Data discovery: A comprehensive guide

  • by Osano Staff
  • · posted on December 2, 2022
  • · 6 min read
Data discovery: A comprehensive guide

If every company is a tech company, every company is also a data company, collecting information from customers and general site visitors each time they wind up on that business’s webpage. But how can you stay compliant with data privacy laws while collecting data every step of the way? Beyond asking for consent, this is where data discovery plays a role.

With it, companies can build and maintain accurate records of where personal data is stored in order to comply with data privacy laws and respond to subject rights requests. They can also analyze it and gain meaningful insights after obtaining consent. But what is data discovery? And what processes do companies need to implement it? 

What is data discovery?

Data discovery is a process that identifies all data stored in an organization and centralizes it so that it’s easier to work with. It uses advanced analytics to detect patterns that couldn’t be seen otherwise.

Often, companies try to look at each individual set of data. But as more and more information is acquired, this becomes impractical and even impossible. Data discovery allows you to take a step back from this process and look at the bigger picture.

The process can help you combine data from multiple sources, both internal and external, and find patterns and outliers. As a result, you’ll better understand the data by visualizing it in an easy and clear manner.

How does data discovery help with compliance?

Beginning with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), data privacy laws have become stricter and stricter when it comes to processing personal data. Things can be even more difficult when dealing with sensitive data, which includes any data that reveals the data subject’s: 

  • racial or ethnic origin, 
  • religion, 
  • political opinions, 
  • sexual orientation, 
  • genetic and biometric data, 
  • health data, 
  • financial information, 
  • or other classified information.

You have to run a data processing impact assessment (DPIA) to not only fulfill a requirement of the GDPR, but also to understand all the risks associated with the data your company handles. For that, you need to have a very clear view of all the data you’re collecting and processing. And you need to have records of that data, as well as the data subjects’ consent. 

So when dealing with large amounts of data, compliance can be challenging. Data discovery can help you:

  • Keep track of personal data at all times—know where it is stored and when it’s processed
  • Have clear evidence of the types of data you collect
  • Know what categories of data you have—if you work with sensitive data, many regulations have more restrictive provisions you must adhere to
  • Know who can access your data and when
  • See how long you store personal data

Plus, data discovery tools make it easier to respond to data subject access requests (DSARs). Under various laws, such as the GDPR and the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), data subjects have a right to inquire about the personal information you have on them, request that their personal information be updated or deleted, and make other requests. Being able to find that data and respond to the request in a timely manner is a requirement under these laws.

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What are the steps to implementing data discovery?

Implementing data discovery requires a few simple steps.

1. Define your goals.

In most cases, data is scattered across multiple systems and departments, from human resources and customer support to marketing and finance. This can make it hard to find and analyze the information you need. To make the process easier and quicker, you’ll need to pinpoint your needs and your goals. For example, maybe you want to implement data discovery in an attempt to reduce bounce rates and improve retention, or perhaps your team is operationalizing its internal systems. This will help you narrow down your search and find the information that matters.

2. Look at multiple sources.

For the process to be as effective as possible, you need to gather and analyze data across multiple sources. Even if after defining your goals you feel that looking at a single IT system is enough, go beyond that. Also known as data crunching, this process ensures objectivity and helps you see the entire picture.

3. Prepare the data.

Once you have your data, it’s time to prepare it for analysis. This includes classifying the data, cleaning it by removing anything that doesn’t help you or that is repetitive, and more.

4. Manage the data.

After preparing the information, your team will need to view and analyze it. At this stage, you could also run a DPIA to mitigate any risks and ensure legal compliance.

5. Record your findings and repeat the process if necessary.

In the end, make sure you record your findings. In some cases, data visualization dashboards are enough. Others, however, may prefer to write extensive reports detailing their findings. 


You also need to remember this isn’t a one-time process. It is something you should do, again and again, refining your process or analyzing data from different angles.

How does data discovery help with data mapping?

Data discovery helps lay the foundations of your data map. Many regulations now require businesses to have records of all their processing activities. Data mapping, while not specifically mandatory, makes the compliance process much easier. It helps you identify key elements of your data processing flow, such as legal basis, transfer methods, access, and more.

Data discovery helps you identify two crucial elements without which mapping wouldn’t be possible: the location and the type of data you process. Automated data discovery tools, which we’ll talk about more in the next section, can also ensure the identification of essential information by circumventing issues that manual discovery methods come with.

Used together, data discovery and mapping help a company create unified data inventories. These make compliance much easier by: 

  • Helping you run DPIAs whenever necessary, 
  • Facilitating quicker responses in the case of DSARs, 
  • And ensuring you have clear records of processing activities.

Data discovery tools

Data discovery and classification tools are an essential part of the process.

Manual discovery can be tedious and almost impossible, especially when you have data scattered across hundreds of systems. Even without hundreds of systems, smaller companies that feel like they can cope without any discovery tools risk overlooking certain data sets.

There’s a spectrum of smart data discovery tools out there. Some are really robust, all-purpose tools that can discover data no matter the use case. These are great if you have the need, expertise, and resources to justify them, but most businesses looking to get compliant with data privacy regulations will fare better by evaluating compliance-specific data discovery tools. 

This class of tools makes it easy to comply with DSARs and run audits or DPIAs. Many tools also use artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques that make the process quick and easy. They can offer integrations with your systems, making them easy to install and use.

Depending on your type of business, you may want to ensure the tools you’re using include sensitive data discovery. This refers to health data, intellectual property, and payment card industry data. Laws like the GDPR or the CPRA have special provisions when it comes to sensitive data, so it’s essential to know exactly what you’re processing and where.

The data discovery tools you use should be focused on compliance first and foremost. These tools will truly help you with DSARs and other regulation-specific requirements, thus taking some of the stress off of your shoulders.

Conclusion

Data discovery is essential for compliance with data privacy regulations. It ensures you can accurately respond any time you receive a DSAR. By knowing exactly where all your data is, you won’t have to waste time looking for the information requested by the data subject.

In a world dominated by data, discovery tools are the bridge you need between your customer’s and your business’s needs and the data privacy regulations.

Ready to check out an intuitive data discovery and classification solution that saves you hundreds of hours and helps you on your journey to compliance? Then Osano’s data discovery tool might be the best place to start. Schedule a demo with us today to learn how we can help you.

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About The Author · Osano Staff

The Osano staff is a diverse team of free thinkers who enjoy working as part of a distributed team with the common goal of working to make a more transparent internet. Occasionally, the team writes under the pen name of our mascot, “Penny, the Privacy Pro.”