June 26, 2023

­­Data classification is an essential concept in the realm of cyber security. It refers to the process of organizing data into specific categories and assigning appropriate security measures to each category. This practice helps to safeguard sensitive data and prevent unauthorized access. In this blog, we will discuss the importance of how data classification can aid in achieving ABAC (Attribute-Based Access Control) and Zero Trust Security. We will look at the fundamental concepts of data classification, its techniques and tools, its application in access control and authorization, and the benefits of using data classification for ABAC and Zero Trust Security.

What is Data Classification and How Does it Work?

Data classification is the process of identifying sensitive data, categorizing it, and assigning the appropriate level of security based on the level of sensitivity. This process can be manually performed, automated, or use a combination thereof. Data classification can be done based on various parameters such as data type, sensitivity level, user access, and other relevant factors. Once data is classified, it is assigned the necessary level of security, enabling appropriate access and protecting it from unauthorized use.

How Data Classification Can Help with Access Control & Authorization?

Access control and authorization is a significant aspect of network security. Data classification plays a crucial role in ensuring that only authorized users can access sensitive data. By categorizing data based on its sensitivity, the user’s identity, and the context of access, data classification helps to implement an access control model that is more precise and secure. It ensures that only users with the right permissions and clearance levels can access specific data, thereby reducing the risk of data loss or exploitation.

Data Classification Techniques & Tools to Secure Your Network

Three main techniques for classification are keyword, rule, and machine-learning-based classification. Each of these approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses.

1. Keyword-based classification: This technique involves categorizing documents based on the keywords and phrases they contain. Document classifiers using this method scan the text for predetermined keywords and phrases and assign them to predefined categories. This technique is very efficient in assigning documents to categories based on their content, making it easy for users to locate documents quickly. However, it may not be accurate in predicting complex classifications that involve multiple categories or ambiguous keywords that have multiple meanings.

2. Rule-based classification: In this approach, document classifiers use a set of pre-decided rules to categorize documents. The rule-based system is designed to consider and analyze certain criteria and decide based on those criteria. These criteria may include keywords, patterns, context, and metadata. The rule-based approach is efficient and accurate, as it enables classifiers to make decisions based on preset criteria. However, it may not be effective in handling large amounts of data or multiple categories, as the system may become too complex.

3. Machine-learning-based classificationThis technique uses machine learning algorithms to learn from labeled training data to predict new classifications. Machine learning classifiers are capable of recognizing patterns in large datasets, and they can learn and adapt to new data as it becomes available. This approach is highly accurate in predicting complex classifications but requires a large amount of labeled data for training and may not be as efficient as the keyword or rule-based methods. Organizations should choose a document classification technique that best suits their needs. Keyword-based method is suitable for simple classifications and small datasets, rule-based method is effective for multiple criteria and complex classifications, while machine-learning-based classification is best for large datasets, complex classifications and evolving classification rules.

To effectively implement data classification and ensure the security of sensitive information, organizations can leverage various tools and technologies. These tools serve as essential components in securing data, preventing data breaches, and protecting access to sensitive information.

As discussed earlier, data classification plays a crucial role in categorizing data based on its sensitivity. Once data is classified, organizations can employ different techniques to enforce access controls and safeguard their valuable assets.

Tools such as Data Loss Prevention (DLP) software, data encryption, and access control systems can help organizations to secure their data, prevent data breaches and protect access to sensitive information.

1. Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Software: This software is designed to identify, monitor, and protect sensitive data in an organization’s computer network, applications, and databases. By using machine learning-based classification, DLP software can analyze large volumes of data and identify data that falls within the scope of sensitive information. For example, it can identify and classify data containing personally identifiable information (PII), financial data, or intellectual property. DLP software can then put in place controls to govern access to this data, restrict its transmission over unsecured networks, and monitor its usage to prevent data breaches.

2. Data Encryption: This is the process of encoding data to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information. Encryption works by converting plain text data into code that can only be accessed by someone with the right key or password. Keyword-based and rule-based classification can help organizations identify specific files and data that need to be encrypted. By encrypting sensitive data, an organization can protect it from cybercriminals and reduce the risk of data breaches.

3. Access Control Systems: Access control systems are tools that help organizations manage who has access to what information. These systems can be used to restrict access to sensitive data based on user roles, job functions, and other criteria. By using rule-based classification, access control systems can identify specific data categories that require restricted access. For example, access to customer data can be restricted to only customer service representatives or sales personnel. Access control systems can help organizations protect sensitive data and limit the risk of data breaches resulting from unauthorized access.

Using Data Classification for ABAC & Zero Trust Security

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), “an access control method where subject requests to perform operations on objects are granted or denied based on assigned attributes of the subject, assigned attributes of the object, environment conditions, and a set of policies that are specified in terms of those attributes and conditions.”

Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC) provides access to users based on who they are rather than what they do: for example, the business unit they work in and how they were hired. Attributes allow for an easier control structure because permissions can be based on the user’s type, location, department and so on, mirroring the physical aspects of the business. By looking at a user’s attributes—information that is already known and often stored in an HR system—ABAC permits you to express a rich, complex access control policy more simply. For example, if a user named David is promoted from the Marketing to management, his access permissions will be updated because his business attributes changed, not because someone remembered that he had admin permissions and took the time to update a configuration file somewhere.

For more information about ABAC, watch video: What is Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC)?

In the context of ABAC and Zero Trust Security models, data classification serves as foundation for implementing effective access control and ensuring that only authorized individuals have access to sensitive data.

One of the major principles of Zero Trust Security is the concept of least privilege access. This principle ensures that users are only granted the minimum access privileges necessary to perform their tasks. Data classification facilitates the implementation of this principle by enabling organizations to differentiate between sensitive and non-sensitive data. By categorizing data based on its sensitivity, organizations can establish more granular access control policies and enforce strict permissions for sensitive information on a need-to-know basis.

For example, in a Zero Trust Security approach, sensitive data like PII, financial records, or intellectual property is classified as highly sensitive. This means it requires strict access controls. To implement the ZTA principle of “never trust, always verify,” we use Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) along with data classification and dynamic authorization. ABAC considers various attributes, such as user roles and clearances. Only users with specific attributes, like specific roles or clearances, are granted access to sensitive data. This ensures that access is based on verified attributes rather than blindly trusting users. Data classification helps identify the sensitivity of the data. Highly sensitive data, like PII, has stringent access controls, while non-sensitive data has more relaxed controls.

Dynamic authorization continuously verifies access requests in real-time. Even if a user had access before, their attributes are checked every time they request access to sensitive data. This ensures that access is always verified and not taken for granted.

By combining ABAC, data classification, and dynamic authorization, we enforce the ZTA principle, never trust always verify. Upon access user attributes are continuously verified, this reduces the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.

By employing data classification within the context of ABAC and Zero Trust Security models, organizations can ensure that sensitive data is adequately protected and accessed only by authorized individuals. This approach enhances security posture, minimizes the risk of data breaches or unauthorized access, and helps organizations comply with regulatory requirements. Additionally, data classification enables organizations to prioritize their security efforts and allocate resources more effectively by focusing on protecting the most critical and sensitive information.

What are the Benefits of Using Data Classification for ABAC & Zero Trust Security?

Data classification plays a crucial role in achieving the benefits of Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) and Zero Trust Security by providing the necessary foundation and structure for effective data protection. Here’s how data classification helps achieve these benefits:

 Improved Access Controls: Data classification involves categorizing data based on its sensitivity. By labeling data with appropriate classification levels, organizations can implement ABAC policies that enforce granular access controls. ABAC allows access decisions to be based on attributes such as user roles, permissions, and data classifications. This ensures that only authorized individuals with the right attributes can access sensitive data, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.

2. Reduced Risk of Exposure and Data Breaches: Proper data classification helps identify and protect sensitive information effectively. Zero Trust Security relies on the principle of assuming zero trust for all users, devices, and networks. By integrating data classification into the security architecture, organizations can implement robust authentication, authorization, and encryption mechanisms to secure critical resources. Data classification ensures that sensitive data is given extra layers of protection, reducing the risk of exposure and data breaches.

3. Increased Efficiency in Managing Sensitive Data: Data classification provides organizations with a clear understanding of the sensitivity and value of their data. This knowledge enables them to prioritize their security efforts and allocate resources more efficiently. By focusing on protecting high-value data, organizations can develop targeted security policies and streamline data management processes. This efficiency allows for better resource utilization and reduces the likelihood of mishandling or overlooking critical data.

4. Reduced Complexity in Deploying Security Measures: Data classification simplifies the deployment of security measures by providing a clear framework for protection. By categorizing data based on sensitivity, organizations can design their security infrastructure using ABAC and Zero Trust principles. This approach allows them to focus on protecting the most critical data, making the implementation of security measures more straightforward. The reduced complexity leads to lower management overhead, easier risk assessments, and improved overall security posture.

ZTA Architecture Overview

5. Compliance with Regulatory Requirements: Data classification helps organizations meet regulatory and compliance requirements. Many regulations, such as NIST, CMMC, CUI, FCI, GDPR, and HIPAA, require organizations to identify and protect sensitive data appropriately. Data classification enables organizations to identify, categorize, and apply appropriate controls to sensitive data based on regulatory guidelines. This ensures compliance with relevant standards, mitigates legal risks, and helps avoid penalties and reputational damage associated with non-compliance.

In summary, data classification facilitates improved access controls, reduced risk of data breaches, increased efficiency in managing sensitive data, simplified security deployments, and compliance with regulatory requirements. By leveraging data classification in conjunction with ABAC and Zero Trust Security, organizations can establish robust data protection measures and mitigate the risks associated with unauthorized access and data breaches compliance.

Start Using Data Classification Today to Enhance Your Network Security.

In summary, data classification is a critical practice in the realm of network security. It helps organizations to identify and protect sensitive data, enabling them to reduce the risk of data exposure and data breaches. By using data classification techniques and tools, organizations can implement effective access controls, comply with regulatory requirements, and stay one step ahead of potential cyber threats. With the ever-increasing risk of cyber-attacks, organizations of all sizes should prioritize data classification as an integral part of their network security strategy.

For more information, check out the following resources: