Special Publication 800-12: An Introduction to Computer Security - The NIST Handbook


Chapter 2:


This handbook's general approach to computer security is based on eight major elements:

  1. Computer security should support the mission of the organization.
  2. Computer security is an integral element of sound management.
  3. Computer security should be cost-effective.
  4. Computer security responsibilities and accountability should be made explicit.
  5. System owners have computer security responsibilities outside their own organizations.
  6. Computer security requires a comprehensive and integrated approach.
  7. Computer security should be periodically reassessed.
  8. Computer security is constrained by societal factors.

Familiarity with these elements will aid the reader in better understanding how the security controls (discussed in later sections) support the overall computer security program goals.

2.1 Computer Security Supports the Mission of the Organization.

The purpose of computer security is to protect an organization's valuable resources, such as information, hardware, and software. Through the selection and application of appropriate safeguards, security helps the organization's mission by protecting its physical and financial resources, reputation, legal position, employees, and other tangible and intangible assets. Unfortunately, security is sometimes viewed as thwarting the mission of the organization by imposing poorly selected, bothersome rules and procedures on users, managers, and systems. On the contrary, well-chosen security rules and procedures do not exist for their own sake -- they are put in place to protect important assets and thereby support the overall organizational mission.

Security, therefore, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. For example, in a private- sector business, having good security is usually secondary to the need to make a profit. Security, then, ought to increase the firm's ability to make a profit. In a public-sector agency, security is usually secondary to the agency's service provided to citizens. Security, then, ought to help improve the service provided to the citizen.

To act on this, managers need to understand both their organizational mission and how each information system supports that mission. After a system's role has been defined, the security requirements implicit in that role can be defined. Security can then be explicitly stated in terms of the organization's mission.

This chapter draws upon the OECD's Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems, which was endorsed by the United States. It provides for:

Accountability - The responsibilities and accountability of owners, providers and users of information systems and other parties...should be explicit.

Awareness - Owners, providers, users and other parties should readily be able, consistent with maintaining security, to gain appropriate knowledge of and be informed about the existence and general extent of measures...for the security of information systems.

Ethics - The Information systems and the security of information systems should be provided and used in such a manner that the rights and legitimate interest of others are respected.

Multidisciplinary - Measures, practices and procedures for the security of information systems should take account of and address all relevant considerations and viewpoints....

Proportionality - Security levels, costs, measures, practices and procedures should be appropriate and proportionate to the value of and degree of reliance on the information systems and to the severity, probability and extent of potential harm....

Integration - Measures, practices and procedures for the security of information systems should be coordinated and integrated with each other and other measures, practices and procedures of the organization so as to create a coherent system of security.

Timeliness - Public and private parties, at both national and international levels, should act in a timely coordinated manner to prevent and to respond to breaches of security of information systems.

Reassessment - The security of information systems should be reassessed periodically, as information systems and the requirements for their security vary over time.

Democracy - The security of information systems should be compatible with the legitimate use and flow of data and information in a democratic society.

The roles and functions of a system may not be constrained to a single organization. In an interorganizational system, each organization benefits from securing the system. For example, for electronic commerce to be successful, each of the participants requires security controls to protect their resources. However, good security on the buyer's system also benefits the seller; the buyer's system is less likely to be used for fraud or to be unavailable or otherwise negatively affect the seller. (The reverse is also true.)

2.2 Computer Security is an Integral Element of Sound Management.

Information and computer systems are often critical assets that support the mission of an organization. Protecting them can be as critical as protecting other organizational resources, such as money, physical assets, or employees.

However, including security considerations in the management of information and computers does not completely eliminate the possibility that these assets will be harmed. Ultimately, organization managers have to decide what the level of risk they are willing to accept, taking into account the cost of security controls.

As with many other resources, the management of information and computers may transcend organizational boundaries. When an organization's information and computer systems are linked with external systems, management's responsibilities also extend beyond the organization. This may require that management (1) know what general level or type of security is employed on the external system(s) or (2) seek assurance that the external system provides adequate security for the using organization's needs.

2.3 Computer Security Should Be Cost-Effective.

The costs and benefits of security should be carefully examined in both monetary and non-monetary terms to ensure that the cost of controls does not exceed expected benefits. Security should be appropriate and proportionate to the value of and degree of reliance on the computer systems and to the severity, probability and extent of potential harm. Requirements for security vary, depending upon the particular computer system.

In general, security is a smart business practice. By investing in security measures, an organization can reduce the frequency and severity of computer security-related losses. For example, an organization may estimate that it is experiencing significant losses per year in inventory through fraudulent manipulation of its computer system. Security measures, such as an improved access control system, may significantly reduce the loss.

Moreover, a sound security program can thwart hackers and can reduce the frequency of viruses. Elimination of these kinds of threats can reduce unfavorable publicity as well as increase morale and productivity.

Security benefits, however, do have both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include purchasing, installing, and administering security measures, such as access control software or fire-suppression systems. Additionally, security measures can sometimes affect system performance, employee morale, or retraining requirements. All of these have to be considered in addition to the basic cost of the control itself. In many cases, these additional costs may well exceed the initial cost of the control (as is often seen, for example, in the costs of administering an access control package). Solutions to security problems should not be chosen if they cost more, directly or indirectly, than simply tolerating the problem.

2.4 Computer Security Responsibilities and Accountability Should Be Made Explicit.

The responsibilities and accountability10 of owners, providers, and users of computer systems and other parties11 concerned with the security of computer systems should be explicit.12 The assignment of responsibilities may be internal to an organization or may extend across organizational boundaries.

Depending on the size of the organization, the program may be large or small, even a collateral duty of another management official. However, even small organizations can prepare a document that states organization policy and makes explicit computer security responsibilities. This element does not specify that individual accountability must be provided for on all systems. For example, many information dissemination systems do not require user identification and, therefore, cannot hold users accountable.

2.5 Systems Owners Have Security Responsibilities Outside Their Own Organizations.

If a system has external users, its owners have a responsibility to share appropriate knowledge about the existence and general extent of security measures so that other users can be confident that the system is adequately secure. (This does not imply that all systems must meet any minimum level of security, but does imply that system owners should inform their clients or users about the nature of the security.)

In addition to sharing information about security, organization managers "should act in a timely, coordinated manner to prevent and to respond to breaches of security" to help prevent damage to others.13 However, taking such action should not jeopardize the security of systems.

2.6 Computer Security Requires a Comprehensive and Integrated Approach.

Providing effective computer security requires a comprehensive approach that considers a variety of areas both within and outside of the computer security field. This comprehensive approach extends throughout the entire information life cycle.

2.6.1 Interdependencies of Security Controls

To work effectively, security controls often depend upon the proper functioning of other controls. In fact, many such interdependencies exist. If appropriately chosen, managerial, operational, and technical controls can work together synergistically. On the other hand, without a firm understanding of the interdependencies of security controls, they can actually undermine one another. For example, without proper training on how and when to use a virus-detection package, the user may apply the package incorrectly and, therefore, ineffectively. As a result, the user may mistakenly believe that their system will always be virus-free and may inadvertently spread a virus. In reality, these interdependencies are usually more complicated and difficult to ascertain.

2.6.2 Other Interdependencies

The effectiveness of security controls also depends on such factors as system management, legal issues, quality assurance, and internal and management controls. Computer security needs to work with traditional security disciplines including physical and personnel security. Many other important interdependencies exist that are often unique to the organization or system environment. Managers should recognize how computer security relates to other areas of systems and organizational management.

2.7 Computer Security Should Be Periodically Reassessed.

Computers and the environments they operate in are dynamic. System technology and users, data and information in the systems, risks associated with the system and, therefore, security requirements are ever-changing. Many types of changes affect system security: technological developments (whether adopted by the system owner or available for use by others); connecting to external networks; a change in the value or use of information; or the emergence of a new threat.

In addition, security is never perfect when a system is implemented. System users and operators discover new ways to intentionally or unintentionally bypass or subvert security. Changes in the system or the environment can create new vulnerabilities. Strict adherence to procedures is rare, and procedures become outdated over time. All of these issues make it necessary to reassess the security of computer systems.

2.8 Computer Security is Constrained by Societal Factors.

The ability of security to support the mission of the organization(s) may be limited by various factors, such as social issues. For example, security and workplace privacy can conflict. Commonly, security is implemented on a computer system by identifying users and tracking their actions. However, expectations of privacy vary and can be violated by some security measures. (In some cases, privacy may be mandated by law.)

Although privacy is an extremely important societal issue, it is not the only one. The flow of information, especially between a government and its citizens, is another situation where security may need to be modified to support a societal goal. In addition, some authentication measures, such as retinal scanning, may be considered invasive in some environments and cultures.

The underlying idea is that security measures should be selected and implemented with a recognition of the rights and legitimate interests of others. This many involve balancing the security needs of information owners and users with societal goals. However, rules and expectations change with regard to the appropriate use of security controls. These changes may either increase or decrease security.

The relationship between security and societal norms is not necessarily antagonistic. Security can enhance the access and flow of data and information by providing more accurate and reliable information and greater availability of systems. Security can also increase the privacy afforded to an individual or help achieve other goals set by society.


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems. Paris, 1992.


10. The difference between responsibility and accountability is not always clear. In general, responsibility is a broader term, defining obligations and expected behavior. The term implies a proactive stance on the part of the responsible party and a causal relationship between the responsible party and a given outcome. The term accountability generally refers to the ability to hold people responsible for their actions. Therefore, people could be responsible for their actions but not held accountable. For example, an anonymous user on a system is responsible for not compromising security but cannot be held accountable if a compromise occurs since the action cannot be traced to an individual.
11. The term other parties may include but is not limited to: executive management; programmers; maintenance providers; information system managers (software managers, operations managers, and network managers); software development managers; managers charged with security of information systems; and internal and external information system auditors.
12. Implicit is the recognition that people or other entities (such as corporations or governments) have responsibilities and accountability related to computer systems. These are responsibilities and accountabilities are often shared among many entities. (Assignment of responsibilities is usually accomplished through the issuance of policy. See Chapter 5.)
13. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems, Paris, 1992.

Back to Previous Page | Back to SP 800-12 Home Page | Go to Chapter 3

Last updated: January 31, 2012
Page created: July 1, 2004

Disclaimer Notice & Privacy Policy
Send comments or suggestions to CSRC Webmaster
NIST is an Agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce