The Two Best Ways to Scan for PII in Your Data Warehouseby@vrajat
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The Two Best Ways to Scan for PII in Your Data Warehouse

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An important requirement for data privacy and protection is to find and catalog tables and columns that contain PII or PHI data in a data warehouse. Open source data catalogs like [Datahub] and [Amundsen] enable cataloging of information in data warehouses. This post describes two strategies to scan and detect PII as well as introduce an open source application [PIICatcher] that can be used to scan data warehouses for PII. PII data includes SSN, email or phone numbers, login ID details, social media posts, digital images, geolocation and more.

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An important requirement for data privacy and protection is to find and catalog tables and columns that contain PII or PHI data in a data warehouse. Open source data catalogs like Datahub and Amundsen enable cataloging of information in data warehouses. Moreover, tables and columns can be tagged including PII and type of PII tags.

The missing piece is to scan, detect and tag tables and columns with PII.

This post describes two strategies to scan and detect PII as well as introduce an open source application PIICatcher that can be used to scan data warehouses.

PIICatcher scanning for PII data

PIICatcher scanning for PII data

What is PII data?

PII or Personally Identifiable Information is generally defined as any piece of information that can be used to identify an individual. Traditionally, information such as SSN, mailing, email, or phone numbers is considered PII. As technology has evolved, the scope of PII has increased to include login IDs, IP addresses, geolocation, and biometric data.

There are different types of PII data:

  • Sensitive: is any data that can be used to directly link to an individual such as name, phone numbers, email, and mailing address.
  • Non-Sensitive: is any data that can be used to indirectly link to an individual such as location and race.

Specifically, PII, as defined by Compliance laws, are:

  • GDPR: PII is any data that can be used to clearly identify an individual. This also includes IP addresses, login ID details, social media posts, digital images, geolocation, and more.
  • CCPA: Personal information is defined as information that identifies, relates to, describes, is reasonably capable of being associated with, or could reasonably be linked, directly or indirectly, with a particular consumer or household.
  • HIPAA: HIPAA also defines PII as any type of information that relates directly or indirectly to an individual.

Beyond the above definition, domains and businesses may have specific PII data collected by them. A simple example is PHI (Personal Health Information) collected by the health industry. Similarly, bank account or crypto-currency wallet IDs can also be used to identify individuals.

The following list can be considered as basic or common PII information that all industries need to manage:

  • Phone
  • Email
  • Credit Card
  • Address
  • Person/Name
  • Location
  • Date
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • IP Address
  • SSN
  • User Name
  • Password

Challenges

An example record in the patients table in Synthetic Patient Records with COVID-19 is:

Column Name

Data

Id

f0f3bc8d-ef38-49ce-a2bd-dfdda982b271

BIRTHDATE

2017-08-24

SSN

999-68-6630

FIRST

Jacinto644

LAST

Kris249

RACE

white

ETHNICITY

nonhispanic

GENDER

M

BIRTHPLACE

Beverly Massachusetts US

ADDRESS

888 Hickle Ferry Suite 38

CITY

Springfield

STATE

Massachusetts

COUNTY

Hampden County

ZIP

01106

LAT

42.151961474963535

LON

-72.59895940376188

HEALTHCARE_EXPENSES

8446.49

HEALTHCARE_COVERAGE

1499.08

Note that most of the columns store PII data. However, it can be confusing to detect if a column stores PII data and the type of PII data. For example, if the scanner only scans the data in SSN then it may detect it as a phone number. Similarly, M or F in the GENDER column or white in RACE column, do not provide enough context to detect if it is PII and the type of PII data. In both these cases, it is easier to scan the column names.

Conversely, the payers table stores the name of health insurance companies in the NAME column. In this case, the scanner has to check the data to detect that the NAME column does not contain PII data.

Techniques to scan and detect PII data

Based on the previous section, the two main strategies to scan for PII data are:

  1. Scan column and table names
  2. Scan data stored in columns

Scan Data Warehouse Metadata

Data engineers use descriptive names for tables and columns to help users understand the data stored in them. Therefore, the names of tables and columns provide clues to the type of data stored. For example,

  • first_name, last_name, full_name or name may be used to store the name of a person.
  • ssn or social_security may be used to store US SSN numbers.
  • phone or phone_number may be used to store phone numbers.

All data warehouses provide an information schema to extract schema, table and column information. For example, the following query can be used to get metadata from Snowflake:

SELECT
    lower(c.column_name) AS col_name,
    c.comment AS col_description,
    lower(c.data_type) AS col_type,
    lower(c.ordinal_position) AS col_sort_order,
    lower(c.table_catalog) AS database,
    lower({cluster_source}) AS cluster,
    lower(c.table_schema) AS schema,
    lower(c.table_name) AS name,
    t.comment AS description,
    decode(lower(t.table_type), 'view', 'true', 'false') AS is_view
FROM
    {database}.{schema}.COLUMNS AS c
LEFT JOIN
    {database}.{schema}.TABLES t
        ON c.TABLE_NAME = t.TABLE_NAME
        AND c.TABLE_SCHEMA = t.TABLE_SCHEMA

Regular expressions can be used to match table or column names. For example, the regular expression below detects a column that stores social security numbers:

^.*(ssn|social).*$

Scan data stored in columns

The second strategy is to scan the data stored in columns. Within this strategy the two sub-strategies are:

The major disadvantage of this strategy is that NLP libraries are compute-intensive. It can be prohibitively expensive to run NLP scanners even on moderately sized tables let alone tables of millions or billions of rows. Therefore, a random sample of rows should be scanned. Choosing a random sample is harder than expected. Luckily, a few databases provide built-in functions to choose a random sample. For example, the Snowflake query below provides a random sample:

select {column_list} from {schema_name}.{table_name} TABLESAMPLE BERNOULLI (10 ROWS)

Once the rows have been extracted, they can be processed using regular expressions or NLP libraries to detect PII content.

Breaking Ties

As explained in challenges, both techniques are required to detect PII data. However, both techniques are susceptible to false positives and negatives. More often than not, different techniques suggest conflicting PII types. Detecting the right type is hard and the subject of a future blog post.

PIICatcher: Scan data warehouses for PII data

PIICatcher implements both the strategies to scan and detect PII data in the data warehouses.

PIICatcher screencast

PIICatcher screencast

Features

A data warehouse can be scanned using either strategies. PIICatcher is batteries-included with a growing set of regular expressions for scanning column names as well as data. It also include Spacy.

PIICatcher supports incremental scans and will only scan new or not-yet scanned columns. Incremental scans allow easy scheduling of scans. It also provides powerful options to include or exclude schema and tables to manage compute resources.

There are ingestion functions for both Datahub and Amundsen which will tag columns and tables with PII and the type of PII tags.

Columns tagged with PII types by PIICatcher in Amundsen

Columns tagged with PII types by PIICatcher in Amundsen

Check out AWS Glue & Lake Formation Privilege Analyzer for an example of how PIIcatcher is used in production.

Conclusion

Column names and data can be scanned to detect PII in databases. Both strategies are required to reliably detect PII data. PIICatcher is an open-source application that implements both of these strategies. It can tag datasets with PII and the type of PII to enable data admins to take more informed decisions on data privacy and security.


This article was also published on Tokern.

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