How to Write an Information Security Policy

Jennifer Bayuk explains the critical first step, what to cover and how make your infosec policy - and program - effective

An Information Security Policy is the cornerstone of an Information Security Program. It should reflect the organization's objectives for security and the agreed upon management strategy for securing information.

In order to be useful in providing authority to execute the remainder of the Information Security Program, it must also be formally agreed upon by executive management. This means that, in order to compose an information security policy document, an organization has to have well-defined objectives for security and an agreed-upon management strategy for securing information. If there is debate over the content of the policy, then the debate will continue throughout subsequent attempts to enforce it, with the consequence that the Information Security Program itself will be dysfunctional.

There are a plethora of security-policy-in-a-box products on the market, but few of them will be formally agreed upon by executive management without being explained in detail by a security professional. This is not likely to happen due to time constraints inherent in executive management. Even if it was possible to immediately have management endorse an off-the-shelf policy, it is not the right approach to attempt to teach management how to think about security. Rather, the first step in composing a security policy is to find out how management views security. As a security policy is, by definition, a set of management mandates with respect to information security, these mandates provide the marching orders for the security professional. If the security professional instead provides mandates to executive management to sign off on, management requirements are likely to be overlooked.

A security professional whose job it is to compose security policy must therefore assume the role of sponge and scribe for executive management. A sponge is a good listener who is able to easily absorb the content of each person's conversation regardless of the group's diversity with respect to communication skills and culture. A scribe documents that content faithfully without embellishment or annotation. A good sponge and scribe will be able to capture common themes from management interviews and prepare a positive statement about how the organization as a whole wants its information protected. The time and effort spent to gain executive consensus on policy will pay off in the authority it lends to the policy enforcement process.

Good interview questions that solicit management's opinions on information security are:

* How would you describe the different types of information you work with?

* Which types of information do you rely on to make decisions?

* Are there any information types that are more of a concern to keep private than others?

From these questions, an information classification system can be developed (e.g. customer info, financial info, marketing info, etc), and appropriate handling procedures for each can be described at the business process level. (Editor's note: See also Jason Stradley's provocative take on data classification and related issues.)

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