If you’re running a small business (or any business for that matter) in the digital age, keeping customer data safe and private is now one of the most critical business imperatives you face. In addition to the expectations of customers themselves, there are also strict new privacy regulations to contend with and news of more on the way. The consequences of getting it wrong could be dire – ranging from stiff financial penalties to permanent damage to your small business’s reputation in the marketplace.
Keep Only What You Need
The most important tenet of any plan to maintain customer data privacy is an overarching goal of minimizing what data is collected in the first place. For small businesses, this means figuring out data-oriented goals in advance, rather than collecting the maximum amount of data to then find a use for. The concept is known as data minimization, and it’s the best possible strategy for any small business to maintain customer privacy – after all, you don’t need to protect what you aren’t storing in the first place. Also, it’s important to remember that data collection practices may be changed as the needs of the business change. That means the best data minimization efforts should err on the side of collecting as little data as possible since it’s always an option to scale up data collection if new business imperatives demand it.
Pursue Transparency and Allow an Opt-Out
Even after you’ve minimized the amount and types of data you plan to collect, it is still necessary to create clear privacy and data sharing statement for your customers. It needs to contain a detailed explanation of why you’re requesting the customer’s data, including what you’ll be using it for, and who will have access to it. Depending on where the customers are, obtaining consent before collecting any data may also be a legal requirement. Even if not mandated by law, however, crafting an easy-to-understand data policy for customers and allowing them to opt out of anything they don’t feel comfortable with is an excellent way to gain trust. That’s important when you consider that research shows that 75% of people will share data with a business or brand they trust.
Ensure Encrypted Access
After taking steps to cut down on any unnecessary data collection, the next thing to do is make sure the data that is still collected remains secure with ironclad storage and access policy. First and foremost, that means making sure that all business websites make use of SSL encryption, and that all data storage systems keep stored data encrypted while in transit and while at rest. It’s also a good idea to provide VPN access for employees that need to handle any customer data. As you can see from this source, VPNs are needed in businesses – regardless of whether they are big players or small startups – to avoid falling prey to vulnerabilities. VPNs are designed to provide on-demand, encrypted access to sites and services all over the internet. There are dozens of commercial VPN providers that offer business-class services, and plenty of low-cost hardware options for those that need to provide access to self-hosted services.
Secure Email Systems
Without a doubt, Email is the primary vector of attack that cybercriminals use to target small businesses and the means by which most data breaches occur. That’s because it’s a system that everyone uses, and that was designed with close to no native security protocols. That leaves small businesses with the daunting task of securing an inherently insecure system. The first step to do so is to deploy an endpoint protection solution that includes a comprehensive email scanner. Most business-class antivirus solutions will include such functionality, and it should be active at all times. Next, it’s worthwhile to look into end-to-end encryption for whatever email system the business uses, to protect messages as they transit the web to their destinations. In addition to the physical security upgrades, it is also necessary to create clear guidelines for employees as to what customer data may be shared or discussed via email. In general, the stricter the policy, the safer your customer data will be.
Focus on Access Management
One of the best ways to keep customer data private is to limit which employees have access to whatever data is collected. In terms of policy, the best solution is to set clear guidelines as to who has access to which datasets, including a clear description of acceptable data, use. It’s best to limit access to the smallest number of people as is practical, which will cut down on the chances an employee will fall victim to a phishing scheme or even inadvertently release customer data. Once a clear-cut data policy is in place, it should be followed with a robust credential management policy, including a requirement for complex passwords. If possible, consider requiring two-factor authentication or physical keys as an added data security feature.