Securing PII In Web Applications
PII is the acronym for “personal identifiable information”. What this means in the explicit language is information exclusive to a specific individual. Due to its exclusivity, it serves the purpose of identifying, locating, and securing specific persons. For instance, think of that specific information that is unique to you and you alone- your name (sometimes), your national identification number, your bank verification number, or your fingerprint. The scope of PIIs is most times controversial. What passes as a PII differs slightly with context; in some fields, there are technical conditions a piece of information must meet to pass as a PII.
Furthermore, different countries define PIIs to suit their constitutional provisions and national legal biases. The European Union under directive 94/95/EC only encapsulates information that is specific to the social, psychological, emotional, cultural, and physical identity of a person. Australia on the other hand has a broader definition of what personal information is. It defines them as data or (even) opinions that can be used to apparently identify an individual, irrespective of its veracity.
PII can be sensitive or non-sensitive; this depends largely on how specific this information is and to what extent they influence a person’s social, financial, and physical safety. The sensitivity of PIIs affects the way they are transmitted. Sensitive information is most times transmitted in encrypted forms to prevent unauthorized access. The nature of PIIs places them as a constant target of (cyber) criminals and in some contexts, security officials. Essentially, a person’s PII reflects how safe he or she is. This is especially true in this largely digitized globe. Due to the sensitive nature of PII, there are often different frameworks put in place to ensure their safety. Measures to keep them safe are important for web applications too - especially if we consider the amount of data that they are designed to obtain.
Securing PII in web applications
As mentioned earlier, Web applications need to adopt proper means of securing the PII of users. The trajectory of cyberspace security and identity with regards to data relevance magnifies the need to safeguard the PII users. This is particularly obvious when the amount of PII web applications is built to obtain. This is one of the underlying principles of data security and privacy policies. In the context of web applications, the following data pass as personal identifiable information; birthdate, social security number, E-mail address, credit card numbers, telephone number, gender, passport number and photograph, and so on.
How to Protect PII for Web Applications
Almost all websites are susceptible to a breach of database and consequently, loss of data. In previous years, there have been reports of highly equipped and securing web applications falling victim to unexpected loss of data. To prevent similar occurrences in your own website, let’s examine some of the means of buffering against data assaults. It is important to note here that all the steps about to be discussed below are very important. The reason for the absence of hierarchy in importance is due to the nature of data attacks. Data loss can occur if the apparently least of all these means are exploited.
- Define and Identify PIIs on your website
This may sound funny but it isn’t. To exercise proper control on the inflow or outflow of (sensitive) information on your web application, it is necessary that you first define and some sets of information considered being in this category. This looks obvious and basic but it is often overlooked. In data security, due process is very important especially in this context, because how do you protect something that is not defined? It is necessary however not to make the mistake of collecting this information, that is if you can avoid doing that. Collecting PIIs in a single directory puts your web application at a disadvantage in the case of unprecedented breaches.
- Use Hypertext Transfer Protocols
Naturally, the connection between servers and websites is susceptible to third-party interference. This posed a major problem during the early days of website development and maintenance. However, in this dispensation, almost every website uses hypertext transfer protocols to encrypt these connections and prevent them from any third-party observation.
That way, the information exchanged between the servers and the websites is only visible to the sender and the receiver in question. A popular method of this is in social messaging applications like Whatsapp. In these applications, messages are encrypted from end to end to prevent other people - apart from the sender and receiver - from being privy to the information exchanged.
- Hide the information that you consider too sensitive
This measure of protecting PII can often be integrated into the process of designing the backend of web applications. The code of your website can be written to allow the web applications to hide some information and make them visible only to the owner. Some data like social security numbers, passwords, bank verification numbers, credit card details are designed to be inserted into protected input fields. This way, the data in context often display as asterisks unless a command is issued otherwise.
- Filter through PIIs for third party services
The internet is a network of interconnected computers and servers. Due to this interconnectedness, a website cannot function independently; it has to borrow the services of other platforms to enable optimal functionality. For instance, an E-commerce website may need to integrate the third-party service of a payment web application. A simpler example is when web applications allow you to sign up through another web application. For instance, GIT Hub allows you to sign up with Twitter and some other social media platforms.
This third-party integration may pose a vulnerability to web applications. Due to this, a website has to be enabled to filter between the types of information to exchange with a third-party website. Furthermore, the administrator has to be discreet about which application to give access to. That way, they can monitor the data flow on their website and can immediately map out possible perpetrators in the event of a data breach
- Cut down on data retention
You can’t retain data for a long time for the same reason you should not collect them. When you collect PII and store them in a certain directory, you stand a higher chance of losing a large amount of information at the same time. The safest approach here is to place a logical limit on your website’s data retention ability. Better still, you can adopt a “no data policy” for your web applications. That is, you do not retain PIIs at all on your website. This measure serves as the perfect buffer against the theft of PII
- Be stringent on granting employees access to information
Most companies - just as is expected - grant database access to employees. This is necessary but may prove to be a vulnerability in some instances of compromised integrity. The sole means of controlling possible assaults on PII is to be stringent on the requirements for employee permission. In simpler words, (even) an employee has to meet certain company safety requirements to gain access to databases. Furthermore, the stringency of these requirements has to increase with the level of sensitivity of the information involved.
This is a system of adding layers of security on the website application to secure user data. Most proper web applications adopt this method. After requesting a name and a password, you can request extra information from your average user. This secret information is requested from the user in the event of any attempt to access your web services. Normally, this method may look simple but, attackers with little knowledge of an average user can attempt a PII breach attack without going through the stress of technical hacking. Therefore, this personal (oftentimes secret) information is kept to specific users alone for the purpose of their own privacy.
At the end of the user
PII DATA SECURING ISSUES
Like all other activities in website applications, PII data securing has a couple of challenges associated with it.
- Key reusing issues
Key reusing is a process that involves copy and reuse of certain lines of codes (in website development) or data (in data science and machine learning) or keys (in database systems). This poses a potential problem to website applications. Attackers may use a similar key to bypass security measures without necessarily providing the access details. The approach is simple, the attacker makes an attempt to decrypt PII with derivation keys from the list.
All he needs is to know which key to use. With this, he can launch a forced attack and barge his way through without the security details. This may pose an even bigger threat to websites that have the same key for all their databases. Just like what happens in your houses, when you use the same code for all your safes, anyone who cracks one code cracks the rest of the safes leading to massive data loss
- Key rotation issues
Proper database management requires rotating keys. This is usually a method meant to keep data safe. It requires keeping many versions of different keys of encryption and matching up with the version of data that corresponds with it. While this sounds like a good plan (which it is), attackers use this method to hack into PII databases. The attacker can enroll in the application and find the secret key isn't the default secret key and that there is a rundown of subordinate keys to utilize. At that point, the attacker can enroll again in the application with another key.
After that, the attacker can attempt to decode the PII using the secret password he used previously and the new derivation key. For this situation, the derivation key is gotten from the secret and setting. The attacker can recognize the new derivation key by enlisting the application with the new derivation key. you can moderate this is by using a more grounded derivation function
PII Security Controls
These are measures that should be put in place by organizations in order to control data loss or movement on their respective websites
- Transfer or move data from server to site (or from different points of your database) with as little detail as possible. This is called masking of data
- You can also create cyber walls to keep out organizations and individuals from gaining access to your USER PII
- You can audit very sensitive data. In this method, you control the movement of very sensitive user data irrespective of who moves the data. This is usually done by alerting users, blocking access, notifying them of new access, and restricting certain services if need be
- Another PII security control is to track the activity of a user to note (potential) data breaches.
- Put up an analytical system to monitor data movement and see irregular patterns of movement. This makes it very easy to detect areas of the breach because of abnormal activity.
The relevance of PIIs is enough reason for websites to be subject to constant attacks or attempts from attackers. This is particularly more frequent for web applications that are built to handle massive user data. It is very important that multiple layers of security are put in place to protect these data, or if need be to react to attempted breaches and quickly control data loss and leaks. In some cases, data may need to be restricted from user view to preventing them from being the open end to attackers (data masking). In other instances, users need to be able to access these data.
In these instances, the technique of PII encrypting data comes into view. Data is encrypted with a key when it is transferred from the server to the web application when it is moved from one point in a database to another, or from the application (user) to the server. The server uses an encryption key – known to the server alone – to decrypt the data. Even in the stages of encryption and decryption, attackers often find loopholes to steal data either from the server end or the user end. For that exact reason, the website has to be secured properly to make up for the lapses during data transfer.
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