Over the past 7 years or so I’ve talked with thousands of IT professionals working on various types of data security projects. If I were forced to pull out one single thread from all those discussions it would have to be the sheer intimidating potential of many of these projects. While there are plenty of self-constrained projects, in many cases the security folks are tasked with implementing technologies or changes that involve monitoring or managing on a pretty broad scale. That’s just the nature of data security – unless the information you’re trying to protect is already in isolated use, you have to cast a pretty wide net.

But a parallel thread in these conversations is how successful and impactful well-defined data security projects can be. And usually these are the projects that start small, and grow over time.

Way back when I started the blog (long before Securosis was a company) I did a series on the Information-Centric Security Cycle (linked from the Research Library). It was my first attempt to pull the different threads of data security together into a comprehensive picture, and I think it still stands up pretty well.

But as great as my inspired work of data-security genius is (*snicker*), it’s not overly useful when you have to actually go out and protect, you know, stuff. It shows the potential options for protecting data, but doesn’t provide any guidance on how to pull it off.

Since I hate when analysts provide lofty frameworks that don’t help you get your job done, it’s time to get a little more pragmatic and provide specific guidance on implementing data security. This Pragmatic Data Security series will walk through a structured and realistic process for protecting your information, based on hundreds of conversations with security professionals working on data security projects.

Before starting, there’s a bit of good news and bad news:

  1. Good news: there are a lot of things you can do without spending much money.
  2. Bad news: to do this well, you’re going to have to buy the right tools. We buy firewalls because our routers aren’t firewalls, and while there are a few free options, there’s no free lunch.

I wish I could tell you none of this will cost anything and it won’t impose any additional effort on your already strained resources, but that isn’t the way the world works.

The concept of Pragmatic Data Security is that we start securing a single, well-defined data type, within a constrained scope. We then grow the scope until we reach our coverage objectives, before moving on to additional data types. Trying to protect, or even find, all of your sensitive information at once is just as unrealistic as thinking you can secure even one type of data everywhere it might be in your organization.

As with any pragmatic approach, we follow some simple principles:

  • Keep it simple. Stick to the basics.
  • Keep it practical. Don’t try to start processes and programs that are unrealistic due to resources, scope, or political considerations.
  • Go for the quick wins. Some techniques aren’t perfect or ideal, but wipe out a huge chunk of the problem.
  • Start small.
  • Grow iteratively. Once something works, expand it in a controlled manner.
  • Document everything. Makes life easier come audit time.

I don’t mean to over-simplify the problem. There’s a lot we need to put in place to protect our information, and many of you are starting from scratch with limited resources. But over the rest of this series we’ll show you the process, and highlight the most effective techniques we’ve seen.

Tomorrow we’ll start with the Pragmatic Data Security Cycle, which forms the basis of our process.