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Updated: August 2009
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One fundamental issue that arises in discussions of computer security is: "Whose responsibility is it?" Of course, on a basic level the answer is simple: computer security is the responsibility of everyone who can affect the security of a computer system. However, the specific duties and responsibilities of various individuals and organizational entities vary considerably.
This chapter presents a brief overview of roles and responsibilities of the various officials and organizational offices typically involved with computer security.14 They include the following groups:15
This chapter is intended to give the reader a basic familiarity with the major organizational elements that play a role in computer security. It does not describe all responsibilities of each in detail, nor will this chapter apply uniformly to all organizations. Organizations, like individuals, have unique characteristics, and no single template can apply to all. Smaller organizations, in particular, are not likely to have separate individuals performing many of the functions described in this chapter. Even at some larger organizations, some of the duties described in this chapter may not be staffed with full-time personnel. What is important is that these functions be handled in a manner appropriate for the organization.
As with the rest of the handbook, this chapter is not intended to be used as an audit guide.
Senior management has ultimate responsibility for the security of an organization's computer systems.
Ultimately, responsibility for the success of an organization lies with its senior managers. They establish the organization's computer security program and its overall program goals, objectives, and priorities in order to support the mission of the organization. Ultimately, the head of the organization is responsible for ensuring that adequate resources are applied to the program and that it is successful. Senior managers are also responsible for setting a good example for their employees by following all applicable security practices.
The Computer Security Program Manager (and support staff) directs the organization's day-to-day management of its computer security program. This individual is also responsible for coordinating all security-related interactions among organizational elements involved in the computer security program -- as well as those external to the organization.
Program or Functional Managers/Application Owners are responsible for a program or function (e.g., procurement or payroll) including the supporting computer system.16 Their responsibilities include providing for appropriate security, including management, operational, and technical controls. These officials are usually assisted by a technical staff that oversees the actual workings of the system. This kind of support is no different for other staff members who work on other program implementation issues.
Also, the program or functional manager/application owner is often aided by a Security Officer (frequently dedicated to that system, particularly if it is large or critical to the organization) in developing and implementing security requirements.
System Management/System Administrators. These personnel are the managers and technicians who design and operate computer systems. They are responsible for implementing technical security on computer systems and for being familiar with security technology that relates to their system. They also need to ensure the continuity of their services to meet the needs of functional managers as well as analyzing technical vulnerabilities in their systems (and their security implications). They are often a part of a larger Information Resources Management (IRM) organization.
What is a Program/Functional Manager?
The term program/functional manager or application owner may not be familiar or immediately apparent to all readers. The examples provided below should help the reader better understand this important concept. In reviewing these examples, note that computer systems often serve more than one group or function.
Example 1. A personnel system serves an entire organization. However, the Personnel Manager would normally be the application owner. This applies even if the application is distributed so that supervisors and clerks throughout the organization use and update the system.
Example #2. A federal benefits system provides monthly benefit checks to 500,000 citizens. The processing is done on a mainframe data center. The Benefits Program Manager is the application owner.
Example 3. A mainframe data processing organization supports several large applications. The mainframe director is not the Functional Manager for any of the applications.
Example 4. A 100-person division has a diverse collection of personal computers, work stations, and minicomputers used for general office support, Internet connectivity, and computer-oriented research. The division director would normally be the Functional Manager responsible for the system.
Communications / Telecommunications Staff. This office is normally responsible for providing communications services, including voice, data, video, and fax service. Their responsibilities for communication systems are similar to those that systems management officials have for their systems. The staff may not be separate from other technology service providers or the IRM office.
System Security Manager/Officers. Often assisting system management officials in this effort is a system security manager/officer responsible for day-to-day security implementation / administration duties. Although not normally part of the computer security program management office, this officer is responsible for coordinating the security efforts of a particular system(s). This person works closely with system management personnel, the computer security program manager, and the program or functional manager's security officer. In fact, depending upon the organization, this may be the same individual as the program or functional manager's security officer. This person may or may not be a part of the organization's overall security office.
Help Desk. Whether or not a Help Desk is tasked with incident handling, it needs to be able to recognize security incidents and refer the caller to the appropriate person or organization for a response.
The security responsibilities of managers, technology providers and security officers are supported by functions normally assigned to others. Some of the more important of these are described below.
Audit. Auditors are responsible for examining systems to see whether the system is meeting stated security requirements, including system and organization policies, and whether security controls are appropriate. Informal audits can be performed by those operating the system under review or, if impartiality is important, by outside auditors.18
Physical Security. The physical security office is usually responsible for developing and enforcing appropriate physical security controls, in consultation with computer security management, program and functional managers, and others, as appropriate. Physical security should address not only central computer installations, but also backup facilities and office environments. In the government, this office is often responsible for the processing of personnel background checks and security clearances.
Who Should Be the Accrediting Official?
The Accrediting Officials are agency officials who have authority to accept an application's security safeguards and approve a system for operation. The Accrediting Officials must also be authorized to allocate resources to achieve acceptable security and to remedy security deficiencies. Without this authority, they cannot realistically take responsibility for the accreditation decision. In general, Accreditors are senior officials, who may be the Program or Function Manager/Application Owner. For some very sensitive applications, the Senior Executive Officer is appropriate as an Accrediting Official. In general, the more sensitive the application, the higher the Accrediting Officials are in the organization.
Where privacy is a concern, federal managers can be held personally liable for security inadequacies. The issuing of the accreditation statement fixes security responsibility, thus making explicit a responsibility that might otherwise be implicit. Accreditors should consult the agency general counsel to determine their personal security liabilities.
Note that accreditation is a formality unique to the government.
Source: NIST FIPS 102
Disaster Recovery/Contingency Planning Staff. Some organizations have a separate disaster recovery/contingency planning staff. In this case, they are normally responsible for contingency planning for the organization as a whole, and normally work with program and functional mangers/application owners, the computer security staff, and others to obtain additional contingency planning support, as needed.
Quality Assurance. Many organizations have established a quality assurance program to improve the products and services they provide to their customers. The quality officer should have a working knowledge of computer security and how it can be used to improve the quality of the program, for example, by improving the integrity of computer-based information, the availability of services, and the confidentiality of customer information, as appropriate.
Procurement. The procurement office is responsible for ensuring that organizational procurements have been reviewed by appropriate officials. The procurement office cannot be responsible for ensuring that goods and services meet computer security expectations, because it lacks the technical expertise. Nevertheless, this office should be knowledgeable about computer security standards and should bring them to the attention of those requesting such technology.
Training Office. An organization has to decide whether the primary responsibility for training users, operators, and managers in computer security rests with the training office or the computer security program office. In either case, the two organizations should work together to develop an effective training program.
Personnel. The personnel office is normally the first point of contact in helping managers determine if a security background investigation is necessary for a particular position. The personnel and security offices normally work closely on issues involving background investigations. The personnel office may also be responsible for providing security-related exit procedures when employees leave an organization.
Risk Management/Planning Staff. Some organizations have a full-time staff devoted to studying all types of risks to which the organization may be exposed. This function should include computer security-related risks, although this office normally focuses on "macro" issues. Specific risk analyses for specific computer systems is normally not performed by this office.
Physical Plant. This office is responsible for ensuring the provision of such services as electrical power and environmental controls, necessary for the safe and secure operation of an organization's systems. Often they are augmented by separate medical, fire, hazardous waste, or life safety personnel.
Users also have responsibilities for computer security. Two kinds of users, and their associated responsibilities, are described below.
Users of Information. Individuals who use information provided by the computer can be considered the "consumers" of the applications. Sometimes they directly interact with the system (e.g., to generate a report on screen) -- in which case they are also users of the system (as discussed below). Other times, they may only read computer-prepared reports or only be briefed on such material. Some users of information may be very far removed from the computer system. Users of information are responsible for letting the functional mangers/application owners (or their representatives) know what their needs are for the protection of information, especially for its integrity and availability.
Users of Systems. Individuals who directly use computer systems (typically via a keyboard) are responsible for following security procedures, for reporting security problems, and for attending required computer security and functional training.
Wood, Charles Cresson. "How to Achieve a Clear Definition of Responsibilities for Information Security." DATAPRO Information Security Service, IS115-200-101, 7 pp. April 1993.
Footnotes:14. Note that this includes groups within the organization; outside organizations (e.g., NIST and OMB) are not included in this chapter.