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Creating IT Security Policies

An uncompromised necessity in today's business

It's no secret to technical developers that security issues need to be taken into consideration when developing policies. However, the extent of those security issues can easily be overlooked by many organizations.

You may be familiar with blended threats, those that combine the most harmful characteristics of worms, viruses, Trojan horses, and malicious code to exploit existing computer and Internet vulnerabilities. The effects of blended threats are evident with a look back at the Slammer, SoBig, and Blaster worms. These fast-spreading worms disrupted network operations and services around the world and garnered much attention. In addition, they cost companies down time, productivity loss, and many dollars.

The speed and severity of blended threats are not the only things companies should be immediately concerned about - many new threats are lurking around the corner with even more malice and destruction. There are many theorized attacks such as Warhol, Flash, and zero-day threats. These types of threats can spread across the entire Internet community even quicker and can exploit vulnerabilities before they are even recognized. Because these threats will leave little, if any, time to respond, the reactive security measures of the past are no longer sufficient. While they exist only in theory, these threats are driving public and private institutions to feel a greater sense of urgency regarding information security. Add to the increased availability of progressively sophisticated hacker tools for exploiting security vulnerabilities, and the drawbacks of reactive security become clear. Companies now must be proactive in regard to security measures. In addition, IT security and creating IT security policies need to be on the forefront of company agendas.

While most organizations profess to have some type of information security policy, many do not have official policies, in writing, for workers to follow. Having specific written policies in place and making all workers aware of the policies is crucial. These policies must also be taken seriously and enforced by the organization. However, all policies must relate directly to the specific business needs of the organization, so a detailed assessment and approach to creating these policies is important.

One of the most significant issues companies face is the need to comply with industry standards and government regulations for secure business. Industry guides such as the International Standards Organization (ISO) 17799 and government regulations such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act help provide a framework for improved corporate governance and controls. Accurately written and enforced, information security policies enable organizations to not only demonstrate their adherence to these critical regulations and standards but also to articulate their own requirements for mitigating risk.

Creating a Security Policy Task Force

The first step to creating security policies is to identify a task force. A typical security policy task force for a larger enterprise might include a member of senior management, IT directors, an information security expert, auditors, a human resources representative, legal counsel, and a public relations manager. The creation of a task force is extremely important; without it, the information security policy is weakened and less likely to be taken seriously by employees.

Each member of the task force will provide a unique contribution to the team. Garnering the support of a security professional helps ensure that the policy reflects relevant threats and recommended steps to mitigate risk. Input from auditors helps pinpoint the current type of computer-related activities within the company, and human resources personnel can provide direction pertaining to implementation, education, training, and enforcement. Involvement of legal counsel is important to ensure that the information security policy protects company assets, does not violate employees' rights, and addresses applicable laws and regulations. The public relations manager can help set up a communications plan for dealing with the media and keeping stakeholders informed as the company responds to security incidents. Once it is written, the security policy should be signed at the highest corporate level possible to demonstrate the corporation's commitment to information security.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is the next step in the process. Risk assessment is the challenging process of weighing security versus exposure. Similar to a business impact analysis, risk assessment pinpoints whether information is underprotected, overprotected, or adequately protected. When assessing which problems would create the most damage, businesses must keep in mind the following variables for each piece of data housed on their networks:
  • What resources are organizations interested in protecting?
  • What is the value of those resources, monetary or otherwise?
  • What possible threats do those resources face?
  • What is the likelihood of those threats being realized?
  • What would be the impact of those threats on the business, employees, or customers, if those threats were realized?
When determining the value of an asset, organizations must consider both its monetary value and its intrinsic value. Monetary value can be determined by considering what would happen if the asset were unavailable for any reason. While many businesses place value on monetary worth, the individual assessing the risk also must place value on intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is the loss of data, loss of privacy, legal liability, unwanted media exposure, loss of customer or investor confidence, and the costs associated with repairing security breaches. Once information assets are identified and valued, threats to those assets must be evaluated through risk assessment.

Although types of sensitive data can be quite broad and can vary from organization to organization, there are a few key types of information that every business should plan to protect. These include all data related to strategic plans, business operations, and financial data. Damage to or loss of any of this information can result in decreased sales, reduced competitive advantage, and decreased profits for the victimized company.

A Security Suite

What is traditionally referred to as a corporate information security policy is actually a suite of documents, including the actual security policy as well as a standards document and a procedures document. The security policy is the smallest of the three; in many cases, a good security policy might be a short two-page document.

While the actual security policy is brief, it is critically important. It touches on four key elements: to whom and what the policy applies, the need for adherence, a general description, and consequences of nonadherence. These key elements provide the framework for the remaining documents. Once the security policy document is complete, it must also be approved and signed by the most senior manager in the organization, then made available to all employees.

The next document in the security policy suite defines what needs to be done to implement security. An information security standards document also describes which security controls are required and which controls apply to each element in the environment.

A typical document set of this sort addresses a variety of security issues, from roles and responsibilities of security personnel to protection against malicious code, information and software exchange, user responsibilities, mobile computing, access control, and more. Standards documents also often detail such issues as systems security requirements, the security of applications and files, and security in development and support processes. In addition, compliance issues - whether legal requirements, security or technical reviews, or audits -are also outlined in a standards document as are government regulations and industry standards. The good news is that like the security policy the information security standards is usually created once; from then on, the document is changed only if new systems, applications, or regulations are introduced.

The information security procedures document is the final component of the corporate information security policy suite and is the largest and most frequently altered document in the suite. This is the last word in the corporation's information security plan and spells out how security controls must be implemented and managed. Procedures are mapped to standards, and complying with any given standard typically requires that many procedures or tasks be completed. With this document, accuracy can make the difference between a solid and enforceable policy and one that is easily dismissed and not followed.

Protection and Uptime

While the effort to create a security policy, standards, and procedures documents is substantial, the rewards can also be significant. Enforcing and measuring compliance is a serious and important step for a growing number of companies. Government legislation continues to call for increased security checks and balances across the entire corporate environment, so enforcement and protection of these efforts is crucial.

Making it easier for organizations to meet their compliance goals, automation tools are available that discover and report on vulnerabilities, then deliver concise and prioritized information to security administrators. With these tools, corporations can focus on resolving security issues, protecting critical assets, and ensuring business continuity within organizations.


It is understandable that the complexity of today's digital environment calls for security strategies to manage business risks while proactively protecting corporate assets and making sure employees comply. While Internet threats accelerate and become increasingly sophisticated and effective, organizations must strengthen their security posture through intelligent security management that is up-to-date and that incorporates new vulnerabilities. A strong security policy that is strictly enforced will provide the foundation for a secure business environment - an uncompromised business necessity.

More Stories By Ronald van Geijn

Ronald van Geijn is director of product marketing at Symantec, where he leverages nearly a decade of IT and security expertise to develop the company's marketing strategy for the vulnerability assessment, policy compliance product lines, as well as the Symantec Security Management System.

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