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What is an Information Security Policy? Definition, Importance, & Elements

Posted on April 6th, 2021

An Information Security Policy (ISP) sets forth rules and processes for workforce members, creating a standard around the acceptable use of the organization's information technology, including networks and applications to protect data confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

Policies act as the foundation for programs, providing guidance, consistency, and clarity around an organization’s operations. As a set of internal standards, they give your employees repeatable steps for managing legal and compliance risk. As you mature your compliance posture, knowing what an information security policy is and what it should include can help you protect sensitive information more effectively.

Why is an information security policy important?

An ISP helps an organization gain an understanding of security measures put in place while providing directions on how to maintain a good cybersecurity posture. In addition to following compliance regulations, it also can reduce the risk of data breaches where malicious actors steal private information. While providing guidance to your organization, it also details what information should be made available to third-parties. Around 53% of data breaches have been linked directly or indirectly to third-parties, making an ISP essential to any cybersecurity framework.

What are the 3 principles of information security?

ISPs establish formalized rules to ensure that the company has a series of controls around the 3 principles of information security: confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

1. Confidentiality

Data confidentiality focuses on protecting sensitive information, such as nonpublic personal information (PII) or cardholder data (CD), from unauthorized access. Malicious actors often target confidential information because the data can be used for identity theft and perpetrating fraud. Confidential data can also include sensitive corporate information such as trade secrets.

When writing your ISP, you want to consider the following:

  • How to control access to information

  • How to prevent “snooping”

  • How to prevent a data breach

  • How to prevent data leakage

2. Integrity

Data integrity focuses on ensuring data accuracy and preventing changes to information entered into a database or other resource. Organizations need to maintain data quality by preventing malicious or accidental changes to data that can harm data owners.

When writing your ISP, you want to consider the following:

  • How to mitigate human error risk

  • How to prevent malicious actors from gaining access and changing information

  • How to establish change control processes

  • How to prevent unintended transfer errors

  • How to ensure no misconfigurations or security errors impact information

  • How to harden hardware to prevent a compromise

  • How to conduct vendor risk assessments to ensure traceability

3. Availability

Data availability focuses on information accuracy, completeness, and consistency to ensure users can access information when they need it. Organizations need to establish procedures and processes for data storage, disaster recovery, and business continuity.

When writing your ISP, you want to consider the following:

  • How to prevent natural disasters, human error, or storage erosion from impacting physical integrity

  • How to prevent human error or malicious attacks that impact logical integrity

  • How to maintain the data pieces’ unique values to protect entity integrity

  • How to establish processes that keep data stored and used uniformly to protect referential integrity

  • How to measure format, type, and amount of data entered into a database to protect domain integrity

  • How to create rules that address user needs to maintain user-defined integrity

What is the purpose of an information security policy?

Information security policies have more than one purpose. Because they have many different purposes, they often feel unwieldy.

Some reasons you need to have an ISP include:

  • Creating a repeatable and consistent process for managing information

  • Educating workforce members around best practices and corporate security protocols

  • Documenting controls to ensure people adhere to security measures

  • Meeting mission-critical compliance requirements

  • Establishing guidelines for detecting new threats and mitigating new risks

  • Giving customers confidence over your organization’s security posture

  • Ensuring appropriate access to IT and data resources on an “as needed” basis

Your ISP sets forth high-level controls for protecting information and then to measure compliance more efficiently. Then, you incorporate additional protections as part of processes and procedures. For example, you may include in your ISP that you have firewall rules that prevent workforce members from accessing risky websites. You then build your firewall rules separately, allowing access to certain websites and denying access to others.

Information security policy vs. information security program: What’s the difference?

Your ISP sets the rules that your information security program puts into practice. A good way to think about the difference is that your ISP acts like an introduction in an essay that tells someone what you’re going to tell them to do. Meanwhile, your information security program is the set of practices that act as the body of an essay, giving the specific data points your reader needs to know.

An information security program outlines the critical business processes and IT assets that you need to protect. Then, it identifies the people, processes, and technologies that can impact data security. Your information security program incorporates more than your ISP, including areas like incident management, enterprise security architecture, and vulnerability management.

What are the elements of an information security policy?

An information security policy can cover a wide variety of things, from IT security to social media regulations. In general, there are 10 main elements you will want included in an ISP.

1. Purpose

It is important for employees to understand the purpose behind a security policy. Whether it be to secure your organization’s information or to mitigate third-party breaches or other data misuse. It is also vital for customers to know that their data is protected and that your organization is in compliance with security requirements.

2. Audience

Ensure that the audience that will operate under this security policy is well defined. Essentially, let it be known who this policy applies to. This will include employees, third-parties, and even fourth-parties. In the case of a third-party data breach, it is important to clearly define roles and responsibilities in the event of a data breach.

3. Objectives of information security

Objectives for information security are the goals set by management to work towards, as well as how management plans to reach them. This includes the 3 principles of security discussed earlier: confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

4. Compliance requirements

Outlining compliance requirements allows your organization to be better informed and better prepared for any cyber security threat. Especially in the case of global organizations, employees will need to be aware of what can and cannot be done with data, and who is able to view said data.

5. Access control and authority

It is important to outline where the authority lies within an organization. This section would outline questions such as who has the authority to share specific data and to whom the data can be shared with. Having an access control policy can inform how to handle personal data, who has access to security controls, and the security standards upheld by the organization.

6. Detailed security policy procedures

Documenting procedures decreases the likelihood of mistakes on your organization’s front. Make sure to include detailed security policy procedures so that your organization is aware of guidelines and expectations. In addition, it is also important to review these procedures to make sure that they are not incomplete in scope.

7. Data classification

It is crucial to classify data based on the potential harm that disclosing this data could cause for your organization. Performing a data risk assessment can help to sort your organization’s data, but in general we have three main classifications:

  • Restricted: data whose unauthorized disclosure poses a high level of impact to the organization.

  • Private: data whose unauthorized disclosure poses a moderate level of impact to the organization.

  • Public: data whose unauthorized disclosure poses a low level of impact to the organization.

8. Employee security awareness training

It is vital that your employees understand the risks and threats that exist in your organization’s cyberspace. You should conduct regular trainings to keep employees informed on how to keep data safe, who has access control when it comes to private or restricted data, and security threats such as phishing.

9. Roles and responsibilities

In your information security policy, you should clearly outline the roles and responsibilities that employees have in the case of any security threat. This would include owners of network and physical security, the incident response team, and IT professionals involved in any mitigation processes.

10. Enforcement of security policy

Finally, it is vital that your information security policy is enforced. To have it well outlined and in writing is one thing, but ensuring that your organization follows through with what has been outlined is another.

SecurityScorecard enables organizations to draft information security policies

SecurityScorecard’s security ratings platform continuously monitors risks across ten categories of risk, including IP reputation, network security, web application security, DNS health, patching cadence, and endpoint security. Our platform monitors for best practices giving customers a way to create an ISP that maps directly back to controls.

Our easy-to-read A-F rating scale gives at-a-glance visibility into controls’ effectiveness, and our platform provides actionable remediation suggestions to mitigate risk. Customers can use these to make sure that their policies and programs stay in alignment.

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