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The Challenges of Using Live Data for Testing

Posted by Tony Simms on 22/08/2023
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The Vitality of UK GDPR Compliance

We have recently revised and updated our privacy policy to ensure that we remain complaint with UK GDPR and other legislations. It's essential that we do so if we wish to maintain the trust of our staff and clients but that got us thinking…

As the demand for efficient testing grows, so does the demand for relevant data to test against. We are aware that many of our clients use a copy of live data in their testing. It makes sense. Live data is relevant as there is plenty of it and it's quick and easy to get hold of.



While live data for testing offers invaluable benefits in terms of accuracy and real-world simulations, organisations must tread carefully to safeguard personal data and comply with regulations like the UK GDPR.

The Allure and Pitfalls of Live Data Testing

Live data testing involves the utilisation of real, production-like data during the testing phase of software or system development. This approach offers numerous benefits including:

  • It's easier to mimic real-life scenarios
  • It provides more accurate results
  • It allows for production volume performance tests
  • Live data may contain ‘dirty’ data that causes failure that synthetic data would not

However, along with these benefits come several challenges that organisations must navigate carefully:

1. Data Privacy and Security:

Using live data raises concerns about the privacy and security of sensitive information. Customer details, financial records and personal identifiers are susceptible to breaches or leaks during testing if proper security measures are not in place.

2. Consent and Authorisation:

The use of personal data in testing might require explicit consent from data subjects. Obtaining this consent can be complex, especially when dealing with legacy systems or large datasets where identifying and obtaining consent from individuals may be time-consuming.

3. Data Masking and Anonymisation:

To address privacy concerns, data masking and anonymisation techniques are often employed to conceal sensitive information. However, ensuring that these techniques are implemented correctly without compromising the integrity of the test data can be technically challenging.

4. Data Minimisation:

The principle of data minimisation emphasises collecting only the data necessary for a specific purpose. Applying this principle to live data testing ensures that sensitive information is not needlessly exposed.

5. Compliance with Regulations: 

One of the most significant challenges is ensuring compliance with data protection regulations, particularly the UK GDPR. Mishandling personal data during testing can result in severe legal and financial consequences.

The Imperative of UK GDPR Compliance

The United Kingdom's General Data Protection Regulation is a comprehensive framework designed to safeguard individuals' personal data and regulate its processing. While data protection is paramount at all stages, it takes on a heightened importance during testing due to the inherent risks. 

Here's why UK GDPR compliance is indispensable:

1. Legal Consequences

Non-compliance with UK GDPR can lead to substantial fines and reputational damage. Organisations can face penalties of up to 4% of their annual global turnover or£18 million whichever is higher.

2. Data Subjects' Rights

Under UK GDPR, data subjects have rights such as the right to access, rectify and erase their personal data. Organisations using live data for testing must ensure these rights are upheld even during testing.

3. Transparency and Accountability

Being GDPR-compliant demonstrates an organisation's commitment to transparency and accountability, fostering trust among customers, partners and stakeholders.

4. Ethical Responsibility

Respecting individual's privacy rights is an ethical imperative. Adhering to GDPR guidelines reflects an organisation's ethical stance and responsible behaviour.

Striking the right balance between effective testing and data protection is not only a legal necessity but also a reflection of an organisation's commitment to privacy, security and ethical conduct.

Live Data Testing Readiness Checklist

Before using live data in testing, it's essential to ensure that you're well-prepared,  that you are safeguarding data privacy and complying with regulations. 

Use this checklist to help consider all aspects of using live data before proceeding with live data testing:

1. Data Privacy and Compliance:

Determine if using live data complies with data protection regulations (e.g., GDPR, HIPAA, PCER ). Identify sensitive data elements that need special protection or anonymisation. Obtain necessary permissions or consents from data subjects if required by regulations.

2. Data Anonymisation and Masking:

Establish data anonymisation techniques to protect personal and sensitive information. Use data masking tools or scripts to replace sensitive data with masked or fictional values. Ensure that the anonymisation process doesn't compromise the integrity of the test data.

3. Data Security:

Collaborate with data security experts to ensure that the test environment is secure from unauthorised access. Implement encryption mechanisms to protect data during storage, transmission and processing.

4. Data Preparation:

Collaborate with relevant stakeholders to acquire the right live data for testing scenarios. Verify the accuracy and completeness of the live data to ensure it accurately reflects real-world scenarios. Prepare a variety of data inputs and scenarios to comprehensively test different use cases.

5. Test Environment:

Set up a dedicated test environment that mirrors the production environment as closely as possible. Ensure that the testing infrastructure can handle the volume and complexity of live data. Collaborate with IT to ensure that the test environment is isolated from production systems to prevent accidental data leakage.

6. Test Data Management:

Document the sources of live data, data generation processes and the methods used for anonymisation. Maintain a backup of the original live data for auditing purposes or to address any data-related issues.

7. Test Coverage:

Collaborate with testing and business stakeholders to define testing scenarios and requirements covered by live data. Ensure that live data testing covers a wide range of scenarios including positive, negative and edge cases.

8. Test Execution and Validation:

Collaborate with testing teams to execute test cases using live data. Validate that the test results align with the expected outcomes based on the live data scenarios.

9. Data Monitoring:

Implement monitoring mechanisms to track data usage and access during testing. Regularly review logs and records to ensure that sensitive data remains protected.

10. Communication and Documentation:

Collaborate with stakeholders to communicate the use of live data and its implications. Document the entire process including data preparation, anonymisation, usage, results for future reference and compliance purposes.

11. Risk Assessment and Mitigation:

Collaborate with risk management teams to identify potential risks associated with live data usage. Develop contingency plans to address any issues that might arise during testing.

12. Continuous Improvement:

Collaborate with stakeholders to gather feedback on the live data testing process and identify areas for improvement. Continuously refine the process based on lessons learned and evolving data privacy regulations.

By following this detailed checklist, we hope that you will be able ensure that your live data testing process is well-prepared, compliant and effective in providing accurate insights into your software's behaviour and performance under real-world conditions.

You can learn more our security testing services overview here. This document provides a glimpse into the solutions we offer, covering consultancy service, automated penetration testing and real-time security testing.

nFocus SDET Academy

Topics: Software Testing, GDPR, Test Data

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