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Sharing Securely: How to Cope, Part 3

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Secure information sharing requires a classification mechanism, which is the process of marking a document based on its conformance to a set of characteristics determined for a group of documents. Read Part 1 and Part 2

Editor’s note: This chapter is excerpted from chapter 9 of Identity Management: A Business Perspective.


When it comes to a classification process, there are some defined steps to go through:

  1. Determine how protective markings should be This can be done either automatically, via a set of policies that are applied to a document when it’s created, or it can be left up to the user who is responsible for classifying a document when they create it and save it for the first time. The system can prompt the user based on content inspection of the document.
  2. Decide when protective markings should be applied. Most classification systems apply markings upon creation of a In some cases, this occurs as the document leaves the company’s network.
  3. Determine the process for updating a document’s It is usual to have a function within a business that oversees document classifications and has the authority to change them. An administrative center that has governance over data loss protection will be able to alter a classification if it does not adhere to policy. An automated routine that continually checks document repositories will identify documents for potential re- classification.
  4. Define duration of classifications. The length of time during which a document’s classification is active must be This will vary depending on the sensitivity of the document. Statutory periods for document retention, archive policy, business continuity plans, and community relations will also impact classification duration.

These elements of a company’s document classification policy should be documented in the organization’s policy statement regarding protection of corporate intellectual property and the organization’s response to regulatory controls, including privacy.

There is an international standard for classification schemes. ISO 27001 recommends that a four-step process, shown in Figure 9.3, be defined to ensure that a comprehensive solution is put in place.

thumb 20240612WilliamsonCh9Fig3

Figure 9.3: Information classification process

The first step is to inventory the document and file assets. This will ensure 1) all assets will be included in the inventory of documents to be protected and 2) the classification scheme will be comprehensive—that is, covering all such documents and not just pertinent to a few.

The second step is to classify the information. Each document will be categorized in accordance with its classification.

The third step is to place markings on each document or file. This will require an appropriate software product. For Office documents, the built-in rights management capability can be utilized. If a software tool is acquired, it can be used to apply the metadata markings.

The fourth step is to enforce the correct handling of documents and files in accordance with their markings. It might be necessary for users to download client software for their various devices to enable the classification markings to be observed.

ISO 27001 also recommends that the selected classification scheme encompass all document formats. Table 9.1 shows the classification scheme for documents, with the procedures for each format of the three controlled information types.

Table 9.1: Classification scheme




Electronic documents

Restrictions on detachable storage

Automated watermarking of documents

Access control only available to approved persons

Information systems

Internal documents available only to persons with a “staff” designation

Documents available only to persons with a “Restricted” classification

Documents available only to persons with a “Secret” AD group

Paper documents

Documents must be appropriately stored when not being referenced

Documents must be maintained in secure files

Document checkout processes to be followed

Storage media

Can be stored in public repositories if protected via RMS

Storage limited to data center infrastructure

Documents may be stored only in the appropriate encrypted file store

Verbal information

Staff to be aware of the protected nature of information

Staff cautioned to observe protection processes (e.g., not discuss in public areas)

Discussion only in protected areas


Unrestricted email internally, embargoed pending investigation for external mail recipients

To be shared only with appropriately classified personnel

To be shared only between members of the Secret group

In this circumstance, a three-level classification scheme has been selected: Internal documents (i.e., not for transmittal outside the company), Restricted documents (i.e., distribution limited to specified groups), and Confidential documents (i.e., documents available to specific persons). There is, of course, another category: unrestricted, for documents that are not controlled.

Now a word about deploying a classification system. At one end of the continuum is a mechanistic approach whereby automated decisions on document classification are made, and punitive consequences are applied. At the other end is a cognitive approach whereby humans make the access decision, and their reward/recognition system is implemented.

As with any project such as this, the main challenge is to instill an awareness of security within the organization. To do this, it is recommended that a change management initiative be initiated. Staff need to be educated about the need to maintain security at the system level, protecting login accounts; at the document level, accurately marking documents; and at the physical level, not leaving sensitive documents on an unoccupied desk.

Change management does require high-level involvement—ideally at board level to ensure policy is accurately set and communicated. This will also illustrate any changes that might be required with the identity and access management environment. If the IdM environment can’t support the requirements of the classification scheme, an upgrade project must be undertaken to develop the required functionality.

Generally speaking, to make cultural change within an organization, a “carrot” rather than a “stick” approach is preferable. This means using reward/recognition rather than punishment. Securing information is an ideal situation in which a competitive approach can be employed, with departments or workgroups being recognized for deploying programs that work and staff are engaged staff in the data protection task.

Next time: Public Key Infrastructure and Benefits of Sharing Securely.  Want to learn more now?  Buy Graham's book today at the MC Press Bookstore.

Graham Williamson is an identity management consultant in Brisbane, Australia. He has 27 years of experience in the IT industry, with expertise in identity management, electronic directories, public key infrastructure, smart card technology, and enterprise architecture. He is a coauthor of Identity Management: A Primer and the author of Identity Management: A Business Perspective.

MC Press books written by Graham Williamson available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Identity Management: A Business Perspective Identity Management: A Business Perspective
Understand all facets of identity management and how to leverage identity data for access control.
List Price $49.95

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Identity Management: A Primer Identity Management: A Primer
Get a comprehensive overview of the elements required for a properly planned identity environment.
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