data classification

Data classification is the process of organizing data into categories that make it is easy to retrieve, sort and store for future use.

A well-planned data classification system makes essential data easy to find and retrieve. This can be of particular importance for risk management, legal discovery and compliance. Written procedures and guidelines for data classification policies should define what categories and criteria the organization will use to classify data and specify the roles and responsibilities of employees within the organization regarding data stewardship. Once a data-classification scheme has been created, security standards that specify appropriate handling practices for each category and storage standards that define the data's lifecycle requirements need to be addressed.

Purpose of data classification

On top of making data easier to locate and retrieve, a carefully planned data classification system also makes essential data easy to manipulate and track. While some combination of all of the following attributes may be achieved, most businesses and data professionals focus on a particular goal when they approach a data classification project. The most common goals include but are not limited to the following:

  • Confidentiality. A classification system that values confidentiality above other attributes will mostly focus on security measures, including user permissions and encryption.
  • Integrity of data. A system that focuses on data integrity will require more storage, user permissions and proper channels of access.
  • Availability of data. When security and integrity do not need to be perfected, it is easiest to make data more easily accessible to users.

Importance of data classification

Data classification is a way to be sure that a company or organization is compliant with company, local or federal guidelines for data handling and a way to improve and maximize data security.

Common steps of data classification

Most commonly, not all data needs to be classified, and some is even better destroyed. It is important to begin by prioritizing which types of data need to go through the classification and reclassification processes.

Next, data scientists and other professionals create a framework within which to organize the data. They assign metadata or other tags to the information, which allow machines and software to instantly sort it in different groups and categories. It is important to maintain at every step that all data classification schemes adhere to company policies as well as local and federal regulations around the handling of the data.

In addition, companies need to always consider the ethical and privacy practices that best reflect their standards and the expectations of clients and customers:

  • Scan. This step involves taking stock of an entire database and making a digital game plan to tackle the organization process.
  • Identify. Anything from file type to character units to size of packets of data may be used to sort the information into searchable, sortable categories.
  • Separate. Once the data is categorized with a system the data science professional implements, it can be separated by those categories whenever the system is called to bring them up.

Unauthorized disclosure of information that falls within one of the protected categories of a company's data classification systems is likely a breach of protocol and, in some countries, may even be considered a serious crime. In order to enforce proper protocols, the protected data needs to first be sorted into its category of sensitivity.

Data classification can be used to further categorize structured data, but it is an especially important process for getting the most out of unstructured data by maximizing its usefulness for an organiztion.

Types of data classification

In computer programming, file parsing is a method of splitting packets of information into smaller sub-packets, making them easier to move, manipulate and categorize or sort. Different parsing styles help a system to determine what kind of information is input. For instance, dates are split up by day, month or year, and words may be separated by spaces.

Within data classification, there are many kinds of intervals that can be applied, including but not limited to the following:

  • Manual intervals. Using manual intervals involves a human going through the entire data set and entering class breaks by observing where they make the most sense. This is a perfectly fine system for smaller data sets, but may prove problematic for larger collections of information.
  • Defined intervals. Defined intervals specify a number of characters to include in a packet. For example, information might be broken into smaller packets every three units.
  • Equal intervals. Equal intervals divide an entire data set into a specified number of groups, distributing the amount of information over those groups evenly.
  • Quantiles. Using quantiles involves setting a number of data values allowed per class type.
  • Natural breaks. Programs are able to determine wherever large changes in the data occur on their own and use those indicators as a way of determining where to break up the data.
  • Geometric intervals. For geometric intervals, the same number of units is allowed per class category.
  • Standard deviation intervals. These are determined by how much the attributes of an entry differ from the norm. There are set number values to show each entry's deviations.
  • Custom ranges. Custom ranges can be created and set by a user and changed at any point.

Classification is an important part of data management that varies slightly from data characterization. Classification is all about sorting information and data, while categorization involves the actual systems that hold that information and data.

There are certain data classification standard categories. Each one of these standards may have federal and local laws about how they need to be handled. They inlcude the following:

  • Public information. This standard is maintained by state institutions and subject to disclosure as part of certain laws.
  • Confidential information. This may have legal restrictions about the way it is handled, or there may be other consequences around the way it is handled.
  • Sensitive information. This is any information stored or handled by state institutions that include authorization requirements and other rigid rules around its use.
  • Personal information. Generally, peoples' personal information is considered protected by law, and it needs to be handled following certain protocols and rules for proper use. Sometimes there are gaps between the moral requirements and contemporary legislative protections for their use.

A regular expression is an equation used to quickly pull any data that fits a certain category, making it easier to categorize all of the information that falls within those particular parameters.

Various tools may be used in data classification, including databases, business intelligence software and standard data management systems. Some examples of business intelligence software used by companies for data classification include Google Data Studio, Databox, Visme and SAP Lumira.

Benefits of data classification

Using data classification helps organizations maintain the confidentiality, ease of access and integrity of their data. It also helps to lower the danger of unstructured sensitive information becoming vulnerable to hackers, and it saves companies from steep data storage costs. Storing massive amounts of unorganized data is expensive and could also be a liability.

GDPR (EU General Data Protection Regulation)

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a set of international guidelines created to help companies and institutions handle confidential or sensitive data carefully and respectfully. It is made up of seven guiding principles: fairness, limited scope, minimized data, accuracy, storage limitations, rights and integrity. There are very steep penalties for not complying with these standards in some countries.

Examples of data classification

A number of different category lists can be applied to the information in a system. These lists of qualifications are also known as data classification schemes. One way to classify sensitivity categories might include classes such as secret, confidential, business-use only and public. An organization might also use a system that classifies information as based on the type of qualities it drills down into. For example, types of information might be content info that goes into the files looking for certain characteristics. Context-based classification examines applications, users, geographic location or creator info about the application. User classification is based on what an end user chooses to create, edit and review.

Data reclassification

As part of maintaining a process to keep data classification systems as efficient as possible, it is important for an organization to continuously update the classification system by reassigning the values, ranges and outputs to more effectively meet the organization's classification goals.

Regression algorithm vs. classification algorithm

Both regression and classification algorithms are standard data management styles. When it comes to organizing data, the biggest differences between regression and classification algorithms fall within the type of expected output. For any systems that will produce a single set of potential results within a finite range, classification algorithms are ideal. When the results of an algorithm are continuous, such as an output of time or length, using a regression algorithm or linear regression algorithm is more efficient.

This was last updated in October 2019

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