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

by Ellen Zhang on Friday May 5, 2023

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

What is 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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is operational security and why is it important?

Operational security (OPSEC) is an approach to risk management that promotes viewing operations from the perspective of an antagonist. The goal is to identify potential vulnerabilities and address them to prevent sensitive information from being lost, stolen, or compromised. OPSEC was developed by military organizations and is becoming increasingly popular in private business and industry.

What are the elements of operational security?

The following five elements make up the foundation of operational security.

  • Identifying sensitive data - Organizations need to identify their sensitive data resources. These resources may include customer information, employee data, intellectual property, research findings, financial statements, and any other type of data that is deemed sensitive by the organization. This data should be protected using more secure methods than those used for ordinary, non-sensitive information.
  • Identifying potential threats - The possible threats to each type of sensitive data need to be identified and documented. Threats from third-party outsiders and insiders should both be considered. Many serious data breaches have been initiated by accidental or deliberate actions taken by employees or contractors.
  • Analyzing security vulnerabilities - Perform an objective evaluation of current security measures and look for potential weaknesses that can be used to gain access to sensitive data. The assessment should include a thorough inspection of internal and external security safeguards.
  • Determining each vulnerability’s level of risk - The risks should be ranked using factors like the damage an attack could cause, the probability of an attack occurring, and the organization’s ability to recover business-critical systems.
  • Implementing threat mitigation plans - Plans should be developed to mitigate and eliminate threats based on the discovery and categorization of security vulnerabilities. The plans must address an organization’s unique environment and may include employee training, new hardware, or data governance policies to protect sensitive information.

What is an example of operational security?

An example of operational security is an organization implementing data classification processes to identify all sensitive data residing in its cloud computing environment. Information found to be sensitive could then be subject to more stringent access controls and end-to-end encryption to protect it from unauthorized use.

Tags:  Data Protection 101

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