May 20, 2024

Data Retention Policy Best Practices: A User’s Guide

Tim Herr

Compare data retention to the way you store personal belongings that you aren’t using at the moment. The easiest practice is to throw everything into a garage or attic and hold onto it in case you need it later. But if you’re not diligent about organizing your things and throwing away what you don’t need anymore, this lazy approach quickly becomes counterproductive. You can lose track of where things are, collect several copies of the same tool, have keepsakes degrade in bad environmental conditions and expose valuables to potential loss or theft.

Get Visibility and Control Over Your Data

While it may seem responsible to hold onto data that used to be important, the only safe approach is to be deliberate about what you keep and how long you keep it. This is why your organization needs a data retention policy.  

Creating a robust data retention policy is not a simple task. It requires a deep understanding of legal requirements, operational needs and technological capabilities. Different industries and regions have specific legal requirements for data retention, and non-compliance with these laws can lead to severe penalties and a loss of customer trust.


The six best practices outlined here will help you to create an effective data retention policy or improve what you already have. While you may have reason to add to this list over time, omitting any of these essentials would mean leaving gaps in your security posture. Our six fundamental data retention policy best practices are:

  1. Regular policy review and updates
  2. Data deletion upon expiration of retention periods
  3. Encryption and secure disposal of data
  4. Policy training and communication
  5. Auditing for understanding and compliance
  6. Automation and visibility


Best Practices for Creating a Data Retention Policy

Regular Policy Review and Updates

Regularly review and update your policy to ensure that it reflects the latest legal, technological and business liabilities. New privacy regulations may require changes in how customer data is handled, while the adoption of new technologies like AI may necessitate updates to data storage and deletion procedures.


Data Deletion Upon Expiration of Retention Periods

Choosing the correct retention period for each type of data is a critical aspect of any data retention policy—for example, discarding financial records too soon can cause problems in the event of an audit, while retaining PII for too long increases your liability exposure in the event of a data breach. Determination of data retention periods should be based on several factors, including the nature of the data, its relevance to business operations and legal requirements.

Implementing this best practice requires having a way of knowing when files have reached the end of their retention period. Forcepoint DSPM (see below) offers the capability to locate files that are due to be deleted based on their age.


Encryption and Secure Disposal of Data

Encryption is the gold standard of data retention, ensuring protection while your company stores and uses the data. During the retention period, it protects data by making it unreadable to unauthorized users.

But encryption also plays a role in data deletion. Deleting the encryption keys causes the encrypted data to become permanently inaccessible. This method, known as cryptographic erasure, is a secure and efficient way to dispose of data, particularly for large data sets and storage devices that cannot be physically destroyed.


Policy Training and Communication

A data retention policy is only as effective as its implementation, so clear communication and training across the organization is essential. Employees need to understand the policy, its importance and their role in its execution. This includes knowing what data to retain, how long to retain it and how to securely delete it.

You can augment the benefits of formal training sessions with coaching in real-world situations when employees display risky behavior. A good Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution can not only block inappropriate actions but also provide corrective guidance, so the employee who tries to copy sensitive company information to a personal email or a generative AI prompt can learn from the mistake and be a better data steward in the future.


Auditing for Understanding and Compliance

Ensuring company-wide understanding and compliance is a continuous process that requires buy-in from every employee. Training and communication are necessary, but success requires testing these efforts to measure their effectiveness.

Regular audits can help identify gaps in understanding and compliance. These audits should be followed by corrective actions and retraining as necessary. You should also utilize their results to tune training materials and communications to address knowledge and compliance gaps.


Automation and Visibility

Visibility over data is crucial to understanding where it located and how you can best protect it. Some security solutions assist with gaining visibility over data, tracking and managing it throughout its entire lifecycle from creation to deletion. This can help to ensure that data is retained and disposed of in accordance with your policy.

Automated data discovery lays the foundation for continuous visibility over data across your entire organization. Look for a solution that leverages automation effectively so that your understanding of what data lives where is accurate and up to the moment.


Forcepoint DSPM Provides Ongoing Visibility and Total Control Over Data

Remember, a data retention policy is not a one-time project – it's an ongoing commitment to data protection and regulatory compliance. Using the right security solution to make your policy into a reality can make all the difference in safeguarding your organization against waste and costly data breaches.

Forcepoint Data Security Posture Management (DSPM), powered by Getvisibility, provides the visibility and control necessary to implement and maintain data retention policies. It uses AI-powered automation to improve its accuracy as it discovers and classifies data across the organization.

DSPM can automatically find and remediate problems like ROT (redundant, obsolete or trivial) data and move misplaced files to their correct storage locations. It provides visibility over where data resides, who owns it and who has permission to access it; this allows you to ensure that data is being retained under the right team and with the proper storage settings, user permissions and so on. Forcepoint DSPM additionally provides near real-time incident response capabilities, helping you to block or contain activities that might lead to data loss. And it is able to quickly locate data that falls within given parameters, which can streamline compliance by easing the process of responding to audits.


Interested in getting more out of your organization’s data retention policy? Get more information about Forcepoint DSPM, or get in touch today to set up a demo.


Tim Herr

Tim serves as Brand Marketing Copywriter, executing the company's content strategy across a variety of formats and helping to communicate the benefits of Forcepoint solutions in clear, accessible language.

Read more articles by Tim Herr

About Forcepoint

Forcepoint is the leading user and data protection cybersecurity company, entrusted to safeguard organizations while driving digital transformation and growth. Our solutions adapt in real-time to how people interact with data, providing secure access while enabling employees to create value.