The Biggest Data Security Risk? Downloading Data to a Spreadsheet.

These days, it seems like every time you turn around another company announces a data breach. At the same time, organizations spend millions on their data warehouses, security solutions, and compliance initiatives. But all of that spend can instantly be rendered useless by the everyday business workflow of downloading data to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

Of course, business experts aren’t looking to circumvent enterprise governance practices. They’re just trying to get the answers they need to make better business decisions. And because they lack the SQL programming expertise or extensive training required to work with data directly in most business intelligence (BI) tools, they are often powerless to answer the questions raised in the last meeting or email. So they turn to what they know best: the spreadsheet.

Identifying the Problem

Data downloaded to a personal computer creates a multitude of problems:

  • Once you extract data from a BI tool to a spreadsheet, the data team loses visibility. They have no idea how employees use or share data.
  • The loss of visibility into the data means it’s out of reach for security and compliance oversight, making it vulnerable to misuse or hacking.
  • The downloaded data is instantly out of date once exported from the warehouse.
  • The extracted data almost certainly represents a subset of the complete dataset, meaning decisions are being made using only a slice of the available data.

The Lure of Downloading Data

If the risks of downloading data to an Excel spreadsheet are so clear, why do so many business experts continue to do it? Here are some reasons that business users opt to analyze data in spreadsheet:

  • It’s easy. Spreadsheets are familiar territory. Unlike BI tools, they don’t require specialized SQL coding expertise.
  • It’s fast. Business experts don’t have time to fill out a ticket and then wait for the data experts to come back with an answer—only to find that the answer, when it finally arrives, raises more questions, leading to more tickets, and more waiting.
  • It’s flexible. BI analysis tools offer ‘self-service’ interfaces for business users, but these interfaces are minimal. They do not allow business experts to ask novel questions, or to follow their curiosity and explore problems in creative ways.


Sigma can eliminate the need to analyze company data in spreadsheets. See for yourself. Schedule a demo today. 

Measuring the Impact

It might seem like downloading data to a personal computer is a trivial issue. But real-world events suggest otherwise. The average data breach costs companies $3.86 million, according to the “2018 Cost of a Data Breach Study”—up 6.4% from 2017.


The rate of BI adoption
of all employees.

Even the most innocent mistakes can cost millions. In 2016, a Boeing employee mistakenly emailed his spouse a spreadsheet filled with personal data—including social security numbers and birth dates—on some 36,000 other Boeing employees. As a result, Boeing had to offer each employee two-year subscriptions to Experian’s identity theft protection services. Based on Experian’s service costs, this one spreadsheet error likely cost the company somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million



The rate of BI adoption
of all employees.

Then there’s the effect bad data can have on research and decision making. A study in Genome Biology in 2016 found that one in five genetics papers published in top scientific journals contained errors attributed to autoformatting mistakes in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

So how do you avoid these issues? Start by storing your data in the cloud. Even Microsoft’s suggestions for preventing security breaches in its Office products include “consider moving sensitive information and systems to a cloud provider” rather than storing it on a personal computer.

The Sigma Solution: Get Spreadsheet Advantages Without Sacrificing Governance

Sigma addresses the needs of both business experts and their enterprises by melding the power of cloud data warehouses with the ease and familiarity of a spreadsheet. Built for the cloud, Sigma gives business experts the freedom to explore without limits or help from the data team. And just as important, Sigma provides answers without removing data from the data warehouse or downloading it to a PC.

The safest place for your data is in your data warehouse. Any time you move your data it creates vulnerabilities, whether that’s moving data to an extract, having people download data to their PC, or using emails to share reports. With Sigma, you can analyze your data without moving it.

Rob Woollen

CEO of Sigma

Sigma provides business experts with direct access to powerful cloud data warehouses, without requiring SQL or BI expertise. Suddenly, the temptation to download data to an Excel spreadsheet disappears—and the risk of a data breach with it.

What’s your data strategy for 2019 and beyond?


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  1. We calculated this value based on Experian’s stated cost of $19.99 per month for its service.