Information security is a major concern for businesses, government agencies, and businesses of every size and market.

As with many technical or business issues, utilizing a set of guidelines or standard practices to manage risk vs. alternatives can prove valuable in generating solutions to security issues.

Implementing OPSEC fundamentals is a significant step toward securing enterprise data and creating an understanding of appropriate precautions that protect critical information.

What is OPSEC?

Originating in the military, operational security (OPSEC) refers to a set of procedures, data identification, and analysis that identifies, categorizes, and protects mission-critical information.

Operational security is still a widely-used methodology and discipline within military cultures, with its intention to protect secure data from adversarial elements.

With the global expansion of public and private networks, the methodology has gained interest and popularity in providing a more reliable basis for information security in general.

The mission may have started as data related to military operations, but the concept is just as applicable to business information, trade secrets, or databases containing consumer information:

  • Credit or purchase information
  • Legal matters
  • Healthcare records
  • Tax returns and business transaction history
  • Financial data including bank accounts

The first step to protecting critical information is an understanding of what data is critical to your business or government agency, and what regulations or legislative mandates apply to the data.

Making the move toward data protection and security is facilitated through adopting the five steps or guidelines that comprise OPSEC practices.

Five Key Steps of Operational Security

OPSEC has five distinct steps for implementation, creating a logical framework for adopting its principals in any facet of government or business.

  1. Identification of Data

In order to protect your vital data or information resources, you must first have management agreement on what data needs to be protected. This will depend largely on the type of business you conduct and what regulatory controls apply to your records.

Among the data elements to be considered:

  • Employee information
  • Customer information, including purchase history and account data
  • Credit card information – especially with the many regulations that apply
  • Intellectual property or trade secrets
  • Product design specifications
  • Government records such as tax statements and government contracts

Each type of data must be taken into consideration for its value and the potential risk that would be generated from unauthorized access or data loss. Consider what categories of data could present the highest level of risk to your company if it fell into the hands of your competitors or others who may wish to damage your organization.

  1. Identification of Potential Threats

Once you’ve categorized sensitive data, the next step is to determine the types of threats that may apply to each category. Most businesses focus first on attempts presented by cyberattacks or ransomware that could penetrate their networks from outside the corporation.

It’s just as important to consider vulnerability from inside sources. Many data losses are initiated by unhappy or disgruntled employees, or even trusted partners who succumb to the temptation for personal gain through selling company assets to competitors. Other instances of insider data loss may be attributed to simple negligence or lack of training in handling critical information.

Also consider the various threatening parties who could utilize your information against you. This could be other organizations, media, competitors, or criminal elements. Each of these could have differing uses for your sensitive data, with varying financial or impact to your brand image.

  1. Analysis of Vulnerabilities

Understanding the data and threats to the security of your data, the next step is to review the existing safeguards that are in place to protect the assets. This may include physical security, access logs, employee training, network firewalls, and security software tools.

System failures or configuration weaknesses should also be considered.

After analyzing your infrastructure’s vulnerabilities, you are more prepared to spot weaknesses or gaps in your security plans. It may be valuable to incorporate the services of a security professional to help identify specific areas that may warrant further protection.

  1. Evaluation of Risks Presented by Vulnerabilities

To achieve maximum benefit from the OPSEC guidelines to operational security, this step is crucial.

Now that you understand what data needs to be secure, and how it could be compromised, you need to assess and prioritize how to mitigate each risk.

This is done through a process of evaluating each category:

  • How likely is an attack on this data?
  • What level of damage could result from theft or loss?
  • How would you recover from loss? (both in time and resources/cost required)

By evaluating and ranking each of these factors, you can quickly determine what categories should be addressed first to achieve the most return or risk avoidance through your OPSEC processes.

The higher the ranking, the more attention your organization can apply toward resolution.

  1. Take Steps to Mitigate Risk and Eliminate Potential Threats

Based on your results from the prior steps, implement new safeguards and practices to eliminate the weaknesses and gaps identified. This may include a mix of solutions related to your vulnerabilities:

  • Employee training on proper handling and storage of sensitive data
  • Creation and publication of security policies including the use and changing of strong passwords
  • Installation of security software for monitoring and automated alerts
  • Upgrades of hardware and operating systems to ensure current security levels

Leverage your countermeasures to align with your identification and risk analysis phases, to achieve the highest return on your OPSEC efforts.

OPSEC Best Practices

Along with the five steps to operational security, there are established best practices for developing a comprehensive program that contributes significantly to ongoing data security.

  • Consistent change management processes – Follow a standardized and detailed process for all changes to crucial systems. Centralized control and effective communications of all application and network changes allow for logging, auditing, and appropriate approvals for all changes to information systems.
  • Access restrictions – Network architecture and protections in place should be closely-guarded, controlled information. While it should be well documented and formalized, only those employees who need access to such details should have the information. A broad distribution of this technical data provides opportunities for unauthorized personnel to gain access or circumvent safeguards.

Provide employees with the access they need, but no more. Incorporate a “needs to know” policy of granting minimal access.

  • Segregation of duties – Implement controls that restrict access not only to applications, but to your network and security functions. The team installing and maintaining network resources should not include the same people who manage security. This is the same concept as not having the purchasing department process invoices for purchase orders.
  • Automate where possible – Human error is a major cause of data loss or missed details. It’s easy for an individual to skip or forget a step in a complicated process, or for a technician to miss an update in a list of instructions. Transitioning to automated processes can take the burden off personnel, and reduce errors or even curtail malicious activities.
  • Formalize and test incident response and disaster recovery plans – This is critical whether or not you implement operational security practices, but it is especially critical to your OPSEC process. Incident response planning must include tasks to be performed, sequence of events, and individuals responsible for each task. Multiple departments may be required to formulate and execute these plans, including legal teams, management, and public relations personnel.

Implementing OPSEC

Establishing operational security practices in any organization requires commitment and an understanding of each step in the process. Incorporating OPSEC effectively in your business should include training by professionals experienced in:

  • OPSEC processes
  • Information technology
  • Data security
  • Change management and procedures

OPSEC programs can provide a long-term benefit in operational efficiency and data security for all types of businesses and government agencies.

Data Protection is Critical: OPSEC is Key

As businesses and applications have evolved over years – even decades, control of information has become ever more challenging for businesses in all sectors.

Recognizing the value and sensitivity of data is a critical step in protecting and securing data from misuse, theft, and destruction.

Operational security by its very design has proven to be a valuable tool in identifying, categorizing, and ranking data that must be protected from negligence or criminal elements. Only after your organization has such visibility to your digital assets can you take the appropriate steps to safeguard them.

Today’s media reports of hacking, cyber-crime, and identity theft have emphasized the need for action to the public, executive boardrooms, and shareholders.

To be sure, OPSEC is an iterative process.

Revisit your categories of sensitive data on a continuing basis, as you would your disaster recovery plan. Systems are changing continuously, and new applications that are implemented also generate the need to revisit data categories and to re-evaluate your risk potential.

Adopting OPSEC practices can help large and small businesses with identifying exposure and reducing informational security data vulnerability from both internal sources and cyber-attacks.

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