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information security management system (ISMS)

What is ISMS?

An information security management system (ISMS) is a set of policies and procedures for systematically managing an organization's sensitive data. The goal of an ISMS is to minimize risk and ensure business continuity by proactively limiting the impact of a security breach.

An ISMS typically addresses employee behavior and processes as well as data and technology. It can be targeted toward a particular type of data, such as customer data, or it can be implemented in a comprehensive way that becomes part of the company's culture.

How does ISMS work?

An ISMS provides a systematic approach for managing the information security of an organization. Information security encompasses certain broad policies that control and manage security risk levels across an organization.

ISO/IEC 27001 is the international standard for information security and for creating an ISMS. Jointly published by the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission, the standard doesn't mandate specific actions but includes suggestions for documentation, internal audits, continual improvement, and corrective and preventive action. To become ISO 27001 certified, an organization requires an ISMS that identifies the organizational assets and provides the following assessment:

  • the risks the information assets face;
  • the steps taken to protect the information assets;
  • a plan of action in case a security breach happens; and
  • identification of individuals responsible for each step of the information security process.

The goal of an ISMS isn't necessarily to maximize information security, but rather to reach an organization's desired level of information security. Depending on the specific needs of the industry, these levels of control may vary. For example, since healthcare is a highly regulated field, a healthcare organization may develop a system to ensure sensitive patient data is fully protected.

how ISMS works
An ISMS provides a systematic approach to managing an organization's information security and includes policies and procedures for managing its data.

Benefits of ISMS

ISMS provides a holistic approach to managing the information systems within an organization. This offers numerous benefits, some of which are highlighted below.

  • Protects sensitive data. An ISMS protects all types of proprietary information assets whether they're paper-based, preserved digitally or reside in the cloud. These assets can include personal data, intellectual property, financial data, customer data and data entrusted to companies through third parties.
  • Meets regulatory compliance. ISMS helps organizations meet all regulatory compliance and contractual requirements and provides a better grasp on legalities surrounding information systems. Since violation of legal regulations comes with hefty fines, having an ISMS can be especially beneficial for highly regulated industries with critical infrastructures, such as finance or healthcare.
  • Provides business continuity. When organizations invest in an ISMS, they automatically increase their level of defense against threats. This reduces the number of security incidents, such as cyber attacks, resulting in fewer disruptions and less downtime, which are important factors for maintaining business continuity.
  • Reduces costs. An ISMS offers a thorough risk assessment of all assets. This enables organizations to prioritize the highest risk assets to prevent indiscriminate spending on unneeded defenses and provide a focused approach toward securing them. This structured approach, along with less downtime due to a reduction in security incidents, significantly cuts an organization's total spending.
  • Enhances company culture. An ISMS provides an all-inclusive approach for security and asset management throughout the organization that isn't limited to IT security. This encourages all employees to understand the risks tied to information assets and adopt security best practices as part of their daily routines.
  • Adapts to emerging threats. Security threats are constantly evolving. An ISMS helps organizations prepare and adapt to newer threats and the continuously changing demands of the security landscape.

ISMS best practices

The ISO 27001, along with the ISO 27002 standards, offers best-practice guidelines for setting up an ISMS. The following is a checklist of best practices to consider before investing in an ISMS:

Understand business needs. Before executing an ISMS, it's important for organizations to get a bird's eye view of the business operations, tools and information security management systems to understand the business and security requirements. It also helps to study how the ISO 27001 framework can help with data protection and the individuals who will be responsible for executing the ISMS.

Establish an information security policy. Having an information security policy in place before setting up an ISMS is beneficial, as it can help an organization discover the weak points of the policy. The security policy should typically provide a general overview of the current security controls within an organization.

Monitor data access. Companies must monitor their access control policies to ensure only authorized individuals are gaining access to sensitive information. This monitoring should observe who is accessing the data, when and from where. Besides monitoring data access, companies should also track logins and authentications and keep a record of them for further investigation.

Conduct security awareness training. All employees should receive regular security awareness training. The training should introduce users to the evolving threat landscape, the common data vulnerabilities surrounding information systems, and mitigation and prevention techniques to protect data from being compromised.

Secure devices. Protect all organizational devices from physical damage and tampering by taking security measures to ward off hacking attempts. Tools including Google Workspace and Office 365 should be installed on all devices, as they offer built-in device security.

Encrypt data. Encryption prevents unauthorized access and is the best form of defense against security threats. All organizational data should be encrypted before setting up an ISMS, as it will prevent any unauthorized attempts to sabotage critical data.

Back up data. Backups play a key role in preventing data loss and should be a part of a company's security policy before setting up an ISMS. Besides regular backups, the location and frequency of the backups should be planned out. Organizations should also design a plan to keep the backups secure, which should apply to both on-premises and cloud backups.

Conduct an internal security audit. An internal security audit should be conducted before executing an ISMS. Internal audits are a great way to for organizations to gain visibility over their security systems, software and devices, as they can identify and fix security loopholes before executing an ISMS.

Implementing ISMS

There are various ways to set up an ISMS. Most organizations either follow a plan-do-check-act process or study the ISO 27001 international security standard which effectively details the requirements for an ISMS.

The following steps illustrate how an ISMS should be implemented:

  1. Define the scope and objectives. Determine which assets need protection and the reasons behind protecting them. Consider the preference of what the clients, stakeholders and trustees want to be protected. Company management should also define clear-cut objectives for the areas of application and limitations of the ISMS.
  2. Identify assets. Identify the assets that are going to be protected. This can be achieved by creating an inventory of business-critical assets including hardware, software, services, information, databases and physical locations by using a business process map.
  3. Recognize the risks. Once the assets are identified, their risk factors should be analyzed and scored by assessing the legal requirements or compliance guidelines. Organizations should also weigh the effects of the identified risks. For example, they could question the amount of impact it would create if the confidentiality, availability or integrity of information assets is breached, or the probability of that breach's occurrence. The end goal should be to arrive at a conclusion outlining which risks are acceptable and which must be tackled at all costs due to the potential amount of harm involved.
  4. Identify mitigation measures. An effective ISMS not only identifies risk factors but also provides satisfactory measures to effectively mitigate and combat them. The mitigation measures should lay out a clear treatment plan to avoid the risk altogether. For example, a company trying to avoid the risk of losing a laptop with sensitive customer data should prevent that data from being stored on that laptop in the first place. An effective mitigation measure would be to set up a policy or rule that doesn't permit employees to store customer data on their laptops.
  5. Make improvements. All the previous measures should be monitored, audited and checked repeatedly for effectiveness. If the monitoring reveals any deficiencies or new risk management factors, then restart the ISMS process from scratch. This enables the ISMS to rapidly adapt to changing conditions and offers an effective approach to mitigating the information security risks for an organization.

When it comes to safeguarding information and cybersecurity assets, a unilateral approach isn't sufficient. Learn about the different types of cybersecurity controls and how to place them.

This was last updated in September 2022

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