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Information Classification in Information Security

Information security (abbreviated to InfoSec) refers to the processes, practices, and tools intended to secure data from unauthorized access, modification, use, disclosure, inspection, disruption, recording, or destruction. When data is stored or transferred from one physical location or machine to another, InfoSec applies to both. Information security is often used interchangeably with cybersecurity. However, the two terms are different. Cybersecurity is an umbrella term referring to protecting IT assets from attacks in cyberspace. On the other hand, information security deals with protecting data regardless of its form in the cyber realm and beyond.

Information security comes into the picture because it is paramount for organizations to categorize information and maintain confidentiality. Moreover, information or data classifications are essential since all information/data are not equally critical or relevant to an organization. This article explores the fundamentals of data classifications in information security.

What is Information Classification?

The term information classification is pretty self-explanatory; it is the process of classifying information/data into relevant categories. The primary logic behind classifying information is that not all information is equally important or relevant to an organization. Therefore, categorizing information into different classes helps organizations keep data safe and ensure that only appropriate personnel access it. Moreover, some types of information are sensitive, require more confidentiality than others, and must therefore be protected from unauthorized access or misuse. Now, this is where information classification in information security comes into action.

Criteria of Information Classification

When dealing with information security and classifying information, one of the first questions an organization faces is – what criteria should the information be classified on? Although classifying information sounds like a cakewalk, the task becomes highly complex when organizations deal with voluminous and critical data. 

However, there are four criteria for information classification that make this process easier:

  1. Age: Under the age criteria, information is classified depending on whether its value decreases over time.
  2. Value: Value-based classification entails that information will be classified if it is valuable to the organization.
  3. Useful life: Under this criteria, information is considered valuable if it is available to make changes as per requirements.
  4. Personal association: Under the personal association criteria, information can be classified if it is of personal significance to any individual or falls under the ambit of privacy law.

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Levels of Information Classification

Depending on the risk of harm or loss if disclosed, organizations must assign value to information for efficient classification. Based on value, organizations have discrete levels of data classification to ensure information security. These are as follows:

  • Public information: Public information is accessible to everyone, both within and outside the organization.
  • Internal information: Internal information is accessible to all employees within the organization.
  • Restricted information: As evident from the name, restricted information is available to select employees in the organization.
  • Classified information: Classified information has restricted access and is governed by law or regulation. Government institutions typically use the term classified information as a legal term.
  • Confidential information: Confidential information demands the maximum level of security measures. The onus of preserving the confidentiality of such information falls on all entities included in or affected by the data.

Steps of Information Classification

Efficient information classification in information security is the bedrock of keeping your organization’s data assets secure, organized, and accessible. However, classifying information can be challenging when organizations deal with a high volume and variety of data. 

The following steps outline the process of information classification that makes it easier for organizations to understand data assets and determine the appropriate level of security for each of them:

  1. Enter information assets into an inventory

The first step in information classification involves collating the data into an asset register or inventory. In addition, organizations must also decide the data ownership and its format (paper documents, electronic documents, databases, etc.) at this step.

  1. Assigning value to the information assets

Assigning value to information assets means classifying information depending on its value. Accordingly, organizations must classify information as confidential, classified, restricted, internal, and public. Typically, information assets with a higher vulnerability to risks are assigned greater confidentiality. 

  1. Labeling information assets

Once the information has been classified based on value, the next step is to create a format for labeling the data. The labeling system must be consistent, reliable, simple, and easily understandable, irrespective of whether it’s digital or physical data. For instance, digital files can be labeled in alphabetic or numeric order, whereas paper documents can be marked on the cover page and subsequent pages. Additionally, visual labels in the header and footer of documents can help personnel handling the information be more attentive to the security level or confidentiality.

  1. Handling information assets

Once the organization has categorized and labeled information assets, the final step is to establish rules to protect the information based on the classification. It also includes implementing security controls for information storage, sharing, and disposal. The controls must be in proportion to the value and sensitivity of the information. 

For instance, public information can be stored in an open cabinet accessible to all or published on the organization’s official website. On the contrary, classified information must be kept in a more secure location or server or physically guarded by security professionals.

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Benefits of Classifying Information

Following are the main benefits of information classification in information security:

  • Security

The most significant benefit of information classification is security. Since the main idea behind classifying information is protecting confidentiality, it enables organizations to chalk out the appropriate security measures based on the type of information. With digitalization dominating almost all industries and sectors, protecting digital information adds another layer of complexity. However, with measures such as firewalls, data encryption, storage on secure servers, and abidance with data protection standards, organizations can significantly reduce the risks of data thefts and data breaches.

  • Efficiency 

Data classification in information security is not all about protecting confidentiality. Organizations that have their data organized and classified can quickly locate and retrieve information when needed, increasing the efficiency of daily operations. Moreover, information classification entails that different groups within the organization actively engage in discovering data that is created, handled, and stored. It essentially leads stakeholders to understand the organization and presents an opportunity to rethink if the information adds value or decreases operating efficiency. 

  • Compliance

By labeling data as sensitive, information classification in information security enables organizations to protect data from threats and ensure compliance with data protection audits. Accurately classifying information, especially those governed by laws and regulations, allows organizations to mitigate the risk of data theft or loss and minimize non-compliance penalties. 

Conclusion

Data classification in information security help organizations to assign appropriate data protection measures to enhance data security and ensure regulatory compliance. It involves protecting information from unauthorized access and includes steps to prevent unwarranted access and use of data actively. With data organized and accessible when needed, classifying information can also make an organization’s day-to-day operations more efficient. Most importantly, information classification promotes awareness of cyber threats and the need for information security management at all levels within the organization. 

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