A woman sits at a table in a brightly lit storeroom, typing on an open laptop. The woman has bobbed brown hair and wears a dark gray apron, a white collared shirt, and glasses. The walls of the room behind her are lined with shelving units filled with dishes, mugs, and other dinnerware. A blonde woman wearing an apron stands out-of-focus examining something on one of the shelves.
Data provenance, which records the history of your business's data, can provide a digital version of a paper trail, protecting your company against fraudsters who falsify data. — Getty Images/visualspace

Small business owners are increasingly encountering sophisticated cybersecurity threats that challenge traditional security measures. One potential way to counter these threats is understanding and leveraging data provenance.

Data provenance refers to the detailed record of the origin, lifecycle, and changes made to a file or set of data. It includes tracking who created or modified the data, when and where these changes occurred, and the context behind these modifications. In essence, data provenance provides a comprehensive history of data, ensuring its integrity and reliability.

According to Cindy Vestergaard, Vice President of Special Projects and External Relations at DataTrails, data provenance has become essential to cybersecurity because of its ability to detect and prevent data tampering.

“In the event of a cybersecurity incident or data breach, data provenance can track down the source of the breach, identify the affected data, and determine how the incident occurred, which is vital for incident response and remediation,” Vestergaard said.

[Read more: How Small Businesses Can Protect Against Cyberattacks]

What is data provenance?

To better illustrate what data provenance means, Vestergaard gave an example of a small online jewelry store owner who carefully records materials, production, and changes to their listings and inventory. This might include logging online orders with payment transactions, shipping addresses, customer communications, and feedback.

“Without proper data provenance, the business may struggle to track details of each jewelry piece, leading to inventory discrepancies and potentially unfulfilled orders, disappointed customers, and higher costs,” Vestergaard told CO—. “Without a proper history, it can also become difficult to address customer inquiries, resolve disputes, or provide accurate information about the status of orders which may lead to negative reviews, customer loyalty, and decline in repeat business.”

The role of data provenance in cybersecurity

Vestergaard noted that data provenance can aid businesses with numerous cybersecurity strategies and actions, including:

Detecting and preventing data tampering

Data provenance detects and prevents unauthorized or malicious modifications to data. If a cybersecurity incident occurs, data provenance enables businesses to trace the source of the breach, identify the affected data, and understand how the breach occurred, all of which is crucial for effective incident response and remediation.

[Read more: How to Protect Your Business From Being Hacked]

In the event of a cyber incident, having a comprehensive data provenance framework enables faster and more accurate incident response and forensic analysis.

Cindy Vestergaard, Vice President of Special Projects and External Relations at DataTrails

Creating reliable data trails

Data provenance also enhances cybersecurity by maintaining immutable logs of data access and changes. These logs make it easier to spot unauthorized changes or access, aiding in rapid response and remediation.

“Understanding the ‘how’ and ‘where’ can aid in rapid response, remediation, and cost recovery,” Vestergaard explained. “In the event of a cyber incident, having a comprehensive data provenance framework enables faster and more accurate incident response and forensic analysis.”

A reliable data trail demonstrates due diligence in protecting sensitive data, which is essential during cyber incidents. For businesses relying on external suppliers, data provenance can verify the security practices of partners, ensuring that third-party services and products do not bring in vulnerabilities.

Enhancing overall security in conjunction with other technologies

Applying blockchain or other distributed ledger technologies can reinforce data provenance. These technologies provide a decentralized, tamper-evident, and immutable ledger, further securing critical data against cyberthreats.

[Read more: How to Protect Company and Customer Data as a Small Business]

Data provenance and the future of cybersecurity

While data provenance isn’t new, the rise of generative AI (GenAI) and other advanced technologies has exposed gaps in traditional approaches to data provenance. These technologies were not originally designed to provide long-term, verifiable integrity or transparency.

“GenAI has … proven to be a massive fraud-generating engine, which means that every business needs to do more to enhance its data provenance capabilities,” Vestergaard said.

Fraudsters are leveraging AI by creating fake identities by merging real and fake data. They can use AI to forge documents, enhance phishing emails, facilitate fraudulent transactions, and clone voices. In 2022, businesses worldwide spent $6.5 billion on AI-powered financial fraud prevention, making it a powerful tool in combating fraudsters.

Delaying action can have many risks, including immediate damage to your business’s reputation. Simple and effective technology tools that support data provenance can play a big part in protecting businesses from these risks, said Vestergaard. These tools help create and maintain robust data provenance frameworks, which are essential for safeguarding against sophisticated cyberthreats.

“The risks [of fraud] are too great and the reputational damage too immediate to delay putting in some simple and easy tools like those from DataTrails that help protect and eliminate unnecessary risks,” Vestergaard said.

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