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Understanding the Crucial Role of Data Engineers in Data Security

Data engineers are on the frontline of the ongoing rise of big data in business. As this article will show, they are crucial in ensuring that data is safe and secure.

The growing significance of data security

Many modern business practices have introduced vulnerabilities for cybercriminals to attack, such as:

  • The increasing use of the cloud
  • The growing prevalence of DevOp supply chains (often involving third-party applications)
  • The growth of remote working
  • The inexorable rise of big data means more data collection

Our modern world is, thus, creating ever more fronts for cybercriminals to target. Unsurprisingly, attacks have intensified to exploit those opportunities.

  • New cyber-attack methods are constantly emerging. Take the rise of social engineering attacks, for example. There is a perpetual race to beat cybersecurity measures and exploit new weaknesses.
  • The challenging global economic conditions may push more people into cybercrime as a profitable venture. Indeed, Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) has made cybercrime an option for even non-experts.
  • International instability is fueling state-backed attacks on businesses.

Finally, the consequences of attacks are becoming increasingly severe.

  • Growing sums of money have been extracted from organizations (e.g. via ransoms and stolen data).
  • Huge potential regulatory financial penalties for cybersecurity lapses (GDPR, for example).
  • Attacks are high profile, adding reputational cost (for example, the SolarWinds attack of 2020).

Data engineers – a role on the frontline

A data engineer is an IT professional responsible for building and maintaining all the various systems an organization requires to collect, store, and harness data.

In some ways, data engineers are the guardians of all that data. They ensure that it is fit and ready for use by other roles and teams. For instance, data scientists would be responsible for generating insights and communicating these to the broader team. Very crudely, data engineers gather the data while data scientists use it.

That puts data engineers on the very frontline of the big data revolution. Their precise role will vary from business to business – reflecting each organization’s culture and structure. However, it typically involves the following.

  • Managing data collection, storage, and movement within the organization.
  • Overseeing the IT infrastructure that facilitates this.
  • Optimizing systems to ensure appropriate accessibility and performance.
  • Building and overseeing pipelines, data lakes and warehouses, and other IT systems.

Obviously, each individual business will have its own particular systems and needs around data. For many, data is being harvested through online consumer behavior. For others, the Internet of Things (IoT) may be significant.

A manager may be looking at fax solutions for enterprise business. Sounds great! But what of the data implications? If sensitive information is being brought into the business via that channel, how is it being managed? A data engineer supports that.

Data is the oil that fuels business growth. Strategy and decision-making are increasingly driven by it. And it is pouring into businesses at an ever-greater rate. But that data is also the gold that many cybercriminals seek. As shepherds of the data, data engineers are responsible for the edges most likely to be attacked.

How do data engineers support data security?

Data engineers build and maintain the infrastructure and systems that enable organizations to store, process, and analyze vast amounts of data. While their primary focus is often on data integration, processing, and transformation, the security of that data is also a key responsibility.

Here are some specific ways in which they shape data protection and cybersecurity.

Designing secure data pipelines

Data engineers are responsible for designing, building, and managing secure data pipelines.

Part of that is identifying all the constituent elements of the pipeline, assessing security vulnerabilities, and addressing these. Data pipelines are becoming increasingly complicated and often include third-party applications – especially in DevOps. That all increases the number of fronts an attacker might exploit. Constantly monitoring and reviewing the security of pipelines is, thus, crucial.

Data engineers must also ensure that data is encrypted. Encrypting data (both at rest and when moving) protects it from unauthorized access. There is a particular duty of care around sensitive, personal data – therefore, systems and processes for anonymizing data are also part of the role.

Managing access and permissions

Data engineers play a pivotal role in implementing and managing access rights. They leverage tools and techniques such as authentication mechanisms to ensure that only authorized and credentialed users have access to the various databases and repositories.

Only authorized and credentialed (specified and allowed) users should have access to the various databases and repositories. Data engineers ensure that robust authentication mechanisms are in place for this. Likewise, they establish systems to monitor and track all access to data across the business (e.g., to flag suspicious behavior indicating a problem).

As well as implementing strict access rights, data engineers should review whether those rights are appropriate. Access should generally be on a needs-only basis, avoiding granting unnecessary access. Engineers should collaborate with wider teams to establish user roles, define required access levels, and review this regularly.

By implementing and monitoring granular access controls, data engineers minimize the risk of data leakage and unauthorized data manipulation.

Data masking and anonymization

Collecting data is at the heart of a data engineer’s role – and the data will often be of a sensitive and personal nature. Thus, they need to ensure that their practices conform to data protection and data privacy regulations.

These vary between jurisdictions. For example, there is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU and the Consumer Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) in California. Both have a significant bearing on the handling of personal data. Data engineers must be aware of these and ensure compliance.

This takes expertise. They need to implement data masking and anonymization techniques while still allowing data analysts and scientists to work with rich and meaningful data sets.

What specific cybersecurity challenges do data engineers face?

Focusing on data security, in particular, data engineers face several challenges.

The need to balance security and performance

As mentioned, data engineers must balance robust security measures with the need for efficient network performance. Many aspects of data security are hungry for processing power – for example, encryption and data masking. That can weaken the capacity for other demands on the IT infrastructure’s performance – particularly those integral to achieving core business goals.

A delicate balance is needed. Data engineers must carefully design and optimize data pipelines to ensure security without compromising overall system performance.

The need to stay abreast of evolving threats

Cybercriminals are innovating new tactics – for example, using new tools and targeting different IT surfaces. Data engineers must stay on top of all this – keeping abreast of new developments in the field.

Training needs to be an ongoing professional commitment. In addition to obvious training for their core role (like a Python for data engineering course), they need to ensure their skills and knowledge are up to date concerning the latest attack methods.

The need to balance security needs with business objectives

Data security is essential in today’s big data business world. However, businesses must achieve broader strategic goals to secure their future viability and health.

The best data engineers will understand the bigger picture of what the business is trying to achieve. They will see data security as a crucial and integral part of that. Collaboration is, therefore, a significant part of the role. Data engineers must collaborate with various teams.

Data security requirements can sometimes irritate employees who do not work directly in the field. For some, it may just mean more passwords or forms to complete to access particular files. And data security does involve erecting some barriers – which can sometimes slow people down. In other words, a diligent, cautious, and robust approach to data security is not always a given in an organization’s culture.

Data engineers must improve that culture. They are often best placed, both to understand the risks and to mitigate them. For example, a colleague may need to share data with others (internally or externally). They probably will not immediately care to ask “what is data sharing?” and they are even less likely to think about its security implications. But someone – often a data engineer – needs to.

They can act as mediators – helping others in the business understand the scale of the dangers and what is needed to avoid them. This is particularly important when it comes to protecting sensitive customer data, such as personal information and payment details for customers who purchase and sell ebooks, or other goods, through the eCommerce platform.

Data engineers play a critical role in implementing robust security measures to safeguard this valuable information and prevent unauthorized access. They can also contribute to enhancing overall cyber awareness within the organization, fostering a culture of cybersecurity and promoting best practices in data protection.

Introducing data security considerations even in seemingly unrelated areas, such as custom merchandise production like custom t-shirts, is a testament to the comprehensive approach data engineers take in safeguarding sensitive information. Data engineers, with their expertise in data security, can also collaborate with development teams during the creation of custom t-shirts to ensure that data protection measures are implemented.

They can provide guidance on secure data handling practices, encryption methods, and access controls to safeguard customer information and prevent unauthorized access. By actively participating in the development process, data engineers contribute to the overall security posture of the organization and mitigate potential risks associated with data breaches in the custom t-shirt production process.

They can also collaborate with IT teams to ensure the selection of the most secure WordPress hosting, providing a strong foundation for protecting data and maintaining the overall security of the platform.

They need to implement cybersecurity in a manner that supports the team’s broader work. And they must aim to do so in a way the whole team buys into.

How are data engineers responding to the cybersecurity challenge?

Data engineers can play a positive role in embedding robust cybersecurity. And – as data becomes more and more foundational to business strategy – that is ever more important.

Here are some examples of how data engineers are achieving this.

  1. Developing and refining robust monitoring and tracking procedures. Such systems allow quick identification of breaches (and trigger evasive action).
  2. Developing and implementing regular auditing and reviewing protocols. These help to identify security vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure.
  3. Innovating new ways to secure data itself (e.g., new encryption techniques can protect data and sensitive information – even if a breach does occur).
  4. Ensuring that data privacy gets prioritized. They are well-placed to implement and promote new defenses (like anonymization and pseudonymization).
  5. Always learning. The best data engineers take the time to stay updated on the evolving cybersecurity landscape (e.g., formal training, attending conferencing, and talking to others in the field).
  6. Working collaboratively to strengthen cybersecurity culture. They can be champions of cybersecurity within the organization – shaping data governance protocols and explaining these to everyone else.

A crucial role

Data engineers are on the frontlines of the big data revolution, safeguarding our valuable data from the ever-growing threat of cybercrime. Balancing security and performance, staying updated on evolving threats, and collaborating with various teams, data engineers must constantly review and refine their practices to ensure robust security. They are not just data gatherers; they are also its guardians.

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