The evolution of security policies

At the first annual Security Decisions conference held last month in Chicago, discussions of PKI, AV, intrusion detection and other emerging technologies were common. But the subject of conversation that seemed to pique the interest of the attendees the most was policy. After all, policy is the most abstract and subjective area of computer security.

Security policies have traditionally been the responsibility of the tech people: the network administrator, the security administrator, sometimes the sys admin. But policies can involve HR, physical security, politics -- none of these being the regular domain of IT.

Throughout the various organized presentations and impromptu Q&A sessions at the three-day show, some valuable advice was disseminated among the attendees, each speaker having different experiences and opinions.

Here is a summary of some of the more noteworthy ideas discussed at the conference:

The job description of the CSO. Most speakers seemed to agree that there couldn't be a more thankless job in the IT industry than that of the Chief Security Officer. The CSO has to oversee the implementation of a security policy, decide on what kind of technology the organization will implement and communicate all of this to the rest of the company. Oh, and he or she will usually be doing this on a paltry budget. To make matters worse, the role of the CSO is still evolving. Do they report to the CTO? Or is it an executive position?

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Will the CSO really have the authority to get the proper security infrastructure implemented?

The inevitable union of physical and computer security. They have to go together, right? After all, they are doing the same job. Many non-IT people see security threats as originating outside the company -- malicious hackers and viruses, for instance. But IT knows that there is a far greater threat from within. Knowing who has access to the system at any given time is usually the role of physical security. Effective internal security requires that the CSO oversee the physical security for the company as well as the computer security.

Education. Of course a security policy is about setting up operational standards and enlisting the users to help IT do its job. Not every rule is there to get employees dismissed. Most are there to help secure the organization and make the user an asset to security rather than a vulnerability. So how do you effectively train the users? Steve Hunt of Giga Information Group shared this bit of advice: he had known companies to conduct quizzes on the security policy and give out prizes for the highest scores -- prizes like extra vacation days, executive lunches, and other company perks. He did have one caveat: if you know an employee has failed the policy quiz and that employee's actions somehow result in a security breach -- the loss of a client's data, for example -- the company could be held liable.

Procedures, procedures, procedures. One of the most glaring and avoidable security vulnerabilities is unused, undeleted accounts. When employees leave the organization there has to be communication between Executive, HR, physical security and IT to make sure that the electronic presence of that employee is removed. This just adds another duty to the CSO's job: how to create communication where none existed. Issues like these will test the authority of the CSO, but should ultimately help improve the security of the organization.

About the author
Benjamin Vigil is a technical editor for SearchSecurity.

This was first published in July 2002

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