Security Policies and Procedures Development

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Information Security Policy Development

A policy for information security is a formal high-level statement that embodies the institution’s course of action regarding the use and safeguarding of institutional information resources. The policy statement should clearly communicate the institution's beliefs, goals, and objectives for information security. It also provides institutional leaders with an opportunity to set a clear plan for information security, describe its role in supporting the missions of the institution, and its commitment to comply with relevant laws and regulations. To be effective an information security policy must:

  • Require compliance (i.e., it should be mandatory to the intended audience)
  • Be implementable (e.g., impact on legacy systems and current infrastructure)
  • Be enforceable. (i.e., failure to comply should result in disciplinary actions)
  • Be brief and easy to understand
  • Balance protection with productivity

Also, the information security policy should:

  • State why the policy is needed (i.e., business reasons, to ensure compliance with laws, regulations, contracts, and/or other policies)
  • Express leadership support for the role of information security in the carrying out of the institution's missions,
  • Focus on desired behaviors (e.g., acceptable use) and outcomes
  • Define roles and responsibilities
  • Outline the standards and procedures to be followed.

A careful balance must be reached to ensure that the policy enhances institutional security by providing enough detail that community members understand their expected role and contribution but not so much detail that the institution is exposed to unnecessary risk.

Some elements to be included in information security policies include the following:

  • Policy statement: Statement of expected behavior, actions, or outcome. The policy statement may also list exclusions (e.g., people or activities that are specifically excluded from the application of the policy).
  • Who the policy applies to: This section states the people, units, or departments affected by the policy. This section may also list users who are required to follow the policy as part of their job responsibilities.
  • Policy rationale: The reason for the policy, including any business rationale or legal or regulatory reasons for the policy.
  • Policy definitions: This section should define any words of art that are used in the policy.
  • Compliance language: This section states how the institution will enforce the policy.
  • Person responsible: This section states who is responsible for answering questions about the policy.
  • Related documents: This section lists any other documents related to the policy, such as standards, guidelines, or procedures, that must be consulted in order to follow the policy.
  • Policy history: This section lists the revision history of the policy and any substantial changes that have occurred over time.

Information Security Policy Frameworks

There are a number of frameworks that can be used as a foundation for the subject matter included in an institution's information security policy. These frameworks can be used as the basis of one large, overarching information security policy, or for smaller policies devoted to discrete information security topics. Higher education institutions have found success following either model. The Standards box at the end of this page lists a few popular industry frameworks/standards that may be consulted when drafting information security policies. ISO 27001 (Used by 22% of responding institutions)

  • NIST 800-53/FISMA (Used by 20%)
  • CIS Critical Security Controls (Used by 18%)

Choosing the right policy framework is all about what will work best for the institution and its missions. Institutions of higher education should consider the following when selecting a framework for their information security policy:

  • What works for the institution?
  • What has not worked before?
  • What fits the institution’s culture?
  • What regulatory requirements must be met?
  • What are the organizational drivers?
  • What future technology is on the institution's roadmap?
  • What resources (staff, budget, skill sets) are needed to obtain the desired outcomes?

Policy Review and Update Process

Most institutions of higher education will have a documented periodic policy review process in place (e.g., annually) to ensure that ensure that policies are kept up to date and relevant. In some institutions, a policy owner or manager would be the individual who would determine the need for a new policy or the update to an existing policy. In other institutions, the role of policy manager may be played by the Business Owner (e.g., the Chief information Security Officer may be the owner/manager of the information security policy.) We use the term policy manager in this section.

In most instances, the information security policy manager will review and update the policy at the required intervals or when external or internal factors require the review and update of the policy. The following are the most common factors that would prompt a review of the institution's information security policy.

  • Changes in Federal or State laws and regulations
  • Changes in technology (e.g., increased use of mobile devices on campus)
  • Major information security project deployments (e.g., deployment of Mobile device Management (MDM)
  • Audit findings
  • Policy format changes (e.g., new policy management function and process)
  • Increased reliance on third-party service providers (e.g., outsourcing, cloud)
  • New business practices (e.g., online education, telecommuting, telemedicine)

The process to review and update the information security policy should include many of the steps identified in the Getting Started section of this chapter. Many institutions have a “policy on policies,” or a process to follow to implement institution-wide policies from inception to maintenance and review. That document may also list steps to follow in order to properly update an institutional policy. At a minimum, the policy manager must:

  1. Document needed changes
  2. Make changes to a draft version of the policy
  3. Ensure stakeholder review if necessary. For instance, if the policy changes are significant or alter the intent of the original policy, then the policy manager will want to ensure the changes are vetted by impacted subject matter experts and business owners, information security, legal counsel, human resources if applicable, any other applicable steering committee
  4. Publish, communicate, train, and implement according to the institution’s policy management process.

Standards, Guidelines, and Procedures

Policies are not the only documents that end users should look to when trying to understand an institution’s information security stance. While policies may state the high-level institutional goals around expected information security behaviors and outcomes, other documents may be used to state a threshold of acceptable behavior, step-by-step processes to follow, or recommended (but not required) actions to take. You may see these other types of documents used in an institution’s information security program to supplement information security policies. The hierarchy for institutional governance documents is typically:

  • Policies: The highest level of a governance document. Policies typically have general applicability and they rarely change (or are hard to change). They are leadership’s high level statement of information security goals and expectations.

  • Standards: Standards state the actions needed to meet policy goals. They are more specific than policies and easier to update in response to changing circumstances. Often standards set the minimum level of action needed to comply with a policy.

  • Procedures: Procedures are often step-by-step checklists that are particular to a task, technology, or department. They are easily updated in response to changing technical or business influences.

  • Guidelines: Guidelines are documents that specify recommended actions and advice. Institutional employees may not be required to follow guidelines as part of their jobs, but the guidelines are shared in order to promote good information security hygiene practices. Guidelines are flexible and easily updated.