This article is part of an ongoing IAPP Privacy Advisor series on privacy program metrics and benchmarking for incident-response management. Find earlier installments of this series here.

It’s commonly understood in operations and management practices that measuring performance is one of the best ways to pursue long-term improvements in performance. Consider the H. James Harrington quote, “If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

Given this, why is it so many privacy programs struggle to effectively measure and report on their work? This article series is devoted to establishing consistent program metrics and benchmarking your privacy incident management program, offering in previous installments examples of how data can fuel incident insights and ultimately inform process improvements.

This month’s installment will focus on examples of actionable insights from a relatively straightforward privacy program metric: incident volume over time. RADAR incident metadata indicates a wide divergence of incident-volume peaks and valleys over time with very little consistency, regardless of industry. Since every organization will have a different experience of incident volume month over month and year over year,  it is imperative that they measure this over time in order to set expectations and address issues and trends that emerge within the organization’s unique culture of compliance.

Incident vs. breach 

When we’re looking at incident volumes, keep in mind that an incident occurs when there is unauthorized use or disclosure of regulated data such as personally identifiable information (PII) or protected health information (PHI). An incident is considered a data breach when it meets specific legal definitions per data breach laws. Data breaches typically require notification to the affected individuals, state and federal agencies, and sometimes credit reporting agencies, local law enforcement, or the media. Only a small percentage of privacy incidents escalate into data breaches, and there is much to be learned in the large number of everyday incidents that occur within an organization.

Proactive privacy teams use incident-response information as a catalyst for action. If your current processes are designed to let you track and analyze incident and response trends over time, you can use them to achieve continuous improvement in both privacy and security. When looking at the volume of incidents you see over time, consider the following:

An increase in incident volume is indicator of successful employee training

Many teams conduct annual security training for employees, or on-demand training to address issues as they arise. Privacy teams report that training has a counter-intuitive benefit: more incident reporting. Following a successful training, look for an increase in incident escalation and reporting as a signal of success in effectively conveying your processes and the importance of privacy awareness. Even better, you may see an increase in the number of incidents reported, but a drop in the number of breaches that required reporting.

Real-time daily, weekly, or monthly reporting allows for increased responsiveness to emerging trends

Being able to view the granular details of your incident-response management process allows you to catch performance issues as they emerge. For example, month-over-month increases in incident volume may signal the privacy team to dig into the increase and where it may be coming from. Is there a pattern? Is it an anomaly? Does a sudden spike in incidents from a particular location or department indicate a new systemic or seasonal issue that could be prevented with timely reminders and training?

Recording peaks and valleys in incident reporting allows opportunity to provide attribution

Over time, once you’ve built up your privacy metrics, you’ll be able to compare quarterly trends (always of interest to business unit leaders and executive boards) and year-over-year trends. These metrics can be of interest in identifying seasonality of your business or your privacy program.

Some examples: Are you noticing an influx of incidents that correlate to tax season, or a dip in incident reporting as your employees enter the heavy travel days of summer, or simply a drop off at the end of each quarter when your employees are hard-pressed to meet quarterly goals? Having this kind of data can let you know when to best time your training, or ensure your system protection measures and secure and reinforced.

Remember: when it comes to incidents, no news is bad news.

If you’re challenged to manage these everyday incidents, you also likely recognize that more incidents can mean more work for privacy teams – after all, every incident, whether it does or does not rise to the level of a data breach, requires multi-factor risk assessment in order to prove compliance. While it’s true more incidents may bring more work to our teams, there are ways privacy teams can bring consistency and efficiency to their processes and better operationalize incident response. Here are a few suggestions…

Click here to read the full article on the IAPP Privacy Advisor