If personally identifiable information (PII) falls into the wrong hands, it could have devastating consequences for both you and the affected individuals. But what if you could transform that information so that it would be useless to any attacker? That’s exactly what PII masking seeks to do.

So what is PII data masking exactly, and how does PII masking help safeguard your sensitive and confidential information from PII data breaches? Keep reading for all the answers.

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What is PII Data Masking?

Personally, identifiable information is any data that someone could use to identify an individual or that helps someone infer that identity. Examples of PII include (but are not limited to) a person’s name, address, date of birth, social security number, health records, and payment card information.

Obviously, PII should only be in the hands of trusted individuals and organizations who will use it for the right purposes. So how can you protect the PII that you handle, store and process, especially now that PII data breaches are becoming more common and more severe?

In many cases, data masking is the answer. Data masking is the term for a collection of techniques that obfuscate the contents of an original dataset, replacing them with modified values to prevent the leakage of PII. Methods of data masking include:

  • Replacing sensitive information with blanks, Xs, or other placeholder characters.
  • Shuffling the order of characters within a word or phrase.
  • Substituting numerical values (e.g., phone numbers or credit card numbers) with randomly generated data.
  • Encrypting data by converting it to a ciphertext representation that is meaningless to anyone without the corresponding decryption key.

Why Should You Use PII Data Masking?

1. Guarding against PII data breaches

IBM’s 2020 “Cost of a Data Breach” report estimates that the average cost of a data breach is $3.9 million, or $8.6 million for companies in the U.S. This figure breaks down to a pricey $150 per individual record. All this is to say that PII data breaches can be very expensive — not only in the immediate aftermath as you lose productivity patching vulnerabilities but also in the long run in terms of lawsuits and reputational damage.

The most obvious reason to use PII data masking is to protect your organization and your customers in the event of any PII data breaches. If attackers manage to break through your IT defenses and exfiltrate PII, it will make all the difference in the world whether that information is masked or not. If the PII stolen in a data breach has undergone proper masking, it will be of little use to anyone without knowledge of the masking process and how to reverse it (if it even can be — many data masking techniques are irreversible).

2. Defending against insider threats

Organizations not only have to worry about the risk of external PII data breaches but also insider threats, which may pose an even greater danger. According to a report by Risk Based Security, insiders are responsible for roughly 20 percent of security incidents but 67 percent of exposed data.

Not all insider threats are due to malicious or disgruntled employees; some incidents happen because of simple accidents or negligence, such as lost passwords or devices. However, the more people within your organization who have access to PII, the greater the chance that someone will expose it — unless you take proactive measures such as data masking.

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3. Protecting data sent to third parties

Beyond external attackers and insider threats, there’s another source of PII risk: third parties such as contractors, subcontractors, and consultants. These third parties often need access to PII in order to do their jobs for you. But as mentioned above, widening the circle of people with access to PII also increases the risk of unintentional exposure.

In some cases, you may be able to mask the information you send to these third parties, allowing them to do their jobs without threatening the integrity and privacy of PII data. If you’ve chosen a reversible data masking technique (such as pseudonymization), you can then convert the processed, masked data they send you back to its original contents.

4. Using production data in non-production environments

Data is a precious commodity for organizations of all sizes and industries, and that includes PII. Software testing and training customer service representatives are just two examples of where PII data can be useful for an organization’s internal operations. Generating fake test data is possible, but it may not be realistic enough for these activities.

Using PII data from production environments for other activities, such as testing and training, is much more advisable if the data masking occurs in advance. PII data masking helps control the spread of sensitive information, while still providing datasets that are plausible enough for business-critical operations.

5. Complying with data security regulations

Laws and regulations such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) govern how organizations can store, process, and analyze personal data. The GDPR, for example, applies to any organization using the personal data of EU citizens and residents, while HIPAA applies to healthcare providers handling patients’ medical records.

Data security and privacy regulations place strict limits on how organizations collect and keep PII, and they also impose harsh penalties in the event of a PII data breach or accidental exposure. However, many of these regulations are not applicable to PII that you pseudonymize or anonymize (e.g., through data masking).

According to the GDPR’s Recital 26, for example: “The principles of data protection should therefore not apply to anonymous information, namely information which does not relate to an identified or identifiable natural person or to personal data rendered anonymous in such a manner that the data subject is not or no longer identifiable.” Using data masking is therefore a way to avoid the strict requirements of regulations like the GDPR while still preserving much of the data’s utility.

How Xplenty Can Help Mask PII

 

Xplenty is a powerful, feature-rich ETL and data integration platform that makes it easy to build pipelines between your data sources and your cloud data warehouse. With its simple drag-and-drop interface and over 100 pre-built connectors, Xplenty offers no-code and low-code ETL solutions for anyone who needs to integrate their enterprise data, no matter their technical level or background.

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Most importantly for data security, Xplenty allows you to define a rich variety of data transformations as your data flows from source to target. With Xplenty, you can use these transformations to mask your data before it travels to its destination, keeping it safe from prying eyes.

Ready to learn more about how Xplenty can help mask PII and sensitive data? Get in touch with our team of data experts today for a chat about your business objectives or to start your 14-day pilot of the Xplenty platform.