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Chapter: Security in Computing : Administering Security

Characteristics of a Good Security Policy

If a security policy is written poorly, it cannot guide the developers and users in providing appropriate security mechanisms to protect important assets. Certain characteristics make a security policy a good one.

Characteristics of a Good Security Policy


If a security policy is written poorly, it cannot guide the developers and users in providing appropriate security mechanisms to protect important assets. Certain characteristics make a security policy a good one.




A security policy must be comprehensive: It must either apply to or explicitly exclude all possible situations. Furthermore, a security policy may not be updated as each new situation arises, so it must be general enough to apply naturally to new cases that occur as the system is used in unusual or unexpected ways.




A security policy must grow and adapt well. In large measure, it will survive the system's growth and expansion without change. If written in a flexible way, the existing policy will be applicable to new situations. However, there are times when the policy must change (such as when government regulations mandate new security constraints), so the policy must be changeable when it needs to be.


An important key to durability is keeping the policy free from ties to specific data or protection mechanisms that almost certainly will change. For example, an initial version of a security policy might require a ten-character password for anyone needing access to data on the Sun workstation in room 110. But when that workstation is replaced or moved, the policy's guidance becomes useless. It is preferable to describe assets needing protection in terms of their function and characteristics, rather than in terms of specific implementation. For example, the policy on Sun workstations could be reworded to mandate strong authentication for access to sensitive student grades or customers' proprietary data. Better still, we can separate the elements of the policy, having one policy statement for student grades and another for customers' proprietary data. Similarly, we may want to define one policy that applies to preserving the confidentiality of relationships, and another protecting the use of the system through strong authentication.




The policy must be realistic. That is, it must be possible to implement the stated security requirements with existing technology. Moreover, the implementation must be beneficial in terms of time, cost, and convenience; the policy should not recommend a control that works but prevents the system or its users from performing their activities and functions. Sidebar 8 -7 points out that sometimes the policy writers are seduced by what is fashionable in security at the time of writing. It is important to make economically worthwhile investments in security, just as for any other careful business investment.




An obscure or incomplete security policy will not be implemented properly, if at all. The policy must be written in language that can be read, understood, and followed by anyone who must implement it or is affected by it. For this reason, the policy should be succinct, clear, and direct.




To understand the nature of security policies, we study a few examples to illustrate some of the points just presented.


Sidebar 8-7: The Economics of Information Security Policy


Anderson [AND02a] asks that we consider carefully the economic aspects of security when we devise our security policy. He points out that the security engineering community tends to overstate security problems because it is in their best interest to do so. "The typical infosec professional is a firewall vendor struggling to meet quarterly sales targets to prop up a sagging stock price, or a professor trying to mine the 'cyberterrorism' industry for grants, or a policeman pitching for the budget to build up a computer crime agency." Thus, they may exaggerate a security problem to meet a more pressing goal.


Moreover, the security community is subject to fads, as in other disciplines. Anderson says that network security is trendy in 2002, which means that vendors are pushing firewalls and encryption, products that have been oversold and address only part of the typical organization's security problems. He suggests that, rather than focusing on what is fashionable, we focus instead on asking for a reasonable return on our investment in security.


Soo Hoo's research indicates that a reasonable number is 20 percent, at a time when companies usually expect a 30 percent return from their investments in information technology [SOO00]. In this context, it may be more worthwhile to implement simple, inexpensive measures such as enabling screen-locking than larger, more complex and expensive measures such as PKI and centralized access control. As Anderson points out, "you could spend a bit less on security if you spend it smarter."


Data Sensitivity Policy


Our first example is from an organization that decided to classify all its data resources into four levels, based on how severe might be the effect if a resource were damaged. These levels are listed in Table 8-9. Then, the required protection was based on the resource's level. Finally, the organization analyzed its threats, their possible severities, and countermeasures, and their effectiveness, within each of the four levels.

Although the phrases describing the degree of damage are open to interpretation, the intent of these levels is clear: All information assets are to be classified as sensitive, personal, confidential, or open, and protection requirements for these four types are detailed in the remainder of the organization's policy document.


Government Agency IT Security Policy


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), like many government units, has established its own security policy. The following excerpt is from the policy on protecting classified material, although the form is appropriate for many unclassified uses as well.


It is the policy of DOE that classified information and classified ADP [automatic data processing] systems shall be protected from unauthorized access (including the enforcement of need-to-know protections), alteration, disclosure, destruction, penetration, denial of service, subversion of security measures, or improper use as a result of espionage, criminal, fraudulent, negligent, abusive, or other improper actions. The DOE shall use all reasonable measures to protect ADP systems that process, store, transfer, or provide access to classified information, to include but not limited to the following: physical security, personnel security, telecommunications security, administrative security, and hardware and software security measures. This order establishes this policy and defines responsibilities for the development, implementation, and periodic evaluation of the DOE program.

The policy then continues for several more pages to list specific responsibilities for specific people.


The cited paragraph is comprehensive, covering practically every possible source (espionage, crime, fraud, etc.) of practically every possible harm (unauthorized access, alteration, destruction, etc.), and practically every possible kind of control (physical, personnel, etc.). The generality of the header paragraph is complemented by subsequent paragraphs giving specific responsibilities:


"Each data owner shall determine and declare the required protection level of information . . ."


"Each security officer shall . . . perform a risk assessment to identify and document specific . . . assets, . . . threats, . . . and vulnerability . . ."


"Each manager shall...establish procedures to ensure that systems are continuously monitored...to detect security infractions . . ." and so on.


Internet Security Policy


The Internet does not have a governing security policy per se, because it is a federation of users. Nevertheless, the Internet Society drafted a security policy for its members [PET91]. The policy contains the following interesting portions.


Users are individually responsible for understanding and respecting the security policies of the systems (computers and networks) they are using. Users are individually accountable for their own behavior.


Users have a responsibility to employ available security mechanisms and procedures for protecting their own data. They also have a responsibility for assisting in the protection of the systems they use.


Computer and network service providers are responsible for maintaining the security of the systems they operate. They are further responsible for notifying users of their security policies and any changes to these policies.


Vendors and system developers are responsible for providing systems which are sound and which embody adequate security controls.


Users, service providers, and hardware and software vendors are responsible for cooperating to provide security.


Technical improvements in Internet security protocols should be sought on a continuing basis. At the same time, personnel developing new protocols, hardware or software for the Internet are expected to include security considerations as part of the design and development process.


These statements clearly state to whom they apply and for what each party is responsible.

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