What is data integrity? [and how you can maintain it]

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Organizations lose $12.9 million every year due to poor data quality, aka data integrity. 

Data integrity refers to your data’s completeness, accuracy, and consistency — the cornerstone of accurate decision-making. 

This article explores why accurate, properly maintained data is essential. We also offer practical tips for identifying data integrity issues. 

What is data integrity?

Data integrity refers to the accuracy of data stored in a database. Data with ‘integrity’ has all the characteristics of up-to-date, correct information. 

It’s important to note that data integrity can be intentionally or inadvertently compromised. 

For example, organizations might neglect critical error detection practices, such as conducting a Data Integrity Risk Assessment (DIRA) before a system update, leading to data loss or accidental inconsistencies in their datasets. 

However, a company might also deliberately manipulate data to make their business appear more profitable or compliant than it truly is. 

For example, in 2019, Volkswagen was sentenced to pay a record-breaking $125 million in penalties after deliberately falsifying their data to appear like they were in compliance with Australia’s diesel emission standards. 

Therefore, it’s not enough to claim your data is accurate — you need a designated system that proves its integrity. 

The different types of data integrity

Physical integrity and logical integrity are the two main types of data integrity.  

While both are a combination of steps and approaches to relational and hierarchical databases that help ensure data integrity, there are a few defining differences between the two. 

Physical data integrity 

Physical data integrity preserves the accuracy and correctness of data when it’s stored or retrieved and protects data from threats, such as: 

  • Hardware deterioration
  • Power outages 
  • Unsafe storage facilities 

There are several ways to maintain physical data integrity, including installing access codes and security cameras. However, many businesses outsource their data storage and management to a third-party provider — especially one offering cloud-based solutions. 

This approach ensures your datasets are in the right environment and properly cared for to minimize the risk of physical disruptions. 

Logical data integrity 

Logical data integrity ensures that data remains unchanged when used in multiple ways through a relational database system. It protects from errors such as: 

  • Human error 
  • Hacking 

Logical data integrity is achieved and maintained by creating validation rules that test if your data is accurate and by adding dataset values that only accept results that align with predefined criteria. This helps avoid common issues associated with poor data quality, like duplication or the inclusion of irrelevant information. 

Logical data integrity has four formats:

  • Entity integrity 
  • Referential integrity 
  • Domain integrity 
  • User-defined integrity

Each type of logical integrity protects a different aspect of your data. For instance, an online bookstore storing customer information might use logical integrity checks like: 

  • Entity integrity: Checks for duplication in the dataset and ensures every customer record has a unique identifier, like a customer ID number. 
  • Referential integrity: Ensure customers' purchase orders link to their customer records. 
  • Domain integrity: Checks the system only accepts valid inputs, such as numbers for age questions, and restricts inappropriate answers. 
  • User-defined integrity: Ensure custom integrity rules are applied to check data, such as only accepting email addresses with the “@” symbol. 

Maintaining the four types of logical data integrity will ensure that your data remains reliable and correct at all times. 

Why is data integrity important? 

Data integrity ensures your company’s data isn’t compromised in any way to eliminate incorrect or incomplete data. It also helps to remain compliant with regulations, especially when dealing with customer’s personal information. 

How serious are the consequences of inadequate data integrity? 

The repercussions of inadequate data integrity have a ripple effect on every aspect of your business. 

Some of these consequences include: 

  • Compliance violations: Non-compliance with data integrity regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR), can result in fines and lawsuits from government bodies or affected parties. For instance, the FDA sends warning letters to companies with data integrity issues.
  • Monetary loss: Poor data integrity can lead to financial loss from legal fines, system repairs, and service interruptions or delays.
  • Inaccurate forecasting: Poor data quality is the main reason for 40% of business goal failures, as companies share predictions with investors or clients without realizing these insights are based on flawed data. 
  • Loss of trust and reputation: A lack of data integrity can damage stakeholder relationships by diminishing credibility and severely impacting your company's market position or sales performance.  

How the integrity of data impacts compliance 

In 2024, data integrity has become a leading concern of government officials worldwide. Laws and regulations like the HIPAA and GDPR specify how data should be collected and stored.

Non-compliance with these regulations can have serious consequences, such as: 

  • Revoked licenses 
  • Hefty fines
  • Legal penalties 

Our PCI and vulnerability assessment includes scans that help you pinpoint specific areas of your system that don’t meet current regulatory requirements. These help to ensure you’re staying compliant with data integrity requirements and maintain the correctness of your data over time. 

4 tips on how to ensure data integrity (and maintain it)

Corrupted or incorrect data is harmful to your business. 

The best way to ensure your data stays ‘clean and pure’ is to invest time in developing a quality Data Integrity Risk Assessment (DIRA) process. 

You can do this by including a step-by-step process for auditing and analyzing data and highlighting specific areas that may influence your data’s reliability. 

1. Choose a file system that automatically conducts checksums 

Use a file system with a built-in algorithm that automatically verifies your data integrity to mitigate potential risks. 

It works by assigning each block of your data a unique checksum, which is then compared against the stored checksum value. If there are any discrepancies, the system will notify you that your data is at risk of corruption.   

Checksums help maintain data integrity through the following: 

  • Early detection of data tampering 
  • Facilitating the data recovery process with minimal disruption 

To streamline the process, use a ZFS (zettabyte file system) or Btrf (B-Tree File System) storage system that automatically conducts checksum verification tests and data scrubs to correct errors in your stored data. 

2. Utilize version control and implement encryption 

Version control is a way to track all changes made to company files to access or revert to previous versions of your data.

This allows you to compare your current files against past versions to help identify discrepancies or alterations — without risking data loss. 

Similarly, encryption protects your data by converting sensitive information into a code that’s only accessible through decryption keys. For example, the US government uses the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt citizen data.

Both of these systems allow you to: 

  • Hide information in lines of code to ensure confidentiality of sensitive information even through transfer
  • Keep data secure from unauthorized access

A great way to integrate version control and encryption into your DIRA is to use a cloud-based server solution like Liquid Web to access and manage high-quality data.

3. Implement the 3-2-1-1-0 backup rule

Your data integrity strategy should include at least two server backup drives and, in some cases, an off-server solution to ensure your data is safe and backed up properly

lines of code on screen

For example, to avoid data loss during a power outage, use the 3-2-1-1-0 backup rule — a system where you have multiple backups at all times. 

Apply the 3-2-1-1-0 backup rule by: 

  • Creatingthree copies of your data, including the original and two backups 
  • Storing the copies on two different devices 
  • Keeping one copy offsite to protect against physical damage or loss 
  • Maintaining one offline copy to guard against cyber attacks

4. Run a proper data integrity test 

You must regularly run data integrity tests throughout the year to maintain data integrity. 

Data integrity tests are not a one-time solution. Therefore, they need to become the cornerstone of your DIRA process. 

A proper data integrity test should:

  • Verify that data is stored in a safe and secure environment
  • Identify data integrity processes that are non-compliant with recent laws and regulations

What are the most common dangers to a company’s data integrity? 

You must be aware of four environmental, human, and software threats to protect your data’s integrity. 

1. Human error or interference

95% of cybersecurity issues can be traced back to human error. These errors are often unintentional, such as:  

  • Misplacing files 
  • Accidental deletion 
  • Unauthorized access 

The best way to approach human error is to adopt a ‘prevent or minimize’ approach. For example, you can prevent unauthorized access by setting up access controls while minimizing the impacts of human error by introducing a data backup system.

2. Software bugs  

Software bugs, like functional or logical bugs, can lead to disruptions in your software system that impact data integrity. 

Software bugs can weaken data integrity by: 

  • Producing incorrect outputs 
  • Causing discrepancies in data stores across different systems 
  • Including unauthorized functionality from an untrusted source 

It takes time to identify software bugs, treat the problem, and get your system back on track. 

In fact, finding and fixing defects in software cost companies in the US a total of $607 billion in 2022

To protect your data against software bugs, perform quality assurance checks and regularly update your software with patches and fixes. 

3. Hardware failure 

Hardware failure is a significant threat to data integrity — yet, it’s a chronically overlooked part of data maintenance. 

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that 30–60% of computer system breakdowns, such as memory malfunctioning or system crashes, are linked to hardware failures. 

Hardware failures can lead to: 

  • Data transmission errors 
  • Interrupt conflicts 
  • Contention issues 

For your hardware to function properly, it must be stored in a hospitable environment between 64 and 80 degrees, free from heat or dust.

Another option is to use an external cloud storage service that regularly backs up your data. This way, even if your hardware fails, your data remains safe and accessible. 

4. Insufficient security measures 

Cybersecurity shields your data from potential threats to its integrity, such as hackers, malware attacks, or accidental breaches. 

Without adequate security measures, your data is left unguarded and unprotected, susceptible to various forms of exploitation. 

This is especially true for an online business that collects sensitive customer information. For example, Equifax accidentally exposed the information of 148 million of its customers by failing to secure their data appropriately. 

Insufficient security measures can impact data integrity by:

  • Allowing for unauthorized manipulation of data 
  • Exposing data to cyber criminals 
  • Leaving it vulnerable to denial-of-service (DoS) attacks or system failures 

The only way to keep intruders out is to put a layer of armor between your data and security threats with advanced systems like firewalls, encryption, and access controls. 

Ensuring data integrity will protect your business 

Your approach to maintaining data integrity will ultimately determine your business decisions' credibility and accuracy. 

The best way to protect your business is to partner with a web hosting and solutions service like Liquid Web. With over 10 global data centers, our dedicated team can help you secure and protect your data from being breached, compromised, or corrupted. 

Take the first step and book a chat today with one of our industry professionals, or explore our secure hosting plans