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Information Security Policy: Must-Have Elements and Tips

Organizations often create multiple IT policies for a variety of needs: disaster recovery, data classification, data privacy, risk assessment, risk management and so on. These documents are often interconnected and provide a framework for the company to set values to guide decision-making and responses.

Organizations also need an information security policy. This type of policy provides controls and procedures that help ensure that employees will work with IT assets appropriately. This article explains the benefits of creating an information security policy, what elements it should contain and best practices for success.

What is an information security policy?

The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) defines an information security policy as an “aggregate of directives, regulations, rules, and practices that prescribes how an organization manages, protects, and distributes information.”

Since organizations have different business requirements, compliance obligations and staffing, there is no single information security policy that works for everyone. Instead, each IT department should determine the policy choices that serve their particular needs the best and create a straightforward document that is approved by high-level stakeholders.

What are the benefits of an information security policy?

An information security policy is essential for the following reasons:

To ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data

Having a solid policy in place provides a standardized approach for identifying and mitigating risk to data confidentiality, integrity and availability (known as the CIA triad), as well as appropriate steps for response to issues.

To help minimize risk

An information security policy details how an organization spots, evaluates and mitigates IT vulnerabilities to block security threats, and the processes used to recover after a system outage or data breach.

To coordinate and enforce a security program across an organization

Any security program requires creating a cohesive information security policy. This helps prevent diverging departmental decisions, or worse, departments with no policies at all. The policy defines how the organization identifies extraneous tools or processes that don’t perform useful security functions.

To communicate security measures to third parties and external auditors

Codifying security policies enables an organization to easily communicate its security measures around IT assets and resources not just to employees and internal stakeholders, but also to external auditors, contractors and other third parties.

To help with regulatory compliance

Having a well-developed security policy is important for an organization to pass compliance audits for security standards and regulations such as HIPAA and CCPA. Auditors commonly ask companies to provide documentation of their internal controls, and your information security policy helps you demonstrate that you perform required tasks, such as:

  • Regularly assess the adequacy of current IT security strategies
  • Perform risk assessment to uncover and mitigate vulnerabilities in technology or workflows
  • Analyze the efficacy of existing systems for data integrity, cybersecurity

What are good resources to consult when developing an information security policy?

Developing an information security policy can be a large undertaking. The following frameworks offer guidelines on how to develop and maintain a security policy:

  • COBIT — COBIT focuses on security, risk management and information governance, and is particularly valuable for Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance.
  • NIST Cybersecurity Framework — This framework offers security controls aligned with the five phases of risk analysis and risk management: identify, protect, detect, respond and recover. It is often used in critical infrastructure sectors like water utilities, transportation and energy production.
  • ISO/IEC 27000 — This series from the International Standards Organization is one of the broadest frameworks. It can be adapted to organizations of all types and sizes, and various substandards are designed for specific industries. For example, ISO 27799 addresses healthcare information security and is useful for organizations subject to HIPAA compliance. Other standards in the series are applicable for areas such as cloud computing, digital evidence collection and storage security.

In addition, various organizations publish data security policy templates that you can edit to meet your needs rather than start from scratch.

What are the key elements of an information security policy?

In general, an information security policy should include the following sections:

  1. Purpose: Articulate the purpose of the security policy. Be sure to identify any regulations or laws that the policy is intended to help the organization comply with.
  2. Scope: Detail what falls under the policy, such as computers and other IT assets, data repositories, users, systems, and applications.
  3. Timeline: Specify the effective date of the policy.
  4. Authority: Identify the person or entity that backs the policy, such as the owner of the company or the board of directors.
  5. Policy compliance: List all regulations that the data security policy is intended to help the organization comply with, such as HIPAA, SOX, PCI DSS or GLBA.
  6. Body: Describe the procedures, processes and controls for each of these areas:
    1. Asset and information classification and control: Describe how you tag data by security classification and apply controls to ensure proper data protection.
    2. Information retention: Explain how you will store and back up data, and enforce retention timelines.
    3. Personnel security: Detail security procedures regarding personnel matters, such as confidentiality agreements and personnel screening.
    4. Identity and access management: Describe management policies regarding user access, privileges and passwords. Be sure to note special requirements based on a user’s roles and responsibilities, such as the need for strong authentication by security operations personnel. This section also identifies network security  and application access control, as well as cloud security.
    5. Change management and incident management: Define procedures for responding to changes that could affect the confidentiality, integrity or availability of an IT system. Also detail proper incident response procedures for security compromises or system malfunctions, and the specific personnel responsible for these tasks.
    6. Acceptable usage policy: Describe how individuals may use the organization’s network, internet access or devices for both business and personal use. Detail any differences for various groups, such as employees, contractors, volunteers or the public
    7. Antivirus and patch management: Specify procedures for applying antivirus updates and software patches.
    8. Physical and environmental security: Set standards for information security in regard to physical security, such as locked doors and controlled-access areas.
    9. Communications and operations management: Describe operational procedures and responsibilities for areas such as system planning and acceptance, content backup, and vulnerability management.
    10. Exchange of information and software: Outline proper steps for exchanging data or software with external parties. This section is particularly pertinent to organizations that work with third parties or that must respond to customer or third-party data requests. Ensure it aligns with your privacy policy.
    11. Cryptographic controls: Specify required uses of cryptography to achieve security objectives, such as encrypting email attachments or data stored on laptops.
  7. User training: Describe the security awareness and other training that users must take, and the teams responsible for developing and conducting the training.
  8. Contact: Name the person or team responsible for creating and editing the information security policy document.
  9. Version History: Track all policy revisions. Include the date and author for each update.

What best practices should I follow to create a good security policy?

Following these best practices will help you create an effective information security policy:

  • Get executive buy-in. The policy will be much easier to implement and enforce if top leadership signs off on it.
  • List all appropriate security regulations. Ensure that you are familiar with all of the regulations that govern your industry, since they will heavily influence the content of your policy.
  • Evaluate your systems, processes and data. Before drafting a document, familiarize yourself with your organization’s current systems, data and workflows. This will require working closely with your business counterparts.
  • Customize the policy to your organization. Make sure the policy is relevant to the needs of your organization. Take time to clarify the objectives of the policy and define its scope.
  • Identify risks. To outline proper risk response procedures, your organization must identify potential risks. Many organizations do this through a risk assessment.
  • Be open to new security controls. Depending on the risks you identify, your organization may need to adopt new security measures.
  • Thoroughly document your procedures. Many aspects of an information security policy rely on the procedures it describes. Sometimes, employees are already conducting these workflows, so this step involves simply writing them down. In any case, test the procedures to ensure they are accurate and complete.
  • Educate everyone. A policy that merely exists as a document does not achieve information security. Make sure all employees get training on the content of the security policy and compliance practices.

FAQ

1. What is a security policy?

A security policy is a written document that identifies an organization’s standards and procedures for individuals using IT assets and resources.

2. Why is a security policy important?

A security policy is necessary to address information security threats and put into place strategies and procedures for mitigating IT security risks.

3. What are the key components of a good security policy?

The foundation of a strong IT security policy is a clear description of the goals of your organization’s IT security program, including all applicable compliance standards. The policy will also detail the processes and controls the organization will use to properly manage, protect and distribute information.

4. What is the most common security policy failure?

The most common point of failure is a lack of user awareness of the content of the policy. Without proper user training and enforcement, even the best security policy creates a false sense of security that leaves critical assets at risk.

Elena has more than 8 years of experience in the IT industry. She started as a Public Relations Specialist at Netwrix, working on PR materials such as commentaries, articles and customer success stories. Then she transitioned to Content Marketing, where she is now responsible for delivering informative blogs and whitepapers. Elena also serves on the editorial teams for both the Netwrix Cyber Chief and SysAdmin magazines.