What Is Data Tracing? How Does It Enhance Security?

Data tracing can serve critical roles in compliance, optimization, and data protection, helping organizations quickly identify and respond to data breaches.

Karen D. Schwartz, Contributor

October 19, 2023

5 Min Read
graphic showing movement of binary data

Data is an organization’s most valuable asset. It enables businesses to understand their customers and leads to more informed decision-making and problem-solving. However, the effectiveness of data hinges on its proper management and knowing where it resides.

This is where data tracing comes into play. It’s a cousin to data tagging, a technique that adds descriptive labels or metadata to data for everyday management, categorization, and retrieval. Data tracing takes those processes several steps further by capturing the sequence and details of data movement, processing, and interactions within systems. Its importance has grown with the increasing migration of workloads to the cloud.

Furthermore, there are similarities between data tracing and data lineage. Data tracing uses a narrow approach for identifying risks and breaches, whereas data lineage uses a broad approach.

Traditionally, data tracing has served two key purposes: compliance and optimization. On the compliance front, it is often used to ensure that an organization manages its critical and relevant data following best practices and adhering to regulatory requirements. This involves creating visual representations and thorough documentation of data flows to illustrate data vulnerabilities and potential risks.

Related:10 Tips for Developing a Data Governance Strategy

These meticulous records serve as evidence that the organization is handling data correctly, particularly in the event of an audit, explained Matt Mosely, director of incident response and digital forensics at Tevora, a management consultancy focused on cybersecurity.

Joel Font, head of cybersecurity compliance at tech consultancy Wursta, often advises clients to use data tracing to ensure compliance and monitor system and application performance. This is done by tracking the flow of data within their operations.

“[Data tracing] allows you to identify bottlenecks or additional issues that may negatively impact performance,” Font explained. “Without data tracing, these issues can go undetected and ultimately lead to system delays. You can even better notify support teams who can address the problems at the source by identifying data flow issues.”

Using Data Tracing To Improve Security

As organizations become more familiar with data tracing technology and as vendors improve their offerings, more companies are now adopting it to improve data security. In fact, data tracing can play a crucial role in data protection by enabling organizations to track and monitor data flow within their networks and in cloud environments. By tracing the data, organizations can quickly identify the source of a breach, mitigate its impact, and implement necessary measures to prevent further data loss.

“In a security situation, it’s not enough to just say you had a breach and … think some data was compromised or taken,” Font said. “Data tracing allows you, with a higher level of confidence, to say that you know protected data was compromised or that the protected data was never touched, with the evidence that it was not touched.”

In the event of a breach, security teams can use data tracing in various ways. This includes tracing the origin of the attack or breach and tracking the path of the compromised data to determine its current location.

“The more information an organization has about its environment, the easier it is to identify potential vulnerabilities, exploits, and entry points,” Mosely said. “Data tracing offers a granular level of detail about how data flows through a system, arming security professionals with the knowledge and tools to discover ... vulnerabilities before attackers do.”

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Data tracing can also help improve security in several other ways, including the following:

  • Detecting Insider Threats: It can alert security teams to suspicious activities by legitimate users, such as accessing an unusually large amount of sensitive data.

  • Retracing Data Path: It allows organizations to retrace the path of compromised data to uncover entry points and determine what type of data was accessed during an incident.

  • Unauthorized Access Alerts: It can be integrated into endpoint detection and response platforms or intrusion detection systems to provide earlier detection, containment, and mitigation of potential data breaches through unauthorized access alerts.

  • Establishing Baselines: It can help establish a baseline for real-time monitoring, enabling the identification of anomalies and potential security issues.

  • Reconstructing Attacker Actions: It aids in reconstructing the actions of an attacker, providing security personnel with a better understanding of how to mitigate the attack vector.

John Chandler, an SEO consultant at the website Fluent Slang, said his company frequently uses data tracing to monitor data movements within its system and network.

“This approach allows us to gain insights into how data is accessed, processed, and shared, effectively enabling us to swiftly identify any unauthorized activities or potential breaches,” Chandler explained. He noted that this helps Fluent Slang implement access controls and address vulnerabilities.

At 3TPro, an IT services provider, staff often use data tracing to catch things that might otherwise slip through the cracks. In one case, the team spotted an unusual pattern of data access within a client’s system, courtesy of data tracing. “It was like finding a hidden trail,” said Alex Gay, 3TPro head of innovation. “By following it, we discovered a misconfigured access control that could have led to a serious data leak. We were able to fix the issue before anything went wrong.”

Finding the Right Data Tracing Tools and Approach

In the past, data tracing was often a do-it-yourself endeavor, involving log analysis, database queries, and network monitoring. However, the field has matured significantly. Today, vendors like Cyberhaven and Reltio provide configurable data tracing products. There are also cloud-based tools like Google Cloud Trace, a service that stores and offers access to logs and other data for services and applications running on Google Cloud Platform.

According to Font, the ideal approach for organizations is to integrate data tracing into their broader security toolkit.

“Consider it an early warning scanning mechanism,” Font said. “You can build alarms around it so it will issue an alert if there is leakage of data going to specific locations you may have redlined.”

Over time, Font expects more data tracing tools to hit the market. He added that he wouldn’t even be surprised if data tracing capabilities were incorporated into security information and event management systems at some point.

About the Author(s)

Karen D. Schwartz


Karen D. Schwartz is a technology and business writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has written on a broad range of technology topics for publications including CIO, InformationWeek, GCN, FCW, FedTech, BizTech, eWeek and Government Executive


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