Data Masking Best Practices to Mitigate Risks and Ensure Data Security

  • Updated on September 11, 2023
  • Tech

In today’s digital world, where data plays a central role, data breaches have the potential to impact millions or even billions of individuals. As the volume of data increases with the rise of digital transformation, cyberattacks targeting data have become more widespread due to the interconnected nature of our lives. Protecting data and sensitive information is of the utmost importance, and implementing best practices is key.

The benefits of the digital age are abundant, but it has also introduced vulnerabilities that can lead to data breaches. It’s crucial to comprehend the significance of this matter and adhere to established best practices to reduce the risks of data theft and misuse. Striking the right balance between data utility and security is crucial. In this article, we will delve into data masking best practices, which serve as a crucial step to mitigate risks and ensure the security of valuable data.

The Growing Imperative of Data Security

With the growth of sensitive data in the digital realm, there has been an alarming rise in data breaches involving sensitive information. Major incidents like Yahoo’s 2013 data breach, which impacted 3 billion user accounts, highlight the magnitude of damage that data breaches can inflict. 

Despite putting up $350 million to deal with the breach, Yahoo’s acquisition by Verizon still went through, albeit at a reduced price of $4.48 billion from the initial $4.8 billion. This exemplifies the significant impact data breaches can have on companies.

Beyond organizations, data breaches also severely affect individuals. The potential real-world harm data breaches can inflict on people by exposing their most private information. To mitigate risks, companies like Verizon have committed to transparency and accountability by proactively boosting security to protect users and networks against online threats. However, more work needs to be done to curb the rising frequency of data breaches. So, it has become essential to choose the right data masking software to avoid potential risks and ensure data security. 

Striking the Optimal Balance Between Data Utility and Security

In a bid to protect data, organizations can sometimes go overboard with restrictive access controls. Conversely, relaxed policies increase exposure to risk. The key is striking the right balance between data utility and security. 

Extreme measures like complete data lockdown can severely reduce analytical value and productivity. However, leaving data completely exposed may cause irreparable damage. The solution lies in the middle ground. As seen in the Yahoo saga, even giants cannot escape the ripple impact of data breaches. However techniques like data masking can provide the ideal combination of utility and safety.

The Benefits of Data Masking for Security and Analytical Value

In the face of data analytics and security, data masking has become an emerging technology that offers a harmonious blend of protection and analytical insights. Data masking or obfuscation plays a crucial role in controlling data access to ensure safety without excessively limiting its utility. It works by hiding original sensitive data through fictional but realistic proxies. 

  • Data privacy and protection
  • Compliance with regulatory requirements
  • Minimized risk of data exposure
  • Utilizing data for testing software
  • Preventing threats that arise internally
  • Adaptable data sharing

For example, real phone numbers can be masked by generating fictional numbers in the same format. The masked datasets retain their analytical value for activities like testing and development, without exposing actual sensitive data. This allows organizations to foster trust with customers by assuring data privacy and security.

Proper implementation of data masking is key to harnessing its benefits. When inadequately applied it can fail to provide the required security. Let’s examine the vital best practices for effective data masking.

Core Best Practices for Secure and Effective Data Masking

To implement data masking that boosts security without hampering productivity, certain foundational practices are key:

Identifying Sensitive Data That Needs Protection

The first step is recognizing data that requires masking, such as personally identifiable information. Data governance and security teams play a key role here. They must define sensitive data types across systems and locations to control access appropriately.

Understanding Data Usage to Tailor Masking Techniques

The next crucial practice is analyzing how masked data will be used. This allows tailoring masking to balance security with utility for specific use cases. More sensitive data may need stronger masking or access restrictions than data used for testing. 

Adapting Techniques to Meet Governance Requirements

Data masking must align with complex regulatory and internal governance policies. For example, GDPR requires data anonymization under certain conditions, which may mandate masking techniques like data aggregation or shuffling. When implementing masking, it is crucial to choose data masking tools that provide the flexibility to meet governance needs.

Ensuring Repeatable and Scalable Data Masking

Finally, masking must be repeatable and scalable to handle the evolving landscape of increasing data volumes, users, and regulations. Short-term or one-off masking efforts will fail to offer lasting data security.

With robust data masking best practices in place, choosing the right techniques becomes vital. Let’s look at two of the most popular options.

Key Data Masking Techniques: Static vs. Dynamic Masking 

Static Data Masking (SDM) 

Static Data Masking, also known as data masking at rest, involves applying masking or fictional data substitution to a copy of the original production database. Once the sensitive fields in the duplicated database are replaced with realistic but fake data, this masked static copy can then be safely used for purposes like software testing, development, troubleshooting, and training without exposing any actual sensitive information. 

Some key benefits of Static Data Masking include:

  • As the original database remains untouched, there is no risk of corrupting production data.
  • Masking is performed consistently across all copies of the static database. 
  • It provides irreversible protection of sensitive data, as the original values cannot be reconstructed from the masked dataset.
  • Simpler to execute than dynamic masking.

Some limitations of SDM:

  • Considerable initial time and effort are needed to configure and perform data masking on a complete copy of the production database.
  • As data in production databases evolve, static masked copies need to be recreated and updated to reflect changes.
  • Limited scalability, as each static masked copy only serves a small group of users. 
  • Not suitable for frequently changing dynamic production systems.
  • Does not offer real-time data analytics.

Static data masking is a preferable technique for non-production databases such as those used for development, QA testing, training workshops, or troubleshooting. It works optimally when there is a limited number of users accessing the masked copy.

Dynamic Data Masking (DDM)

Unlike static data masking, dynamic data masking is applied on-the-fly as authorized users query the actual production database. Based on predefined policies, sensitive data fields are automatically masked before the results are returned to the requester. The original data remains unchanged in the database, while only a masked representation is displayed to the user.

Benefits of Dynamic Data Masking (DDM):

  • Masking logic can be directly applied to live production systems, without the need for static copies.
  • Masking rules and algorithms integrate seamlessly with querying mechanisms.
  • Masked results are generated in real-time, enabling up-to-date data analytics. 
  • Only designated sensitive columns are masked, while other data remains visible.
  • Reversible masking support allows viewing of original data if required.

Limitations of Dynamic Data Masking (DDM):

  • The additional load on database resources is due to real-time masking logic. It can impact performance.
  • More complex implementation, especially for sizable databases.
  • Requires tight integration between DBMS tools and masking solutions.
  • Limited support for unstructured data sources.

Dynamic data masking is ideal for frequently accessed production databases such as those used for business intelligence and analytics. It ensures sensitive data protection even as information evolves over time.


With robust data masking best practices, organizations can reduce breach risks and ensure regulatory compliance while retaining data utility. The optimal approach combines people, processes, and technology to secure sensitive data in today’s digital era. With data masking you can make sure that even in the event of a breach or unauthorized access, the data that is supposedly exposed remains unusable and unintelligible and so it protects both the individuals and businesses from potential threats or harms. 

Embracing these best practices demonstrates a commitment to data protection and compliance with regulations, fostering trust and confidence among customers and stakeholders. In an ever-evolving digital landscape, data masking remains an essential tool in the arsenal of data security measures for any organization handling sensitive information.


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