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Rajat Venkatesh
Rajat Venkatesh

Posted on • Originally published at tokern.io

Two Methods to Scan for PII in Data Warehouses

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 Screenshot

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 are 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 linked 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 maybe used to store the name of a person.
  • ssn or social_security maybe used to store US SSN numbers.
  • phone or phone_number maybe 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
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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).*$
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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 builtin 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)
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Once the rows have been extracted, then 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.

PIICather Demo

Features

A data warehouse can be scanned using either strategies. PIICatcher is battery-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.

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 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.

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