Five tips for a foolproof content security policy

Content security policies that are too restrictive are destined to fail. These surefire tips will help you secure documents without impeding productivity.

A content security policy that is too strict will be destined to fail, as end users are sure to look for ways around...

them -- but inadequate document safeguards can be an even bigger problem.

With that, ensuring that documents, and the systems that store them, are secure takes a thoughtful approach to ensure that information is safe and that people can work efficiently. Leveraging automatic permission settings, allowing exceptions, maintaining proper authentication policies and protecting documents that leave the system are all important aspects of content security that every organization must take into account.

The following are five ways to ensure that your content security plan strikes the right balance:

1. Make security transparent.

IT admins need to be sure security is automatically applied when documents are created within the system. This is important because people rarely apply security consistently, if at all. What's worse is when someone decides to not place a document in the system because they don't have time to set the proper metadata or permissions. "I'll take care of it later" is the greatest lie people tell themselves in information management.

There are several simple methods for creating security settings for documents. Permissions can be automatically assigned by:

  • The person who creates the document.
  • The type of document (e.g., budget or contract, among others).
  • The location in the repository where the document is stored.
  • Business rules defined in the system that take multiple factors into account.
  • A workflow that assigns permissions according to the actions taken within the process.

Once set up, these methods ensure that every document is assigned a minimal level of security. When multiple rules apply, a default hierarchy can be readily defined to allow one rule to override another.

For instance, a contract may be stored in a location that dictates strict access controls to prevent tampering, but allows anyone to read the final version of the document. A business process may exist to override that default when it places draft documents in a location that allows versioning, but prevents any unauthorized staff from accessing the contract until it has been fully executed.

2. Make content security easy.

Employees try to bypass built-in controls because they need to share documents with others. This occurs because of an overly strict content security policy or an inability for staff to modify permissions when there is a valid business reason.

The mistake that many organizations make is allowing management and IT to define the security rules.

Using the previous contract example, if a contracting officer needs an opinion on a contract clause before signing, he would need to share it. Ideally, he could grant permission at the same time. Less ideally, he would first grant permission and then share it. Worst is a complex process where eventually the contracting officer may determine he cannot share the document from within the system, so he makes a copy of it and sends it via email. How secure is that document now?

If it is too difficult for people to manage to the exceptions that the default security rules create, employees will work outside the system. That eliminates all the benefits that are derived from a content security policy in the first place.

3. Know who is who.

Convoluted password requirements or repetitive security hurdles push people to move their work outside corporate IT systems.

Two-factor authentication is a powerful security tool and is highly recommended for clouds and for virtual private network authentication. Allowing users the flexibility to set up multiple options for the second factor is the best way to make two-factor authentication work for everyone. For example, text messages are ideal for many, but when traveling internationally, staff may prefer to have the code emailed to them to avoid expensive international charges.

Once a system is secured, it is important to make sure that everyone has access to it, so documents can be shared with teams. Anyone who needs to collaborate on information needs to have access.

4. Information rights management.

What happens when a document leaves the organization? That is a question that information rights management (IRM) addresses. The concept is that each document is secured and can be viewed only if a person has been granted explicit permission. Historically, this has been done with a custom file type that required a viewer or plug-in to view. The system would query the original system to answer:

  • Is this person permitted to open the document?
  • How many times can this person view the document?
  • Is he allowed to print it?
  • Has the document expired?

The goal is to allow external recipients to view the content, while making sure access rights can be changed at any time. The key requirements for distribution are periodic connectivity and active decisions by the people sharing the document. There are important use cases for IRM, but it should be restricted to only the most sensitive documents that are shared externally for which the reasons for that security is clear.

5. Balanced document security.

The mistake that many organizations make is allowing management and IT to define the security rules. This results in information being so secure that employees want to bypass systems to work with content. Only the people who work with the documents every day know all the exceptions to the default security rules that legitimately happen.

The goal is to find the balance between protecting the organization's information while allowing people to easily do their work. This is a delicate balance, but it's one that can ensure a secure and productive environment for document collaboration with the help of a content security policy.

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This was first published in March 2016

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