enterprise security

SecurityTrails Blog · Oct 19 · by Sara Jelen

Information Security Policy: Overview, Key Elements and Best Practices

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Organizational policies act as the foundation for many programs, rules and guidelines by providing a framework to ensure clarity and consistency around an organization’s operations.

The importance of information security can’t be overstated. If compromised, customer and employee data, intellectual property, trade secrets and other highly sensitive and valuable information can mean the downfall of an organization, which makes keeping it secure one of the most critical operations to maintain. Therefore, a policy accounting for information security becomes an expected progression.

With so many different types of data, systems that handle and store it, users that access it and risks that threaten its safety, it becomes increasingly important to have a documented information security policy. Furthermore, compliance requirements regulate ways in which organizations need to keep this information private and secure, further promoting the need for a document that will ensure those requirements are met.

Regardless of size or industry, every organization needs a documented information security policy to help protect their data and valuable assets. But where to begin?

What is an information security policy?

An information security policy (ISP) is a high-level policy that enforces a set of rules, guidelines and procedures that are adopted by an organization to ensure all information technology assets and resources are used and managed in a way that protects their confidentiality, integrity and availability.

Typically, an ISP would apply to all organization’s users and IT data as well as infrastructure, networks, systems, third and fourth parties. Information security policies help organizations ensure that all users understand and apply the rules and guidelines, practice acceptable use of an organization’s IT resources, and know how to act. Ultimately, the ISP’s goal is to provide valuable direction to users with regard to security.

The way an effective policy is shaped and customized is based on how an organization and its members operate and approach information. ISP sets the tone for the implementation of security controls that will address an organization’s relevant cybersecurity risks and procedures to mitigate them as well as the responsibilities needed to manage security properly. Furthermore, it’s implemented in a way that supports their business objectives while adhering to industry standards and regulatory requirements.

Organizations across industries design and implement security policies for many reasons. These include establishing a foundational approach to information security; documenting measures, procedures and expected behaviours that support and dictate the direction of overall security management; protecting customer and user data; complying with industry and regulatory requirements; and ultimately protecting their reputation.

The CIA triad

As mentioned, the main goal of an IT security policy is to maintain the confidentiality, integrity and availability of an organization’s systems and information. Those three principles—confidentiality, integrity and availability—make up what is known as the CIA triad, a somewhat outdated, but still well-known model that remains at the foundation of many organizations’ security infrastructure and security programs.

  • Confidentiality refers to an organization’s efforts to keep sensitive data private. Personally identifiable information (PII), credit card data, intellectual property, trade sectors and other sensitive information need to remain private and accessible only to authorized users. This is generally conducted by controlling access to data, often seen in the form of two-factor authentication when logging into accounts or accessing systems, apps, and the like.
  • Integrity in this context describes data that can be trusted. This means that data needs to be kept accurate and reliable during its entire lifecycle, so that it can’t be tampered with or altered by unauthorized users. In cases of data corruption, backups need to be available to restore data to its correct state. It can also include checksums to verify integrity.
  • Availability involves maintaining information continuously accessible to authorized users whenever they need it. This usually refers to proper support of the technical infrastructure and systems used to hold information, and to setting procedures for business continuity, should an incident have the potential to impede data availability.

How important is an information security policy?

Increased digitization leads to every user on a network generating, storing and sharing data, and there is always a part of that data that needs to be protected from unauthorized access. Whether it’s for legal, internal or ethical concerns, sensitive data, PII and intellectual property must be protected in order to avoid catastrophic security incidents such as a data breach.

An information security policy details how the data is protected and evaluates all gaps that can be exploited by cybercriminals to access that data, as well as processes that are used to mitigate and recover from security incidents. This means it plays a crucial role in risk management and furthermore addresses an organization’s needs and ways to comply with increasingly stringent regulatory compliance requirements.

Information security policy key elements

While an information security policy should be a document designed for a specific organization, some elements of an ISP are accepted and implemented across the board. Now that we have a clearer understanding of the high-level significance of an IT security policy, here are some of its key parts:

Information Security Graph

Purpose

The first, and therefore most crucial, element of an information security policy is a clearly defined purpose. While the overarching goal of any security policy is to protect an organization’s critical digital information, a more concrete and actionable purpose enables organizations to tailor security measures and guidelines, provide protection of their data, and reach their objectives.

Some of the more common purposes for organizations implementing an information security policy are:

  • To enforce a security program and approach to information security across the organization
  • To comply with legal, regulatory and industry requirements
  • To keep brand reputation with regards to data security
  • To detect and respond to data breaches and other security incidents

Scope

Modern organizations are large and can have a lot of dependencies, including third and fourth party vendors, technology users, and more. And as with every document, an information security policy should clearly mention the scope of the audience to whom the policy applies. It is generally recommended that the audience scope remains inclusive over data shared with third parties even if not legally obligated to do so, as many organizations omit them from their policies. Leaving it outside of the set rules and guidelines of an organization’s policy can open that data up to compromise, without proper controls.

Another important aspect of scope is the governed infrastructure in the policy, which will ideally include all assets: all data, systems, programs, apps, etc. This allows, again, for a better overview and the protection of all parts of an infrastructure, empowering organizations to reduce their attack surface and consequently security risks.

Timeline

Particularly important for information security policies with the purpose of complying with regulatory requirements, a timeline is simply an element of the ISP that dictates the effective date of the policy.

Compliance

Another key ISP element that’s designed to help an organization achieve and maintain regulatory compliance, the document should list all regulations that the policy is intended to help the organization comply with (with common ones including PCI DSS, HIPAA, and SOX), and how the organization achieves compliances with them.

Data classification

All data and assets that were pre-defined in the scope of the security policy are not equal, and are of different value to the organization. Classifying data based on its value will then inform specific handling procedures for each class. This can help organizations protect the data that actually matters, without needlessly expending resources to protect insignificant information. Data is usually classified based on the risk it can pose to the organization if compromised, so we have high risk data that is generally highly sensitive, private and covered by government regulations; confidential data that is not protected by the law but holds significance to the organization; and public data, which is publicly accessible and doesn’t represent risk being so.

Authority

“Authority” refers to who has the authority to decide which data can be shared, and with whom. Typically, it follows a hierarchical pattern where the higher the position one holds in an organization, the more authority one has to make decisions about data and its share. For example, higher-level managers and executives have more insights into an organization’s overall posture and operation, so they have the right to grant access to information as they see fit.

Simultaneously, a junior employee may be tied to sharing very little information they have access to, as they don’t have the same level of insight and authority to grant access to it to others. An IT security policy should have terms that address every level of authority through all of the organization’s seniorities and their data authorization, all of which should be a part of the access control policy.

Access control policy

Once the authority hierarchy has been decided on, it should be included in the access control policy. An access control policy helps document the amount of authority each level throughout an organization has over its data and assets, as well as how sensitive data is handled, access controls that are utilized and the minimum security standards for data access the organization must meet.

While an access control policy is dependent on an organization’s security and business needs, common components include:

  • The need-to-know principle, or principle of least privilege, which states that the user should be given permission to access only those resources needed to perform their job, reducing exposure of sensitive information
  • A password policy that dictates the rules around password security such as the complexity of passwords, the timeline in which they need to be changed and how they’re handled
  • Physical access rules that apply to data storage centers, server rooms, and other physical locations and resources
  • Instructions on how to remove users’ access and their ability to interact with the organization’s resources—critical now that we live in a time of widely accepted remote work policies

Acceptable usage policy

Organizations commonly maintain a list of resources that are restricted to their users. Whether its instructions on where users can find programs and apps to download when needed or using proxies to block viewing of social media and other websites for sharing information from an organization’s network, it’s important for organizations to document what is not required or even restricted from accessing to their users.

User training and behaviour

While an information security policy commonly has an objective of complying with regulatory requirements, or having a clear way to communicate guidelines to third parties, it does contain a set of rules that need to be enforced in an organization and followed by users.

Those users can’t simply receive a document that showcases their expected behavior—security awareness and other user training should follow. Implementing security training and maintaining cybersecurity culture in an organization ensures that all users understand what is asked from them and what role they play in an organization’s security program, and offers support as users are the most crucial components of a properly functioning ISP.

Other critical components of an information security policy

Here are just a few of other components that are generally included in a mature information security policy:

  • Change management policy outlines formal processes and procedures for responding to changes that can affect the CIA of information.
  • Incident response policy outlines how an organization responds to and mitigates security incidents, as well as their incident response process.
  • Information retention refers to how data is stored and backed up as well as a retention schedule for when the information should be maintained.
  • Disaster recovery policy is crucial in ensuring business continuity in the event of a potentially disruptive incident, whether it’s a security breach or a natural disaster.
  • Identity and access management policy outlines types of devices in use for systems and apps, standard for creating and authorizing accounts and how accounts are deprovisioned.
  • Personal device policy goes hand in hand with remote access policies, as with high number of remote users comes a larger volume of personal devices being used to access organization’s premises. This policy dictates which devices are allowed to access which information and systems, as well as authentication methods to do so.
  • Patch management applies the specific procedures for patching and updating operating systems, software, antivirus solutions, etc.

Best practices for an information security policy

Now that you’re aware of what goes into crafting an information security policy, let’s glance at the best practices for developing an ISP:

Maintain full visibility over all digital assets

To ensure information security, we must be aware of that information, or rather, maintain visibility over all of the digital assets an organization owns. Without full visibility, there’s a possibility that sensitive data can be missed, left out of the policy, and effectively remain in existence without the proper security controls to safeguard it.

Identify the risk

Once you have an overview of all digital assets and data that will be in the scope of the information security policy, it will be easier to identify risks to those assets. As one of the first steps toward developing an IT security policy, identifying risks (such as security vulnerabilities on a network) is crucial in informing further security controls that will mitigate those same risks, avoiding data compromise and regulatory violations.

Customize the policy

While we mentioned that an IT security policy should be customized to an organization’s distinct security, business and legal needs, it’s not uncommon to see organizations making use of ready-made templates to craft their policy. Using information security policy templates can present a critical mistake as not all organizations hold the same data, have the same regulations applied to them, or have the same structures to support the enforcement of different policies. While there are industry-specific templates available, they shouldn’t be used any further than to provide an overview of how it is generally done in a particular industry or for a specific purpose.

Comply with all applicable regulations

While complying with regulatory requirements is a common objective for an IT security policy, it might not always be. Nevertheless, when developing a security policy you should ensure that you are familiar with all regulations that apply to the types of data you handle, the location and jurisdiction of the organization, the industry in which you operate, and all minimum standards for privacy and integrity of data that need to be met. These requirements are an important guide of the direction of your information security policy.

Include violation consequences

Establishing an information security policy and recommended behaviours around access and use of internal data is important, but merely floating a document through the ether won’t ensure it will be enforced throughout the organization. Failure to follow the rules set in the policy can result in violations of regulatory compliance, and thus legal, financial and reputational damages as well as the increased chance of suffering a data compromise. That’s why the ramifications of policy violation need to be outlined. While repercussions need not be strict, there should be a way to spot violations and handle them, including the measure of providing re-training to “offending” user, to ensure that they understand how to act in service of maintaining the appropriate confidentiality, integrity and availability of sensitive information.

Monitor, audit and modify

As with anything in the ever-changing information security realm, an IT security policy isn’t a “set up and leave” type of practice. Procedures, controls and the scope of the policy should continuously be monitored to spot any changes in the network environment and enforce new procedures to address them. Additionally, maintaining compliance is a feat in which the constant overview of relevant controls is necessary, to ensure violations don’t occur.

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Sara Jelen Blog Author
SARA JELEN

Sara believes the human element is often at the core of all cybersecurity issues. It’s this perspective that brings a refreshing voice to the SecurityTrails team. Her ability to bridge cognitive/social motivators and how they impact the cybersecurity industry is always enlightening.