Data Sensitivity & Criticality: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Data sensitivity and criticality are important considerations when classifying the security of information. In this lesson, you'll learn more about these terms and the various classification levels of government and private sectors.

Treasure Trove of Secrets

Ever wished you could sneak into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, better known as the CIA, and discover all of the government's best secrets? Throughout the years, some pretty amazing files that were once considered ''top secret'' or ''confidential'' have been declassified and released to the public. Curious about the CIA's role in the study of UFOs? It's there. Want to read more about the days surrounding the terrorist attack on September 11? Yep, it's there too.

Governments and private companies classify data based on its sensitivity and criticality.
data, sensitivity, criticality, classifications, secret, confidential, classified

The U.S. government is just one organization that uses data classification to detail how certain types of information should be stored, who can view it (and who cannot) and rules for sharing (or not). The U.S. military, a component of the Executive Branch of the government, is another system that relies heavily on data classification as well. But, did you know even everyday businesses - hospitals, corporations, real estate agencies, and more - also enact their own forms of data classification? Let's examine this idea a bit further.

Sensitivity and Criticality

When we think about data classification, we have to determine two things:

  • How sensitive is the type of data being shared?
  • How critical is the type of data being shared?

Data sensitivity concerns information that should be protected from unauthorized access or disclosure due to its sensitive nature. This might include proprietary information about a business that the company wouldn't want its competitors finding out about, or even personally identifiable information about patients or clients.

On the other hand, data criticality has to do with the level of importance of data to the success and processes of a business. For some, that might be research data, customer addresses, contracts or even employee records. Data that is critical to a business is information that typically helps them operate or earn money.

Classification Levels

Using the ideas of sensitivity and criticality, organizations and businesses often rely on a classification system to determine who can have access to certain files or parameters by which it should be handled.


If you're much of a watcher or reader of the news, you're probably familiar with terms like ''classified'' or ''top secret'' when it comes to government files. Sometimes, as in the case of our lesson's opening, these documents are declassified so they can be read or viewed by the public. Here are a few of the top classification levels of government agencies:

  • Top secret: This is at the top of the secret data pyramid, with only a handful of individuals authorized to view it. Unauthorized access could present grave dangers to the security of the United States. This might include wartime planning, for example.
  • Secret: A step down from top secret, secret data released into the wrong hands are believed to cause serious threats to U.S. security. This could include military documents not classified under ''top secret.''
  • Confidential: Confidential documents are third on the list and still present risks to U.S. security if they were to be released. Confidential data are things like intelligence reports or research conducted on weaponry.
  • Unclassified: Data that are unclassified are widely available information, often open to the public. There are no restrictions on who has access to this data or how it can be distributed. Unclassified files have often been declassified from a higher level of protection.

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