Large business: Why do you need a secure search engine?
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Posted by Scott Parker

The enterprise search engine is an essential tool for employee productivity and organizational effectiveness. The technology must be secure, however. Indeed, the very act of deploying an advanced search engine can create risk exposure if potential vulnerabilities are not addressed up front. A secure search engine is the solution. Built according to secure design principles, it enables the benefits of enterprise search while mitigating the most serious security risks.

What is a secure search engine?

What is a secure search engine? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand what an enterprise search engine does and how it works. Briefly, an enterprise search engine operates like a public search engine (e.g., Google or Bing), except it’s only for an organization’s internal use. Like any search engine, the enterprise variety indexes or “crawls” the data and documents contained inside an enterprise and creates a searchable index. Using a search query interface, users can then look for data and see ranked search results in response.

The security risks inherent in enterprise search emerge directly from the way the technology works. Given that data confidentiality is one of the core pillars of cybersecurity, then any application that compiles a searchable list of all the data in an organization creates a potential for a loss of confidentiality. The index becomes a rich target for malicious actors. Three areas of concern are of particular importance in this context:

  • Data classification - Not all data is suitable for search. For example, confidential employment agreements and sensitive intellectual property are generally off-limits to all but a few users in an organization. Making them discoverable in generalized enterprise search queries would probably violate a company’s own security policies. There can also be compliance problems if employees’ and customers’ personally identifiable information (PII) are revealed in a search index.
  • Data access - Who gets to see what? Not all users should have equal access to all information in the organization. In this sense, securing search is part of an organization’s broader data security policy enforcement. For example, if people who don’t work in human resources (HR) are not permitted to see HR data in general, then they should not be allowed to see it in a search engine, either.
  • Architectural risks- The enterprise search engine presents an attractive attack target. It needs to be deployed securely to reduce the likelihood of a data breach. This requirement also applies to sometimes-neglected architectural considerations like the backup of the search index, Application Programming Interface (APIs) and so forth. Attackers like to find data wherever it’s stored, even if the organization isn’t aware of its location. For instance, if the enterprise search index is backed up in a cloud volume, that cloud storage better be secured as well as any other critical data asset.

A secure search engine is one that addresses these issues and enables enterprise search without exposing the organization to risk. Access rights and data classification are the critical controls that ensure secure search. Users must only be able see what they have access rights to see. This requirement applies even to search suggestions and drop-down lists. To make it work, a secure search engine must respect the access control lists of the indexed data sources so it always aligns with an organization’s security and data classification policies.

What are the benefits of a secure search engine?

A secure search engine confers a variety of technological and business benefits. When employees can leverage the search application without concern for security, they can be more productive. Enterprise search enables people to get their work done more efficiently. They don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for information. They can search data and take advantage of enterprise search apps as research tools.

In IT terms, when security is designed into the enterprise search engine, that makes life a lot easier for IT and security managers. They still have work to do in the configuration of the solution and enforcing policies. However, they have fewer concerns about whether the solution itself will lead to increased risk exposure for the organization.

Securely transform your data into information

A secure search engine gives an organization the power to transform its data into useful information. Indeed, if people can’t find data, they definitely cannot use it for informational purposes. Yet, data, especially unstructured data like PDFs, can languish invisibly—outside of employees’ zone of awareness, even if they contain valuable insights. An enterprise search engine opens up that data for use in driving the business forward.

Secure search engines are an essential element of the modern enterprise. Yet, they are not standalone entities, in security terms. To work, they must align with or even integrate with other solutions. These include data classification systems and data lifecycle management platforms, along with security tools. A secure search engine must also generally link with Identity and Access Management (IAM) solutions in order to effect access controls. Secure search is an easily attainable goal, these requirements notwithstanding. If the search engine has been designed for security, it will fit well with the existing security and data management infrastructure.

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