As the use of networked systems continues to grow, the importance of a robust network security policy has become more evident.
Businesses that fail to implement an effective network security policy put themselves at risk of suffering serious data breaches that could have potentially devastating consequences.
This makes it clear that the development and implementation of a network security policy should be a top priority for all businesses.
What is a network security policy?
A network security policy is a set of rules and procedures that govern how users are allowed to access and use a company's network. The policy can apply to both physical and virtual networks, and it typically includes guidelines for authentication, authorization, and encryption.
The goal of a network security policy is to protect sensitive assets and ensure that only authorized users have access to the network. In many cases, the policy will also outline what types of activity are not permitted on the network. A well-crafted network security policy can safeguard a company’s network.
You can develop the policy in-house or use the services of cyber security firms that have experience developing security policies.
How to develop a network security policy: step by step
A structured set of steps is the best way to develop, implement and comprehensively address the various concerns that play into your business’ network security. Poorly implemented and disorganized policies have resulted in policies that don't actually secure assets or meet customer needs for privacy & protection.
The network security design process is an important strategic decision that impacts your company's bottom line. It can be difficult to keep up with all of the changes in this ever-changing environment, but following these steps is a sure way to develop a sound network security policy.
Step 1: Get buy-in
Always remember that the policy you are developing is for all the people involved i.e the stakeholders both within and outside the organization. So these people must understand and accord you the good will that’s so critical in making this a success. You need to get buy-in from employees, users, managers, and technical staff when developing a network security policy. Here's why:
Employees need to understand the need to get the policy into place so that they not only know what's expected of them but to also feel involved from the word go. If they don't understand why the policy is important, they're not going to follow it.
Users need to be aware of the policy so they know what's allowed and what's not. They also need to be aware of the consequences of there being no policy.
Managers need to get on board and in fact should be part of the key players contributing to the policy building process. They also need to be aware of the risks involved in not implementing a network security policy.
Technical staff need to understand the policy so they can properly implement it and troubleshoot any issues that may arise.
The easiest way to get acceptance is by making sure that everyone understands the risks associated with not having a policy in place..
Here are a few tips to help you get everyone in:
- Draft a policy that's easy to understand and covers all of the key points.
- Work with technical staff to develop protocols and procedures that are in line with the policy.
- Hold information sessions for users and managers where everyone has a chance to ask questions and learn more about the policy.
Failure to get buy-in comes with consequences, and they can be pretty dire. Without buy-in, people won't take the policy seriously. They might not even bother to read it, which means they won't know what's expected of them. And if they don't know what's expected of them, they're more likely to break the rules.
Not getting buy-in can also lead to conflict and division within the company. People will start blaming each other for any security breaches that occur, and the whole team will start working against each other instead of together.
The bottom line is that getting buy-in is perhaps the most essential step and the foundation of any network security policy. So get everyone on board!!
Step 2: Identify network assets
A network asset is the data plus anything that can be used to access the data—basically all of the devices that are connected to your network, including computers, printers, and anything else that's part of the network. You also need to know who has access to those devices and what kind of data they can access.
Why is it important to identify these assets? If you don't know what's on your network, how can you be sure that you're protecting everything that's important? You need to have an accurate inventory of all the assets and users in order to create an effective security policy. You need to know not only what devices are on your network, but what software is running on them and who is using them.
Step 3: Security risk analysis
Security risk analysis is the process of analyzing the security risks to your organization's assets as defined in step 2 above. It's a way of figuring out where the weaknesses are and what you need to do to protect your systems.
Risk analysis is based on the idea that you can't protect everything, so you need to figure out what's most important and focus your policy efforts there. It's also a way of prioritizing problems so that you can address them in order of severity. The goal is to identify the most dangerous risks and develop your key policy areas around these potent risks.
Remember, your security policy is only as strong as your weakest link. So if you don't take the time to assess your risks, you're opening yourself up to a world of trouble. Hackers are getting smarter and more sophisticated all the time, and if you're not prepared, they'll have no trouble compromising your systems..
Consider these factors when conducting security risk analysis.:
- The nature of your business.
- The type of data you're protecting.
- The strength of your security infrastructure.
- The potential consequences if data is compromised.
Step 4: Analyze requirements
Security requirements are the resources you need to protect the network, including technologies, special administrators, and consultants. Tradeoffs are the costs and benefits of different security measures, like the time and money it will take to implement a particular measure, or the risk of vulnerability that's introduced by not implementing a measure.
There are a few different factors you'll need to take into account when analyzing your security requirements and tradeoffs. These include:
- The type of data being protected.
- The size and complexity of your network.
- The number of employees and devices accessing the network.
- Budget and resources.
Simply put, you need to look at what's important to your business and weigh that against the potential risks of implementing certain security measures. For example, you may be willing to accept a higher risk of being hacked in order to keep your data accessible from anywhere in the world. Or maybe you're more interested in protecting your data from insider threats. In that case, you might want to focus on measures like access control and authentication. It's all about understanding what's important to your business and making policy provisions for corresponding requirements.
Step 5: Create a security plan
A security plan is an executive document that outlines how the company is going to meet all necessary security requirements. It also captures all the resources required to develop the entire network security policy, from design to implementation.
Try as much as possible to avoid complicated security plans as they can often fail as they are not easy to implement. Instead, take the practical route and by all means simplify any strategy that seems to be unnecessarily complex.
A security plan should include:
- An executive overview of the organization's security landscape.
- A description of the organization's security goals.
- Identification of who is responsible for implementing and enforcing the security policy.
- A description of the security controls, and how they will be implemented.
- A guide for testing and updating the plan.
- Training guidelines for everyone involved.
A central component of the security plan is the human resource, i.e. the people that are critical to the implementation of network security. These include:
- Network administrators.
- Specialized security administrators.
- End users and their managers.
- A supportive corporate management.
- IT technical staff.
- Administrators of sizable user groups in the organization (e.g. a department within a college).
- Incident response teams.
- User group representatives.
- Legal teams.
Step 6: Define the security policy
This is where you define the intents and purposes of the network security policy, in fine details. Specify clearly the desired outcome and the means by which those outcomes will be achieved.
Here are some of the most important items that should be defined in this step:
- Goals and outcomes of the policy.
- The list of provided network services.
- The areas of the organization tasked with providing the network services.
- The persons with access to the network services.
- How access to the services will be provided.
- The administrators of the services.
- Categories of incidents and respective responses.
- Escalation levels for both incidents as well as responses.
- Data handling protocols in the event of incidents.
- Legal guidelines.
- Classification of contacts (e.g. vendors, agencies) and how much information is shared to them.
- Criteria for analyzing incidents.
- Acceptable risks.
This is just a glance of what needs to be defined. The point is to make sure that each single component of the policy is defined to the extent that even a user coming into contact with the policy for the first time will not have challenges using it.
Step 7: Develop a technical implementation strategy
A technical implementation strategy is a plan that details how you will put the network security policy into action. It includes the specific tools and technologies you will use, as well as the procedures you will follow.
It's important to think about things like your network topology and the various systems that need to be protected. You also need to consider your budget and how much resources you can allocate to security.
Your technical implementation strategy should include the following:
- A description of the proposed network topology
- The proposed configurations for both hardware and software
- The proposed anti-virus and anti-malware protection.
- The proposed data backup and disaster recovery plan.
- Rules and regulations for users.
- Ongoing monitoring and assessment of the security posture.
Apply these tips to come up with a successful technical implementation strategy
- Make sure the technical team is on board.
- Plan for contingencies. Murphy's Law is always in effect, so be prepared for the unexpected.
- Have a testing plan in place. Don't roll out new software or hardware without first testing it in a lab environment.
- Stay flexible. Technology is always changing, so be prepared to adapt as needed.
Without a technical implementation strategy, there is a risk that gaps will appear in the network security posture, leaving the organization vulnerable.
Step 8: Implement the technical strategy and security procedures
It is now time to implement the technical strategy as per the procedures outlined in the policy. This includes installing the appropriate software and hardware, as well as configuring the network to meet the specified security needs of the organization.
By this stage you should already have everything. Everyone should be on board and in agreement with the plan including the technical strategy.
It’s advisable to implement on a small scale before rolling it out on a larger scale. Once proven to work, it can be implemented on a larger scale.
Step 9: Test and update
After you have successfully implemented the network security policy, it is important to perform tests to make sure that it works as intended.
This means that you need to have a plan within the policy that outlines how the tests will be done and by who, and then you need to actually follow through with the plan. Testing should include both internal and external tests, and it should be done on a regular basis.
If you find problems with the security, it is important to update the policy immediately. This may mean making some changes to the way the security is implemented, or it may mean adding or deleting devices from the network.
Here are a few methods you can use to do the testing:
- Penetration testing: Penetration testing (also known as pen testing) is a simulated attack against a network. Pen tests are conducted by ethical hackers, also known as white hat hackers, who use the same methods as malicious hackers, but do so with permission from the owner of the system being tested. The goal of penetration testing is to identify weaknesses in the network before a real attacker does. You can use penetration testing to test both physical and digital systems.
- Vulnerability scanning: Vulnerability scanning is the process of identifying potential security weaknesses in a computer system or network. Scanning can be done manually, using tools like nmap, or it can be done automatically, using a vulnerability scanner. Vulnerability scanners can be configured to scan for different types of vulnerabilities depending on the needs of the organization.
- Honeypot: A honeypot is a fake server that's set up specifically to lure in hackers. By monitoring the activity on this server, you can see how hackers are trying to infiltrate your network and find ways to stop them.
- Monitoring traffic: This is probably the most basic way of testing your network security policy—simply monitor the traffic going in and out. You can use tools like Wireshark to do this.
Recommended reading: What is the difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning?
Examples of network security policies
Remember that the network security policy is basically the master policy. But inside this policy are specific and well defined policy areas that together make up the entire network policy architecture for your organization. Here are some examples of the most important policies:
These are the guidelines that govern the use of email within a company. The email policy may cover topics such as acceptable use of email, storage and archival of email.
Email policies are typically designed to protect the security of the email system and to comply with privacy and data protection laws. In some cases, email policies may also be aimed at reducing workplace email «clutter» or spam.
Further reading: common email attacks
The goal of a password policy is to ensure that passwords are strong and resistant to attack, while also being easy for users to remember.
The password policy should include guidelines on password length, complexity, and expiration. It may also specify how many password attempts a user can make before their account is locked, and how often passwords must be changed.
Passwords should be at least 8 characters long and contain a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. They should not be based on personal information (e.g., birthdays, addresses) that could be guessed by others. Employers should have a process in place for resetting passwords if they are forgotten.
Further reading: What is mult-factor authentication and why is it important?
Clean desk policy
The clean desk policy is a network security measure that requires employees to clean up their work areas at all times and especially when not at their desks. This includes putting away all papers, removing any USB drives or other storage devices, and logging out of all computers and networks.
The clean desk policy helps to prevent sensitive information from being compromised by preventing unauthorized access to paper documents or computer equipment. Additionally, the clean desk policy helps to reduce the spread of dust and dirt, which can damage devices.
VPN use policy
While VPNs might be necessary for specific purposes within the company, they can also be used to commit crimes and engage in malicious activities. For this reason, it is important to develop a VPN use policy that defines how VPNs can be used on the network and what types of traffic are allowed.
A good VPN use policy should outline acceptable uses for a VPN and may forbid certain activities, such as accessing illegal websites or downloading copyrighted material. This policy should state that a VPN should only be used for authorized purposes.
Internet usage policy
Employees should only access websites and apps that are relevant to their work. Personal browsing should be done on personal devices and only during break times.
Platforms that are not work-related and that could pose a security risk (e.g. online banking sites) should never be accessed from company devices.
Data storage policy
Company data should only be stored on company-approved devices and servers. The policy should restrict employees against storing company data in their personal devices and cloud-based storage services that they use at a personal level.
This policy should also spell out procedures for regular backups in order to minimize the risk of data loss due to hardware failure or other unforeseen circumstances.
The network security policy should have a section dedicated to BYOD or shadow IT in general. Employees who wish to bring their own devices to work (e.g. laptops, tablets, smartphones) must have them approved by the IT department first according to this policy.
Only devices that meet the requirements of this policy should be allowed on the company network..
Systems monitoring policy
A comprehensive systems monitoring policy should outline the components of the system that will be monitored, the frequency of monitoring, and the method of monitoring..
The frequency of monitoring will depend on the importance of the system and the sensitivity of the information it contains. For example, a financial institution might monitor its systems continuously, while a small business might only monitor its systems once a week.
The method of monitoring will also vary depending on the system being monitored. For example, event logs can be monitored manually or automatically, and intrusion detection systems can be configured to trigger an alert when suspicious activity is detected.
Systems audit policy
A systems audit policy establishes the guidelines for how and when a system should be audited. This policy should have significant input from the network administrator in consultation with the organization's IT staff.
The policy should identify the components of the system that will be audited, the frequency of audits, and the methodology that will be used.
Additionally, the policy should specify who will have access to the audit results and how those results will be used.
Best practices for a powerful network security policy
Please be guided by these best practices to come up with a powerful network security policy.
1. Align the policy with regulatory frameworks
Regulatory frameworks are constantly changing in response to new threats and vulnerabilities, and so should your policy. This will streamline compliance efforts, as you will only need to make changes to your policy when the regulatory landscape changes.
Start by looking at your regulatory requirements. What do they mandate? What are the specific security controls you need to implement?
2. Include safeguards: administrative, physical, and technical
Administrative safeguards are all about processes that help to protect the network from unauthorized access. You need to have a process in place for creating user accounts, granting access, revoking access, and logging activity.
Physical safeguards are all about the security of your physical environment, basically the devices and features that help to physically secure your physical network. You need to have policies in place for protecting your physical devices, the data center, and office space.
And finally, technical safeguards are all about the security of your systems and data. They are essentially the software-based solutions that help to protect your data and prevent unauthorized access to your network.
3. Regular policy reviews
It's important to review network security policy on a regular basis to ensure that it's up to date and still meets the organization's needs.
Things can change quickly in technology, so it's important to make sure that your policy is reflective of the latest threats and vulnerabilities.
These are the benefits of regular policy reviews:
- Better efficiency: Regular reviews play a key role in streamlining processes and removing unnecessary restrictions when found.
- Enhanced user experience: As regular reviews are mostly based on feedback, the changes you make to the policies ensure that users have a positive experience when using the network.
- Meeting compliance requirements: If your business is subject to regulatory requirements, then conducting regular policy reviews contributes to compliance and eliminates costly penalties.
- Improved employee morale: Regular reviews show employees that you value their input and this boosts their morale.
4. Share the policy with all new hires
Employees are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting the network, so be sure to orient each new employee on the company’s network policy.
This should be one of the items every employee masters before they can even settle down to execute their roles. It creates a culture of compliance within the organization.
The employee-facing policy should be clear and concise, and it should explain the expectations that you have for all employees in terms of network security.
5. Regular reminders all staff
Since employees are ever busy completing tasks, they can easily forget about the network security policy. You might have the best policy in place but it will never be fully useful if employees push it to the back of their minds.
All staff should be constantly reminded about the policy, ensuring they are always handling the company’s assets in accordance with the policy.
6. Set a retention date
A retention date in the context of network security policy is the amount of time that data should be stored. The purpose of a retention date is to ensure that data is not kept for longer than necessary, as this can increase the risk of a data breach.
When setting a retention date, take into account the sensitivity of the data and the regulatory landscape. For example, data that is subject to GDPR must be deleted within 30 days of the request being made.
Network administrators should have a clear understanding of how long data should be stored before it is deleted.
Some businesses think they are too small to bother about network security policy. Well, you really can't. A network security policy is absolutely essential to the safety and integrity of your network — no matter the size. Without one, you're leaving yourself wide open to all sorts of attacks, both from external hackers and internal employees. In fact small businesses are at greater risk because they might not have the resources to fight off high level attacks.
Remember to tailor the policy to fit the specific needs of your business, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from experts when needed.