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What is Data Retention? : Best Practices, Benefits & Examples

Published December 11, 2023

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Data retention has emerged as a crucial concept in the ever-evolving data-driven landscape, where data continues to traverse across boundaries. Without operationalizing a data retention policy, the data landscape would become chaotic, resulting in violation of the law, inability to access historical insights, and escalating the risk of misuse or exposure of sensitive data.

Data retention enables organizations to store, manage, and utilize data for various uses, including corporate intelligence and ensuring legal compliance. However, under modern-day data privacy laws, organizations aren’t allowed to retain personal data for longer than necessary to fulfill the purposes for which it was initially collected.

Data privacy laws require organizations to establish procedures for timely data erasure, ensure data security during retention, specify precise retention durations, ensure transparency in data handling procedures, and prioritize an individual's right to privacy. This can be achieved by establishing a well-defined data retention policy.

This guide will explore the multifaceted world of data retention, delving into its significance, best practices, and how it influences our data-driven era.

What is Data Retention?

Data Retention is a process of retaining data for a set time to comply with legal, administrative, operational, or business requirements. Data retention ensures that information is kept safe and available for intended use while complying with privacy and data protection laws.

Data retention involves establishing data retention policies that clearly define data storage and processing based on its value and legal requirements. It includes data identification and classification, setting retention periods, and implementing storage and deletion processes. This structured approach promotes effective data management by ensuring that data is retained when required and disposed of when no longer required for the purposes it was initially obtained.

What Is a Data Retention Policy & Why Is It Important?

The data retention policy specifies the durations, standards, and procedures for keeping various categories of data while considering operational, business, legal, and regulatory needs. It assists organizations in managing the lifecycle of their data, ensuring compliance, and reducing the risks associated with holding onto data longer than necessary.

A data retention policy might include:

  • Categories of data – What data you collect (financial, legal, health, or personal data), why you collect it, and where it’s stored.
  • Retention periods – Specifications on how long you'll keep different data types and for what reason.
  • Access controls – Who can access and dispose of data when needed.
  • Applicable laws – Details on which laws and industry standards apply to the data you collect and how your organization ensures compliance.
  • Handling practices – An overview of how you dispose of data and handle user deletion requests – a common requirement of most privacy regulations.

Benefits of a Data Retention Policy

A well-defined data retention policy offers several benefits to organizations:

  • Legal Compliance: It helps organizations comply with data retention laws and avoid penalties and other legal complexities.
  • Reduced Storage Costs: It streamlines data management and minimizes storage costs by only retaining the data that is necessary for processing.
  • Improved Data Security: It reduces the risk of data breaches by ensuring that sensitive data is kept safe and disposed of responsibly.
  • Efficient Data Retrieval: It saves time and resources by simplifying identifying and accessing crucial data when needed.
  • Historical Insights: Organizations can analyze retained data to gain historical insights for better decision-making and planning.
  • Streamlined Workflows: A clear policy streamlines data management procedures and minimizes chaos, enhancing overall operational effectiveness.
  • Mitigates Legal Complexities: It reduces the possibility of retaining out-of-date or unnecessary data, which could become an issue in the event of a lawsuit.
  • Builds Customer Trust: A well-defined data retention policy demonstrates an organization’s commitment to handling data responsibly, enhancing customer trust and reputation.

Compliance Requirements for Data Retention

Compliance requirements vary across federal, state, and international laws that specify the retention periods for each regulation. Here’s a general overview:

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) & Sarbanes–Oxley Act (SOX)

In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) have specific requirements for data retention.

Data retention under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) mandates that healthcare organizations maintain protected health information (PHI) for at least six years. The retention period starts from the creation date or when the data was last used. HIPAA also requires organizations to have secure data storage, access controls, and protocols for data disposal to protect the privacy and security of patients' medical records.

Under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), data retention requirements pertain to financial records and documents. Public companies must retain financial records, including accounting and audit documents, for at least seven years. Data retention under SOX is crucial for financial transparency and accountability, ensuring that organizations maintain accurate financial records for auditing and compliance purposes.

European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

GDPR requires organizations to retain personal data for no longer than necessary to fulfill the purposes for which it was collected. Organizations must have a clear retention policy in place and must be able to demonstrate that they are complying with the policy. Additionally, GDPR requires organizations to securely delete or destroy personal data when it is no longer needed.

California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) & California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA)

CCPA, now amended by the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), requires organizations to disclose their data retention policy and the specific categories of personal information that they collect, use, and retain. Organizations must also provide consumers with the right to request deletion of their personal information and must comply with these requests within a specific time frame.

Internal Policies

Organizations may set their own guidelines for retaining data to ensure it is retained for the right amount of time and then erased when it is no longer required.

Contractual Obligations

Contractual obligations may be imposed on organizations engaged with customers, partners, or vendors.

Roadblocks to Successful Data Retention Policies

Complying with data retention policies presents unique challenges for organizations. These difficulties may differ depending on the industry, type of data, and regulatory framework. Here are some common challenges:

Diverse Regulatory Landscape

Data retention regulations are complex and vary across different industries and countries. It can be challenging for organizations to navigate this complex regulatory environment, particularly if they operate internationally. They must stay informed about legislation amendments and ensure that the organization’s policies comply with local and international laws.

Data Proliferation

Organizations produce a never-ending stream of data, making managing and storing this enormous amount of data increasingly challenging. Effective data retention regulations depend on the ability to identify and classify data according to its value and sensitivity.

Technology Evolution

Organizations may find it challenging to maintain current data retention practices as practices evolve due to the quick advancement of technology. Organizations may need to update their policies and architecture in response to the emergence of new data formats, communication routes, and storage technologies.

Ensuring Data Security

Organizations must prioritize the need to securely retain data for legal requirements and make sure it is readily available when needed. Data security necessitates implementing strong security measures to protect sensitive data from unauthorized access and emerging security threats.

Data Lifecycle Management

Managing the complete data lifecycle can be complex, from data creation to disposal. Organizations must establish robust data creation, storage, access, and deletion procedures.

Costs and Resources

Effective data retention policies can require a lot of resources to implement and manage the policy. This entails staff training, compliance monitoring, and investing in modern-day tools.

Legacy Systems and Data

Most organizations still use outdated data systems and data management tools, which can be difficult to combine with modern data management tools and technology. Making the switch from these systems while still being compliant can be very difficult.

How to Create a Data Retention Policy

Creating a data retention policy is crucial for organizations to ensure swift compliance, manage data efficiently, and ensure data privacy and data security best practices. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you create a data retention policy:

Begin by identifying the particular legal and regulatory standards that apply to your organization. This comprises data privacy legislation, industry-specific rules, and procedures for notifying parties of data breaches. Determine the categories of data that must be retained and the time frames for doing so.

Establish a Data Inventory

Conduct a comprehensive audit of the data your organization collects and stores. Once data is identified, categorize data types, such as customer data, financial records, HR information, etc.

Define Data Categories

Categorize data according to its significance, sensitivity, and legal and regulatory needs. Define categories as "critical," "sensitive," and "non-essential" data, etc.

Set Retention Periods

Determine the appropriate retention periods for each data category based on legal requirements, business needs, and industry standards. Some data may need to be retained for several years, while others may have shorter retention periods.

Data Handling Procedures

Clearly define how data should be handled at every stage of its lifecycle, from collection to disposal. These should cover policies for data backups, encryption, access controls, and storage.

Data Destruction

Develop safe procedures for destroying data to ensure it is disposed of appropriately when its retention period expires. This could entail safely destroying digital data or shredding physical paperwork.

Access and Retrieval

Establish protocols so authorized individuals can access and retrieve data when required for operational, legal, or other purposes.

Training and Education

Implement training and awareness programs to ensure all employees are informed about the data retention policy and their roles in adhering to it.

Regular Auditing and Monitoring

Develop a mechanism to periodically audit and assess compliance with data retention policies to ensure the guidelines are being followed correctly.

Update the Policy

Review the data retention policy periodically to ensure it complies with industry standards and evolving regulatory obligations.

Developing a data retention policy is a continuous process that needs to be meticulously planned and updated regularly to keep up with evolving business and legal requirements.

Accelerate Your Data Retention Program with Securiti

Securiti is the pioneer of the Data Command Center, a centralized platform that enables the safe use of data and AI. It leverages contextual data intelligence and automation to unify data controls across security, privacy, compliance, and governance through a single, fully integrated platform.

Large global enterprises rely on Securiti's Data Command Center for data security, privacy, governance, and compliance. Securiti has been recognized as Gartner's "Cool Vendor in Data Security", Forrester's "Privacy Management Wave Leader", and RSA's "Most Innovative Startup."

Securiti can help create a data retention policy by enabling organizations to:

  • Discover data assets and build a data inventory;
  • Classify data categories - organize diverse data sets based on predefined criteria;
  • Apply labels through policies - automate tagging of data based on predefined rules;
  • Determine a retention policy based on the data type;
  • Identify data that has been retained beyond retention policies;
  • Take appropriate action - alert, email, delete, quarantine data, or extend the retention period.

Request a demo to witness Securiti in action.

Frequently Asked Questions

Organizations need data retention policies to protect sensitive data, comply with regulatory requirements, and streamline data management. These rules minimize the risk of data breaches, reduce storage expenses, and promote responsible and effective data practices by establishing precise criteria for how long data should be kept and when it should be removed.

The data retention period is the set amount of time that an organization maintains certain kinds of data before deleting or archiving it. The data retention period may vary based on regulatory requirements and the organization's need to maintain data.

Non-compliance with data retention regulations can expose organizations to legal penalties, reputational damage, and loss of customer trust. In addition, noncompliance with prescribed retention periods may also lead to unauthorized access, data breaches, etc.

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