scanning tools as part of their data security strategy.

Some roles that are involved in data scanning include:

  • Security analysts & IT professionals. Data scanning tools can help them identify security risks related to unstructured data and ensure compliance with data regulations.
  • Database administrators. Data scanning helps identify any irregularities in the database that could be indicative of a breach or other malicious activity.
  • Regulatory compliance officers. Regular scanning for sensitive data can help organizations meet their regulatory compliance obligations.
  • Privacy officers. Data scanning can be used to identify any personal or sensitive information stored in the organization, helping privacy officers ensure that all relevant data is secured and not being mishandled or abused.
  • Risk managers. Regular scanning for changes in data helps risk managers identify, prioritize and address potential risks related to sensitive data.
  • Auditors. Data scanning tools can help auditors quickly and accurately assess the state of an organization’s data security practices.

Scanning data is helpful for securing your information

Summing up: data scanning is a powerful process that offers numerous benefits for organizations, including minimizing the risk of data breaches, locating and protecting unstructured data, facilitating data classification, assisting in data querying and retrieval, and ensuring compliance with data regulations.

For these reasons, data scanning has become an indispensable component of a comprehensive data protection strategy.

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Austin Chia
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Austin Chia

Austin Chia is the Founder of AnyInstructor.com, where he writes about tech, analytics, and software. With his years of experience in data, he seeks to help others learn more about data science and analytics through content. He has previously worked as a data scientist at a healthcare research institute and a data analyst at a health-tech startup.