Cybersecurity Tutorial For Beginners: Administrative Security

All organizations contain people, data, and means for people to use the data. A fundamental aspect of operations security is ensuring that controls are in place to inhibit people either inadvertently or intentionally compromising the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of data or the systems and media holding that data. Administrative Security provides the means to control people’s operational access to data.

Administrative Personnel Controls represent important operations security concepts that should be mastered by cybersecurity personnel. These are fundamental concepts within information security that permeate through multiple domains.

Least Privilege or Minimum Necessary Access
One of the most important concepts in all of information security is that of the principle of least privilege. The principle of least privilege dictates that persons have no more than the access that is strictly required for the performance of their duties. The principle of least privilege may also be referred to as the principle of minimum necessary access. Regardless of name, adherence to this principle is a fundamental tenet of security, and should serve as a starting point for administrative security controls.
Although the principle of least privilege is applicable to organizations leveraging Mandatory Access Control (MAC), the principle’s application is most obvious in Discretionary Access Control (DAC) environments. With DAC, the principle of least privilege suggests that a user will be given access to data if, and only if, a data owner determines that a business need exists for the user to have the access. With MAC, we have a further concept that helps to inform the principle of least privilege: need to know.

Need to Know
In organizations with extremely sensitive information that leverage Mandatory Access Control (MAC), basic determination of access is enforced by the system. The access determination is based upon clearance levels of subjects and classification levels of objects. Though the vetting process for someone accessing highly sensitive information is stringent, clearance level alone is insufficient when dealing with the most sensitive of information. An extension to the principle of least privilege in MAC environments is the concept of compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization, a method for enforcing need to know, goes beyond the mere reliance upon clearance level and necessitates simply that someone requires access to information. Compartmentalization is best understood by considering a highly sensitive military operation: while there may be a large number of individuals (some of high rank), only a subset “need to know” specific information. The others have no “need to know,” and therefore no access.

Separation of Duties
While the principle of least privilege is necessary for sound operational security, in many cases it alone is not a sufficient administrative control. As an example, imagine that an employee has been away from the office for training, and has submitted an expense report indicating $1,000,000 was needed for reimbursement. This individual happens to be a person who, as part of her daily duties, had access to print reimbursement checks, and would therefore meet the principle of least privilege for printing her own reimbursement check. Should she be able to print herself a nice big $1,000,000 reimbursement check? While this access may be necessary for her job function, and thus meet the requirements for the principle of least privilege, additional controls are required.
The example above serves to illustrate the next administrative security control, separation of duties. Separation of duties prescribes that multiple people are required to complete critical or sensitive transactions. The goal of separation of duties is to ensure that in order for someone to be able to abuse their access to sensitive data or transactions, they must convince another party to act in concert. Collusion is the term used for the two parties conspiring to undermine the security of the transaction. The classic action movie example of separation of duties involves two keys, a nuclear sub, and a rogue captain.

Separation of Duties
Separation of duties is a hard lesson to learn for many organizations, but many only needed to learn this lesson once. One such organization had a relatively small and fledgling security department that was created as a result of regulatory compliance mandates. Most of the other departments were fairly antagonistic toward this new department because it simply cobbled together various perceived security functions and was not mindfully built. The original intent was for the department to serve primarily
in an advisory capacity regarding all things in security, and for the department not to have operational responsibilities regarding changes. The result meant that security ran a lot of vulnerability scans, and took these to operations for resolution. Often operations staff members were busy with more pressing matters than patch installations, the absence of which posed little perceived threat.
Ultimately, because of their incessant nagging, the security department was given the, thankless if ever there was one, task of enterprise patch management for all but the most critical systems. Though this worked fine for a while, eventually, one of the security department staff realized that his performance review depended upon his timely remediation of missing patches, and, in addition to being the person that installed the patches, he was also the person that reported whether patches were missing. Further scrutiny was applied when management thought it odd that he reported significantly less missing patches than all of his security department colleagues. Upon review
it was determined that though the employee had indeed acted unethically, it was beneficial in bringing the need for separation of duties to light. Though many departments have not had such an egregious breach of conduct, it is important to be mindful of those with audit capabilities also being operationally responsible for what they are auditing. The moral of the story: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?[1] Who watches the watchers?

Rotation of Duties/Job Rotation
Rotation of Duties, also known as job rotation or rotation of responsibilities, provides an organization with a means to help mitigate the risk associated with any one individual having too many privileges. Rotation of duties simply requires that one person does not perform critical functions or responsibilities without interruption. There are multiple issues that rotation of duties can help begin to address. One issue addressed by job rotation is the “hit by a bus” scenario: imagine, morbid as it is, that one individual in the organization is hit by a bus on their way to work. If the operational impact of the loss of an individual would be too great, then perhaps one way to assuage this impact would be to ensure that there is additional depth of coverage for this individual’s responsibilities.
Rotation of duties can also mitigate fraud. Over time some employees can develop a sense of ownership and entitlement to the systems and applications they work on. Unfortunately, this sense of ownership can lead to the employee’s finding and exploiting a means of defrauding the company with little to no chance of arousing suspicion. One of the best ways to detect this fraudulent behavior is to require that responsibilities that could lead to fraud be frequently rotated amongst multiple people. In addition to the increased detection capabilities, the fact that responsibilities are routinely rotated deters fraud.

Mandatory Leave/Forced Vacation
An additional operational control that is closely related to rotation of duties is that of mandatory leave, also known as forced vacation. Though there are various justifications for requiring employees to be away from work, the primary security considerations are similar to that addressed by rotation of duties; reducing or detecting personnel single points of failure, and detection and deterrence of fraud. Discovering a lack of depth in personnel with critical skills can help organizations understand risks associated with employees unavailable for work due to unforeseen circumstances. Forcing all employees to take leave can identify areas where depth of coverage is lacking. Further, requiring employees to be away from work while it is still operating can also help discover fraudulent or suspicious behavior. As stated before, the sheer knowledge that mandatory leave is a possibility might deter some individuals from engaging in the fraudulent behavior in the first place, because of the increased likelihood of getting caught.

Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is a work-related contractual agreement that ensures that, prior to being given access to sensitive information or data, an individual or organization appreciates their legal responsibility to maintain the confidentiality of that sensitive information. Job candidates, consultants or contractors often sign non-disclosure agreements before they are hired. Non-disclosure agreements are largely a directive control.

Background Checks
Background checks (also known as background investigations or pre-employment screening) are an additional administrative control commonly employed by many organizations. The majority of background investigations are performed as part of a pre-employment screening process. Some organizations perform cursory background investigations that include a criminal record check. Others perform more in-depth checks, such as verifying employment history, obtaining credit reports, and in some cases requiring the submission of a drug screening.
The sensitivity of the position being filled or data to which the individual will have access strongly determines the degree to which this information is scrutinized and the depth to which the investigation will report. The overt purpose of these pre-employment background investigations is to ensure that persons who will be employed have not exhibited behaviors that might suggest they cannot be trusted with the responsibilities of the position. Ongoing, or postemployment, investigations seek to determine whether the individual continues to be worthy of the trust required of their position. Background checks performed in advance of employment serve as a preventive control while ongoing repeat background checks constitute a detective control and possibly a deterrent.

The business needs of organizations require that some individuals have privileged access to critical systems, or systems that contain sensitive data. These individuals’ heightened privileges require both greater scrutiny and more thoughtful controls in order to ensure that confidentiality, integrity, and availability remain intact. Some of the job functions that warrant greater scrutiny include: account creation/modification/ deletion, system reboots, data backup, data restoration, source code access, audit log access, security configuration capabilities, etc.