What is Operational Security? The Five-Step Process, Best Practices, and More

by Ellen Zhang on Wednesday September 12, 2018

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Learn about Operational Security (OPSEC) in Data Protection 101, our series on the fundamentals of information security.

Definition of Operational Security

Operational security (OPSEC), also known as procedural security, is a risk management process that encourages managers to view operations from the perspective of an adversary in order to protect sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands.

Though originally used by the military, OPSEC is becoming popular in the private sector as well. Things that fall under the OPSEC umbrella include monitoring behaviors and habits on social media sites as well as discouraging employees from sharing login credentials via email or text message.

The Five Steps of Operational Security

The processes involved in operational security can be neatly categorized into five steps:

  1. Identify your sensitive data, including your product research, intellectual property, financial statements, customer information, and employee information. This will be the data you will need to focus your resources on protecting.
  2. Identify possible threats. For each category of information that you deem sensitive, you should identify what kinds of threats are present. While you should be wary of third parties trying to steal your information, you should also watch out for insider threats, such as negligent employees and disgruntled workers.
  3. Analyze security holes and other vulnerabilities. Assess your current safeguards and determine what, if any, loopholes or weaknesses exist that may be exploited to gain access to your sensitive data.
  4. Appraise the level of risk associated with each vulnerability. Rank your vulnerabilities using factors such as the likelihood of an attack happening, the extent of damage that you would suffer, and the amount of work and time you would need to recover. The more likely and damaging an attack is, the more you should prioritize mitigating the associated risk.
  5. Get countermeasures in place. The last step of operational security is to create and implement a plan to eliminate threats and mitigate risks. This could include updating your hardware, creating new policies regarding sensitive data, or training employees on sound security practices and company policies. Countermeasures should be straightforward and simple. Employees should be able to implement the measures required on their part with or without additional training.

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Best Practices for Operational Security

Follow these best practices to implement a robust, comprehensive operational security program:

  • Implement precise change management processes that your employees should follow when network changes are performed. All changes should be logged and controlled so they can be monitored and audited.
  • Restrict access to network devices using AAA authentication. In the military and other government entities, a “need-to-know” basis is often used as a rule of thumb regarding access and sharing of information.
  • Give your employees the minimum access necessary to perform their jobs. Practice the principle of least privilege.
  • Implement dual control. Make sure that those who work on your network are not the same people in charge of security.
  • Automate tasks to reduce the need for human intervention. Humans are the weakest link in any organization’s operational security initiatives because they make mistakes, overlook details, forget things, and bypass processes.
  • Incident response and disaster recovery planning are always crucial components of a sound security posture. Even when operational security measures are robust, you must have a plan to identify risks, respond to them, and mitigate potential damages.

Risk management involves being able to identify threats and vulnerabilities before they become problems. Operational security forces managers to dive deeply into their operations and figure out where their information can be easily breached. Looking at operations from a malicious third-party’s perspective allows managers to spot vulnerabilities they may have otherwise missed so that they can implement the proper countermeasures to protect sensitive data.

Tags: Data Protection 101