The networks that power your organization can also pose huge liabilities. Avoiding bad outcomes – like hacks, and breaches – is an impossible job without a strong plan in place.
A network security policy is an official document outlining the rules and procedures for ensuring the safety of your networks and users. By defining a policy, you’ll set a clear tone for what your organization needs to do to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data and resources.
…Or at least that’s how it should be. The stark reality is that there’s no universal answer to what kind of policy will work for your organization, which can make it hard to get going. To help speed you along, here’s a quick primer on what network security policies cover, how to define rules that meet your requirements, and a template to build on.
What Goes Into a Good Network Security Policy?
Each network architecture is different, so real-world security policies vary widely. At a bare minimum, yours ought to address the following domains:
- Approved and Unacceptable Behaviors: Applicable rules for users, administrators, guests, business partners, and other stakeholders who access, modify, or otherwise use network resources and assets.
- Response Tactics: Procedures governing how IT teams should respond to incidents and notify appropriate stakeholders of ongoing incidents.
- Proactive Strategies: Guidelines on educating users about proper security measures, recognizing threats, and oversight, including secure default setting configurations and monitoring rules.
- Assigned Roles: Well-defined roles and responsibilities for who owns different network assets, holds the responsibility for their management, and enforces security measures
- Legal Obligations: Organizational legal responsibilities during breaches and consent-gathering activities, including notifying law enforcement and posting terms of service agreements.
- Hardware and System Rules: Approved technology lists, security asset acquisition guidelines, server access rules, and per-device access rules.
These categories are fairly broad, so let’s break them down in detail:
Approved and Unacceptable Behaviors
A network security behavior policy defines how users ought to interact with a network and its resources. It can address factors like what types of personal devices users are allowed to connect to your networks, how data sharing ought to take place safely, and external sites or resources that people shouldn’t try to access.
In many cases, behavior policies take the form of rules that new hires have to learn at onboarding time. They can also manifest as terms of service policies or be coded into business applications that require logins.
This part of your policy can help you prevent unauthorized access to network resources and data. By restricting certain types of actions to specifically authorized users, you can minimize your exposed attack surface and make it easier to understand where threats are coming from. For instance, if you only let admins create new accounts, you don’t have to spend as much time worrying about a less IT-savvy manager granting access to a dangerous party.
Behavior policies differ based on who uses your network and what resources it houses, but this is definitely a case where more detail is better. Write clear, explicit policies that distinguish between appropriate rules for different types of users – such as visiting business partners who use your Wi-Fi, freelancers who do work on your corporate portals, and in-house company executives.
As a general rule of thumb, always stick to the least-privilege principle: Give users the minimum permission required to handle the tasks they need to accomplish and stop there.
What should happen when you experience a security breach? Laying out your response strategy in clear terms is the best way to handle the unexpected and minimize the fallout from incidents.
This is another area where your specific IT assets, network architecture, and organizational priorities play a big role in the policy particulars. That said, most effective breach response strategies hit the following four points:
- Pre-planning and preparation: How can your teams put fires out if you haven’t furnished them with the right tools and guidance? This area of your policy should specify the steps you’ll take to keep your organization ready for challenges.
- Detection and containment: Time is of the essence when responding to a data breach. Quickly identifying and containing the source can help minimize the damage and prevent further data loss.
- Investigation and analysis: Conducting a thorough investigation will further your understanding of the breach, its root cause, and any potentially related vulnerabilities.
- Recovery and prevention: Once the breach has been contained, you can focus on recovery efforts and implementing preventive measures to reduce the risk of future breaches. Be sure to create a disaster recovery plan specifying exactly how you’ll get back on your feet.
Organizations with strong security stances implement proactive measures to minimize their risk exposure and address new risks that may emerge. Your policy should undergo regular reviews, specify how admin staff ought to implement security features, and detail how you’ll disseminate new information when procedures change.
Your policy should also touch on how and why you’ll educate users on security. For instance, will you focus on raising awareness of the potential risks of using the internet or concentrate on the common hallmarks of phishing attempts? Will you need to add extra training for compliance or pursue custom education for different teams?
Make sure your strategic planning also includes a monitoring framework. Supervising your network makes it easier to identify and resolve issues as they occur. You can achieve this manually or use software, but either way, you should plan your strategy to incorporate well-defined metrics, baseline measurement procedures, and performance standards that might indicate when something’s wrong.
You can assign many different roles to stakeholders in your pursuit of a workable network security policy. Some of the most common include system administrators, network administrators, security analysts, and security engineers.
Each stakeholder role has distinct responsibilities, but don’t assume you can rely on job descriptions or standard practices to define these duties. Instead, always take the time to explicitly map out roles and responsibilities for your IT teams, service provider partners, and network owners. When you need to make changes and enforce security rules, having a clear chain of command already in place will make it easier to act decisively.
There are a variety of legal obligations that come along with having a network security policy. Be sure to address:
- Compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, including those related to data privacy, data security, and data breaches,
- User consent gathering, privacy disclosures, and other activities related to how you’ll inform stakeholders of their legal rights,
- Gap analysis to ensure all policies and procedures are consistent with your organization-wide legal obligations, and
- Plans for cooperating with law enforcement and other government agencies as required by law.
This might also be a good place to detail how other elements of your policy – like your proactive measures and security safeguards – relate to your legal compliance responsibilities. Cross-referencing preexisting clauses is far preferable to potentially muddying the waters by duplicating the same topics in multiple parts of your policy.
Hardware and System Rules
Network security policy hardware rules do more than just specify the types of devices that are allowed to connect to the network. They also govern the types of traffic allowed to flow through the network. For example, in addition to only approving certain devices, such as laptops and desktop computers but not mobile phones, you could also restrict distinct classes of information, such as allowing web or email traffic while prohibiting your remote workers from logging in using insecure means.
Approved technology lists and asset acquisition guidelines can make hardware rules more manageable by ensuring you always retain control of the devices that populate your network. Specifying exactly what’s allowed on your systems ultimately makes it easier to support advantageous business technologies, satisfy compliance requirements, and avoid compatibility-related security oversights.
Ensuring Your Policy Fits Your Organizational Security Needs
Your network security policy must be designed to meet the unique needs of your organization. It’s just as important to cultivate a big-picture understanding as it is to zero in on the specifics.
When working your way through the domains we covered above, you’ll also benefit from thinking about:
- The types of data, hardware assets, and applications that are most important to your organization and what level of security is required for each,
- The potential threats specific to your network and how best to protect against them,
- The safest ways to ensure business continuity following breaches and threats,
- How your policy differs from your current practices and measures that might help you close the gaps, and
- Who within your organization should be involved in setting policy standards and enforcing the rules?
Remember: Successful organizations rarely jump from being security deficient to fully protected in a single go. Develop your rules incrementally, soliciting feedback from affected stakeholders, technology providers, and cybersecurity consultants to ensure you’re not missing any steps. Doing so is the easiest way to ensure your policy is not only technically feasible but also operationally sustainable.
Get Started Without Starting from Scratch
Writing a strong network security policy can be tough – even if you know exactly what you want to cover. Effective policies are exhaustive documents that go into lengthy detail, so it’s not always easy to know where to begin.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do it all alone. Download our easy template to begin building, or talk to a BlueSteel Cybersecurity team member about implementing a policy that works for your organization.