Building an effective information security policy for your small business

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Sam Peters, below, Chief Product Officer, ISMS.online

Understanding how to build a high-quality information security policy is vital for any business in the modern economy. However, SMEs are particularly exposed given their small size and relative lack of funding to fall back on when things go wrong. But knowing how to build one is only part of the battle – decision makers must also understand why this is so important for their operations.

Many people mistakenly see information security and cybersecurity as the same thing. While this is not the case, information security is the bedrock on which solid cybersecurity is built – it simply cannot exist without it.

Why build a strong information security policy?

Before delving into any methods, we must understand the essential components for why an information security policy is so important. A policy with a solid operational framework enables a business to assess the vulnerability levels in its networks by identifying, triaging and acting to shore up any weak spots in the system. Doing this will reduce the risk of incoming security threats and, therefore, any damage they might cause.

This is crucial because cyber-attacks are becoming more sophisticated, and many can get around even the most advanced protection systems. Any good information security policy will account for this and have an incident management protocol that mitigates any attacks inflicted on the network.

Businesses – especially SMEs – need to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to cyber-attacks and a robust, fully-up-to-date security policy is their best chance of doing so. A good policy will enable each member of an organisation to be “on the same page” regarding expectations, what is allowed and what is prohibited. All of this contributes to a more standardised approach, which lessens the chances of a malicious attack.

The pitfalls of poor information security management

Many SMEs simply don’t have an information security policy in place to begin with. When they do exist, they are often overly complex and are developed as a ‘tick box exercise’. Any policy needs to be simple and clear enough for all employees to comprehend and follow. When policies are full of legal or technical jargon, they discourage employees from adopting them, meaning that all the time and resources put into creating the policy are wasted.

To this point, it is crucial that the policy be seen as a safeguard, not a barrier to business success. This is important not just in the context of the current policy, but for cybersecurity as a whole. An overly complex security apparatus will leave employees in the mindset that cybersecurity is “too difficult” to get right.

To avoid this pitfall, ensure that information security policies are designed with the end-user in mind – information must be readily available and well-publicised across the organisation. This way, the business will foster a positive security culture where policies are seen as helpful rather than intimidating.

Another mistake is to view an information security policy as a purely reactive tool. That is, something that can be used for damage control after an incident has taken place. On the contrary, any good policy must work on preventing attacks, not just reacting to them. To ensure this is ongoing, business leaders must regularly review their policy to ensure that it is up to date with changes in regulation and the evolving nature of cyber threats.

Shaping your information security policy

Creating a robust, dynamic information security policy requires coordination across all major pillars of the business. The best way to start is to conduct a cyber risk assessment of the business. Here, decision makers need to identify any areas in the system where breaches of data confidentiality, availability or integrity could occur. Additionally, it is important to identify any potential risk in operations – this could be supply chains, the business model itself or any other vulnerabilities – and understand what a data breach in these areas would mean.

Understanding any regulations the business will need to conform to is vital. SMEs face significant pressures to get this right, but it does not have to be daunting. The easiest approach is to work to a risk and security framework – such as ISO/IEC 27001 – so that decision makers know exactly what is required of their policy before they develop it.

Some customers require their suppliers to prove compliance with standards like ISO/IEC 27001 before they agree to work with them – so poor information security could actually result in lost business opportunities.

Best practices for SMEs

When developing an information security policy for your small business, try using these five steps as a guide:

  1. Outline

During each stage of the information security policy’s development, decision makers must ask “what is this policy going to achieve?” From the risk assessments, they should have a good idea of vulnerable areas to target. Each element of the policy should reflect this and serve a purpose in the business’s network.

  1. Scope

Here, decision makers must decide on the parameters of the policy. That is, who and what should the policy apply to. The risk assessment should provide a lot of this information – it is then a matter of filling in any gaps.

  1. Purpose

A multitude of factors will contribute to this. Company culture and best practices will play a major role in shaping the policy’s purpose and how this communicated to staff. Equally, adherence to regulations and risks specific to the organisation will inform the purpose.

  1. Compliance

Business leaders must then determine how the policy should be enforced. Exact methods may vary, and training sessions, documents or video workshops are all valid. The most important thing is that it is clear – if it cannot be understood, it cannot be enforced.

  1. Management

Having a solid information security management system (ISMS) will allow cybersecurity teams to access information security policies, maintain them and build on them all from one platform. This will make building and updating your policies much easier – a central location for everything will mean any issues can be closed out faster.

Secure, clear and proactive

As businesses increase their digital presence, they also increase their risk of information security incidents. Thankfully, constructing a solid information security policy is less complex than many think. One of the main points to keep in mind is covering all areas in the risk assessment and having a solid, honest picture of any weak spots. This information can then be used to implement a strategy that addresses all vulnerabilities, while being updated as threats and regulations change.

Finally, it is critical that the policy be easy to understand, so that it can be learnt quickly and well-enforced. Getting these steps right will ensure that the business is well-protected and has a strong, positive security culture.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024