Defining DLP (Data Loss Prevention) & Exploring How it Works

Data loss prevention (DLP) involves using software to shield your sensitive data from hackers, thieves, and other threatening agents.

DLP software is sophisticated, and most programs use a form of machine learning to understand how you use your data and how hackers might break past your defences. Despite that sophistication, you must manage your solution carefully to ensure that it works as intended.

How does data loss prevention software work?

Reports predicted the DLP market would grow by nearly 23 percent between 2015 and 2020. Every company came up with a different solution to sell to their customers. But most of them shared a few basic principles. 

Most DLP software solutions can:

  • Accept programming. You define what constitutes a violation based on historical precedence or your regulatory environment. The program reacts accordingly. 
  • Enforce your rules. The program could alert you to a possible problem, or the system could step in and lock down functions to keep data secure. 
  • Report. You'll get documents that detail what happened within the system, and some come with suggestions about modifying the program. 

Where you install your DLP impacts what it examines and how it works. You could place the device on your:

  • Network. Then it can look over traffic leaving your systems and spot anything that should remain safely on your server. 
  • Endpoints. Install the DLP on individual workstations, servers, or devices. Watch data as it flows into these receptacles, and examine anything those devices might send out. 

No matter where you place the DLP, it will look for policy violations. Those could be triggered by:

  • Rules. Program the system to look for credit card numbers, social security numbers, or other personally identifiable information (PII). 
  • Files. Program your system to recognise some of your most sensitive pieces of data, so you'll know when they are about to leave the server. 
  • Concepts. Use policies, rules, and precedents to help the system know when a violation is in progress. You can pre-build categories to help make programming easier. 
  • Statistics. Help the system understand what normal, natural traffic looks like to your system so you can spot anomalies. 

Most programs are infinitely customisable, so you could use almost anything to help your system spot an issue. 

Why do you need DLP?

Data loss prevention software is expensive, and it can be challenging to program and analyse. Plenty of companies accept those drawbacks, as the benefits of DLP are hard to ignore. 

You might need to invest in DLP if you have:

  • Protected data. Health care organisations know that they must protect patient data, but almost every company has at least some form of identifiable information. For example, if you sell insurance, you could collect customer Social Security numbers. A DLP could help you spot them in email messages so you don't inadvertently expose something important. 
  • Compliance reporting. Analysts expect stringent privacy rules to hit almost every sector of the economy in the coming years. You'll need to prove that you protect your customers from breaches. A DLP could help you do that. 
  • Trade secrets. Are you working on a project your competitors would love to steal? Someone inside or outside of your company could profit from your hard work unless a DLP protects your data. 

Some companies also use DLPs to help them understand how data moves within their organisations. With this tool, they can see how information moves from the cloud, to users, to servers, to end users. 

But clearly, financial issues drive most companies to invest in this kind of security software.

3 DLP best practices everyone should know 

If you've decided to invest in a DLP, be prepared for a long buy cycle. Plenty of vendors will want your business, and you must choose among all of the competitors carefully. 

Keep these three tips in mind:

  1. Define your goals. The DLP market is huge, and some companies make products for a specific sector. Buying a health care DLP won't help you run a small retail shop. Know what you want in a product before you buy. 
  2. Talk to your team. Senior management should have a role in a strategic purchase like this. Talk with your staff about their security concerns, and make sure the product you're considering can address them.
  3. Look for growth. The security landscape is constantly changing, and your DLP should react and respond to those emerging threats. Make sure your vendor can customise the product you buy to meet your needs and future threats. 

With time, patience, and skill, you can buy the right product for your company. 

Why is DLP a hot topic?

We live in a world driven by data. Most of us carry powerful computers in our pockets that our parents just never dreamed of. Protecting the data on those devices has always been important. But arguably, more and more people are concerned with DLP right now.

Companies invest in DLP due to:

  • Compliance. Legislative rules like HIPAA force companies to invest in security. And some of those rules require regular and in-depth reporting. A DLP makes meeting those requirements a bit easier. 
  • Cloud computing. In 2018, 81 percent of enterprises were functioning in multi-cloud environments. When data is moving to the cloud and back again, hackers get excited. A DLP helps you manage the hazards. 
  • Immense risks. More than half of companies endured some kind of data breach within the last 12 months. And breaches cost companies close to $4 million. Few organisations can afford to ignore the very real problems data poses
  • Stretched staff. DLP programs are fast, efficient, and accurate. When you program them properly, they can reduce a security team's workload. Given that many companies are furloughing employees in a tough economic climate, doing more with fewer people makes sense. 

You may have your own reasons for investing in a DLP. You may have a CSO that demands sophistication. Or you may have an activist board of directors that wants to keep trade secrets private. 

Whatever your reason, we'd like to help. Use Okta's DLP tools to protect your data in all environments. And lean on our team as you set up the modules for your specific company's needs. Find out more


Data Loss Prevention Market. Market and Markets. 

How DLP and OCR Can Prevent Slips in Email Compliance. (October 2020). Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics. 

Think You Don't Have PHI? Check Again. (August 2017). Leavitt Group. 

2021 'Best Chance' for U.S. Privacy Legislation. (December 2020). IAPP. 

IT Governance Critical as Cloud Adoption Soars to 96 Percent in 2018. (April 2018). CIO. 

Top Cybersecurity Facts, Figures, and Statistics. (March 2020). CSO. 

Pandemic Forces Employers to Cut Pay. (April 2020). Society for Human Resource Management.