Mastering Data Classification for Security and Efficiency

Mastering Data Classification for Security and Efficiency: A Complete Guide

Written by:
Mastering Data Classification for Security and Efficiency: A Complete Guide

Watch the Webinar

Data classification is crucial in modern organizations, enabling them to effectively organize, secure, and derive value from their data assets. By categorizing data based on its sensitivity, business impact, and compliance requirements, data classification provides a foundation for effective data governance and security. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the concept of data classification, its importance, challenges, and the steps involved in implementing a data classification system. So, let's dive in and discover how data classification can revolutionize how you manage your data.

Understanding Data Classification

Data classification categorizes and labels data based on attributes, properties, or characteristics. The primary goal of data classification is to organize and manage data in a structured manner, making it easier to handle, protect, and utilize. This process involves assigning metadata tags, labels, or categories to data based on specific criteria, such as sensitivity, importance, content, or regulatory requirements.

The types of data classification can vary depending on the organization's needs and objectives. Common characteristics for classification include:


This type of classification involves analyzing the actual content of data to categorize it. It may include keywords, file types, patterns, or specific data elements. Content-based classification is particularly useful for unstructured data like documents, emails, and multimedia files.


Context-based classification considers metadata and contextual information associated with data. This includes details like data source, author, creation date, location, and how data relates to other information pieces. Context-based classification provides insights into data origin and usage, aiding decision-making.


This classification type categorizes data based on its level of sensitivity. It involves assessing how confidential or private the information is, often applying labels like "public," "confidential," or "restricted." Sensitivity-based classification is crucial for implementing appropriate security measures.


Regulatory-based classification aligns data categories with specific regulatory requirements. Different industries are subject to various regulations (GDPR, HIPAA, etc.), and this classification ensures data is handled in accordance with these rules.


Lifecycle-based classification considers the stage of the data's lifecycle. Data can be categorized as "active," "archived," or "deleted." This type helps organizations manage data storage, retention, and disposal effectively.


User-based classification allows individual users to assign classification labels based on their understanding of data. This type promotes user engagement and accountability in protecting and managing data.

Business Impact

This classification focuses on the significance of data to business operations. It helps prioritize data protection efforts by categorizing data as "critical," "important," or "non-essential."


Access-based classification categorizes data based on the level of access required. Data can be labelled as "public," "internal," or "confidential," indicating who is authorized to view and modify it.


Time-based classification categorizes data based on time-related criteria. Data might be classified as "current," "historical," or "upcoming," aiding in data retrieval and management.

Data Source

This type of classification is based on the origin of data. It could include labels like "customer data," "vendor data," or "employee data," helping manage and protect data from different sources.

When more data, columns and databases are added to your data warehouse, you need to ensure all data is governed accurately and quickly. Column headers can be deceptive, especially when you are managing tons of data, and the wrong data can exist in the wrong columns. It’s impossible, at scale, to manually check column by column and row by row for data accuracy, yet, knowing what data is sensitive you hold is the foundation for data access governance and security.

The Importance of Data Classification

Data classification is the foundation for various critical information management and security aspects. Here are some key reasons why data classification is essential for organizations:

Risk Management and Data Protection

Data classification enables organizations to identify and assess the risks associated with their data assets. By categorizing data based on its sensitivity and importance, organizations can prioritize their security efforts and implement appropriate controls to protect valuable or sensitive data from unauthorized access, loss, or theft. This proactive approach to risk management helps organizations mitigate potential threats and prevent data breaches.

Compliance and Regulatory Requirements

Many industries are subject to strict regulatory requirements that govern the handling, storage, and protection of specific data types. Data classification helps organizations comply with these regulations by ensuring that data is appropriately categorized and handled according to the relevant compliance standards. Organizations can avoid penalties, legal issues, and reputational damage by aligning data classification with regulatory requirements.

Efficient Data Storage and Retrieval

Organizations generate and accumulate vast amounts of data, making it challenging to store, manage, and retrieve information when needed efficiently. Data classification provides a structured framework for organizing data, making it easier to locate and retrieve specific information quickly. By categorizing data based on attributes, organizations can optimize storage resources, reduce data duplication, and improve overall data accessibility and usability.

Enhanced Data Governance and Decision-Making

Data classification lays the foundation for effective data governance practices. Organizations can establish clear guidelines and responsibilities for data management by categorizing data and assigning ownership and accountability. This promotes data integrity, accuracy, and consistency, enabling better decision-making based on reliable and trustworthy information.

Challenges in Data Classification

While data classification holds immense promise, it's not without its challenges. Implementing a data classification system requires addressing these hurdles to ensure its effectiveness and sustainability. Here are some of the key challenges organizations might encounter:

Data Accuracy and Consistency

Accurate data classification hinges on the quality and consistency of metadata and attributes used for classification. Inaccurate or inconsistent labeling can lead to misclassification, impacting security measures and decision-making. Ensuring data accuracy and maintaining consistent labeling standards are ongoing challenges that demand attention.

Evolving Data Landscape

Data is dynamic and constantly changing in form and context. Staying agile and updating classification criteria to reflect new data realities is essential to ensure the relevance and accuracy of the classification system. ALTR’s Classification processes remain up to date and ensure that as you continue to run classification on your data, all data remains healthy and accurate.

User Adoption and Compliance

For a data classification system to succeed, it needs to be embraced by users across the organization. Employees might resist the additional steps required for data classification, viewing it as cumbersome. Achieving widespread user adoption requires effective training, clear communication, and an understanding of how classification benefits them and the organization.

Balancing Automation and Human Judgment

While automation streamlines classification, there are instances where human judgment is critical. Striking the right balance between automated classification processes and involving human expertise is challenging. Overreliance on automation could lead to misclassifications, while too much manual intervention can slow down the process. ALTR’s easy to use point-and-click UI ensures that you are applying the correct tags to the correct data in real-time.

Privacy and Ethical Concerns

Classifying data based on sensitivity might inadvertently expose personal or sensitive information. Striking a balance between data classification for security purposes and respecting individual privacy rights can be complex. Organizations must ensure that sensitive data is appropriately protected, and data classification aligns with ethical guidelines.

Fortunately, ALTR sits at the intersection of Data Access Governance and Data Security, meeting the needs of both protection of sensitive data and proper data classification.

Critical Steps in Data Classification

Implementing a comprehensive data classification system involves several key steps. While the specific approach may vary depending on organizational requirements, here are some critical steps to consider:

  1. Define Data Classification Policies and Criteria - Establish written procedures and guidelines that define the categories and criteria for data classification within your organization. These policies should outline the attributes and characteristics used to classify data, such as sensitivity levels, business impact, regulatory requirements, and data ownership.
  2. Conduct Data Inventory and Assessment - Conduct a thorough inventory of your organization's data assets to identify the data types you handle, their locations, and their associated risks. Assess the sensitivity and importance of each data asset to determine the appropriate classification category.
  3. Develop a Classification Framework - Collaborate with relevant stakeholders, such as data scientists and business units, to develop a classification framework that aligns with your organization's needs and objectives. This framework should define the categories, labels, and metadata tags used to classify data consistently.
  4. Establish Security and Storage Standards - Identify security standards and best practices that align with each data classification category. Define appropriate handling practices, access controls, encryption requirements, and storage lifespan for each category. Implement storage standards that address data retention, archiving, and disposal.
  5. Implement Data Classification Tools and Technologies - Utilize data classification tools and technologies to automate and streamline the classification process. These tools can analyze data attributes, apply classification labels, and enforce security policies consistently across your data ecosystem.
  6. Train Employees and Foster Data Stewardship - Educate and train employees on data classification policies, procedures, and their roles and responsibilities in data stewardship. Foster a culture of data awareness and accountability to ensure consistent and accurate data classification throughout the organization.
  7. Regularly Review and Update Data Classification - Data classification is not a one-time effort. Regularly review and update your data classification system to adapt to evolving business needs, regulatory changes, and emerging data risks. Periodically assess the effectiveness and efficiency of your data classification practices and make necessary adjustments.

If sensitive data isn’t identified, it’s impossible to protect, leaving gaps in both privacy and security. ALTR integrates data classification into our policy enforcement engine, allowing users to automatically find, tag and enforce governance policy on data easily, all from the ALTR interface, as frequently as you need.

Tools and Technologies for Data Classification

Several tools and technologies can aid in the data classification process. Here are some commonly used tools:

Data Classification Software

Data classification software automates analyzing data attributes, assigning classification labels, and enforcing security policies. These tools utilize machine learning algorithms and pattern recognition techniques to classify data based on predefined criteria accurately. 

ALTR’s data classification solution directly on Snowflake lets companies quickly identify and classify PII, PCI and PHI data so that it can be automatically controlled and secured. ALTR integrates with Snowflake’s Object Tagging functionality to import any Object Tags available in Snowflake. Two options are available for importing

Snowflake Object Tag data into ALTR:

  1. Importing any existing Object Tags available in Snowflake.
  2. Executing Snowflake Data Classification first and then importing all available object tags.
Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Solutions

Data loss prevention solutions help organizations identify and protect sensitive data from unauthorized access, loss, or leakage. These solutions can analyze data in real time, monitor data movement and access, and enforce policies to prevent data breaches. DLP solutions often incorporate data classification capabilities to identify sensitive data and apply appropriate protection measures.

ALTR’s Data Classification option via Google DLP Classification enables users to send a random sampling of their to Google’s DLP service for classification. In a Google DLP Classification, ALTR will select a random sample from each column in your Snowflake database and send that sample to Google DLP for analysis. Each column is sampled separately to protect the anonymity of data. Google’s DLP service returns possible classification results to ALTR, which associates those results to the affected columns as Data Tags.

With ALTR, you can automatically classify data directly in Snowflake, or via Google DLP – both options returning your classification results in minutes and into a robust Classification Report. Now you are able to apply policy based on categories and tags so your sensitive data remains secure, organized, and in compliance.

Wrapping Up

Data classification is a fundamental process that empowers organizations to manage, secure, and derive value from their data assets. By categorizing data based on attributes, organizations can implement appropriate security measures, ensure compliance with regulations, and optimize data storage and retrieval. With the right tools, technologies, and a robust data classification framework, organizations can unlock the full potential of their data and gain a competitive advantage in the digital landscape. 

Classify Your Data for FREE on Snowflake

Are you ready to better understand what sensitive data you have? Start today for free with ALTR and:

  • Automatically discover, classify and tag your data
  • Control access to columns and rows of sensitive data with a click

Start Classifying:

Related Resources