go to NIST home page go to CSRC home page go to Focus Areas page go to Publications page go to Advisories page go to Events page go to Site Map page go to ITL home page CSRC home page link
header image with links

CSRC Homepage
Publications Homepage
Special Publications page
Table of Contents for
Special Publication 800-12:

Part I:
Introduction & Overview

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Elements of
Computer Security

Chapter 3
Roles & Responsibilities
Chapter 4
Common Threats:
A Brief Overview

Part II:
Management Controls

Chapter 5
Computer Security Policy
Chapter 6
Computer Security
Program Management

Chapter 7
Computer Security
Risk Management

Chapter 8
Security & Planning in
the Computer Security
Life Cycle

Chapter 9
Part III:
Operational Controls

Chapter 10
Personnel / User Issues
Chapter 11
Preparing for Contingencies
and Disasters

Chapter 12
Computer Security
Incident Handling

Chapter 13
Awareness, Training
and Education

Chapter 14
Security Considerations in
Computer Support
and Operations

Chapter 15
Physical and
Environmental Security

Part IV:
Technical Controls

Chapter 16
Identification and

Chapter 17
Logical Access Control
Chapter 18
Audit Trails
Chapter 19
Part V:

Chapter 20
Assessing and Mitigating
the Risks to a Hypothetical
Computer System

Cross Reference

For a printable copy of Chapter 10.
    Note: If you click on the image presented in this chapter, it will display a larger and better image quality at regular size. We shrunk the images on these pages to half its scanned size so it would fit on web page better.


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


Section III. Operational Controls

Chapter 10


Many important issues in computer security involve human users, designers, implementers, and managers. A broad range of security issues relate to how these individuals interact with computers and the access and authorities they need to do their job. No computer system can be secured without properly addressing these security issues.77

This chapter examines issues concerning the staffing of positions that interact with computer systems; the administration of users on a system, including considerations for terminating employee access; and special considerations that may arise when contractors or the public have access to systems. Personnel issues are closely linked to logical access controls, discussed in Chapter 17.

10.1 Staffing

The staffing process generally involves at least four steps and can apply equally to general users as well as to application managers, system management personnel, and security personnel. These four steps are: (1) defining the job, normally involving the development of a position description; (2) determining the sensitivity of the position; (3) filling the position, which involves screening applicants and selecting an individual; and (4) training.

10.1.1 Groundbreaking -- Position Definition

Early in the process of defining a position, security issues should be identified and dealt with. Once a position has been broadly defined, the responsible supervisor should determine the type of computer access needed for the position. There are two general principles to apply when granting access: separation of duties and least privilege.

Separation of duties refers to dividing roles and responsibilities so that a single individual cannot subvert a critical process. For example, in financial systems, no single individual should normally be given authority to issue checks. Rather, one person initiates a request for a payment and another authorizes that same payment. In effect, checks and balances need to be designed into both the process as well as the specific, individual positions of personnel who will implement the process. Ensuring that such duties are well defined is the responsibility of management.

Least privilege refers to the security objective of granting users only those accesses they need to perform their official duties. Data entry clerks, for example, may not have any need to run analysis reports of their database. However, least privilege does not mean that all users will have extremely little functional access; some employees will have significant access if it is required for their position. However, applying this principle may limit the damage resulting from accidents, errors, or unauthorized use of system resources. It is important to make certain that the implementation of least privilege does not interfere with the ability to have personnel substitute for each other without undue delay. Without careful planning, access control can interfere with contingency plans.

10.1.2 Determining Position Sensitivity

Knowledge of the duties and access levels that a particular position will require is necessary for determining the sensitivity of the position. The responsible management official should correctly identify position sensitivity levels so that appropriate, cost-effective screening can be completed.

Various levels of sensitivity are assigned to positions in the federal government. Determining the appropriate level is based upon such factors as the type and degree of harm (e.g., disclosure of private information, interruption of critical processing, computer fraud) the individual can cause through misuse of the computer system as well as more traditional factors, such as access to classified information and fiduciary responsibilities. Specific agency guidance should be followed on this matter.

It is important to select the appropriate position sensitivity, since controls in excess of the sensitivity of the position wastes resources, while too little may cause unacceptable risks.

10.1.3 Filling the Position -- Screening and Selecting

Once a position's sensitivity has been determined, the position is ready to be staffed. In the federal government, this typically includes publishing a formal vacancy announcement and identifying which applicants meet the position requirements. More sensitive positions typically require preemployment background screening; screening after employment has commenced (post-entry-on-duty) may suffice for less sensitive positions.

In general, it is more effective to use separation of duties and least privilege to limit the sensitivity of the position, rather than relying on screening to reduce the risk to the organization.

Background screening helps determine whether a particular individual is suitable for a given position. For example, in positions with high-level fiduciary responsibility, the screening process will attempt to ascertain the person's trustworthiness and appropriateness for a particular position. In the federal government, the screening process is formalized through a series of background checks conducted through a central investigative office within the organization or through another organization (e.g., the Office of Personnel Management).

Within the Federal Government, the most basic screening technique involves a check for a criminal history, checking FBI fingerprint records, and other federal indices.78 More extensive background checks examine other factors, such as a person's work and educational history, personal interview, history of possession or use of illegal substances, and interviews with current and former colleagues, neighbors, and friends. The exact type of screening that takes place depends upon the sensitivity of the position and applicable agency implementing regulations. Screening is not conducted by the prospective employee's manager; rather, agency security and personnel officers should be consulted for agency-specific guidance.

Outside of the Federal Government, employee screening is accomplished in many ways. Policies vary considerably among organizations due to the sensitivity of examining an individual's background and qualifications. Organizational policies and procedures normally try to balance fears of invasiveness and slander against the need to develop confidence in the integrity of employees. One technique may be to place the individual in a less sensitive position initially.

For both the Federal Government and private sector, finding something compromising in a person's background does not necessarily mean they are unsuitable for a particular job. A determination should be made based on the type of job, the type of finding or incident, and other relevant factors. In the federal government, this process is referred to as adjudication.

10.1.4 Employee Training and Awareness

Even after a candidate has been hired, the staffing process cannot yet be considered complete -- employees still have to be trained to do their job, which includes computer security responsibilities and duties. As discussed in Chapter 13, such security training can be very cost-effective in promoting security.

Some computer security experts argue that employees must receive initial computer security training before they are granted any access to computer systems. Others argue that this must be a risk-based decision, perhaps granting only restricted access (or, perhaps, only access to their PC) until the required training is completed. Both approaches recognize that adequately trained employees are crucial to the effective functioning of computer systems and applications. Organizations may provide introductory training prior to granting any access with follow-up more extensive training. In addition, although training of new users is critical, it is important to recognize that security training and awareness activities should be ongoing during the time an individual is a system user. (See Chapter 13 for a more thorough discussion.)

Figure 10.1 Staffing Process diagram
Figure 10.1

10.2 User Administration

Effective administration of users' computer access is essential to maintaining system security. User account management focuses on identification, authentication, and access authorizations. This is augmented by the process of auditing and otherwise periodically verifying the legitimacy of current accounts and access authorizations. Finally, there are considerations involved in the timely modification or removal of access and associated issues for employees who are reassigned, promoted, or terminated, or who retire.

10.2.1 User Account Management

User account management involves (1) the process of requesting, establishing, issuing, and closing user accounts; (2) tracking users and their respective access authorizations; and (3) managing these functions.

User account management typically begins with a request from the user's supervisor to the system manager for a system account. If a user is to have access to a particular application, this request may be sent through the application manager to the system manager. This will ensure that the systems office receives formal approval from the "application manager" for the employee to be given access. The request will normally state the level of access to be granted, perhaps by function or by specifying a particular user profile. (Often when more than one employee is doing the same job, a "profile" of permitted authorizations is created.)

Example of Access Levels
Within an Application

Level Function
1 Create Records
2 Edit Group A records
3 Edit Group B records
4 Edit all records

Systems operations staff will normally then use the account request to create an account for the new user. The access levels of the account will be consistent with those requested by the supervisor. This account will normally be assigned selected access authorizations. These are sometimes built directly into applications, and other times rely upon the operating system. "Add-on" access applications are also used. These access levels and authorizations are often tied to specific access levels within an application.

Next, employees will be given their account information, including the account identifier (e.g., user ID) and a means of authentication (e.g., password or smart card/PIN). One issue that may arise at this stage is whether the user ID is to be tied to the particular position an employee holds (e.g., ACC5 for an accountant) or the individual employee (e.g., BSMITH for Brenda Smith). Tying user IDs to positions may simplify administrative overhead in some cases; however, it may make auditing more difficult as one tries to trace the actions of a particular individual. It is normally more advantageous to tie the user ID to the individual employee. However, if the user ID is created and tied to a position, procedures will have to be established to change them if employees switch jobs or are otherwise reassigned.

When employees are given their account, it is often convenient to provide initial or refresher training and awareness on computer security issues. Users should be asked to review a set of rules and regulations for system access. To indicate their understanding of these rules, many organizations require employees to sign an "acknowledgment statement," which may also state causes for dismissal or prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other applicable state and local laws.79

Sample User Account and Password Acknowledgment Form

I hereby acknowledge personal receipt of the system password(s) associated with the user Ids listed below. I understand that I am responsible for protecting the password(s), will comply with all applicable system security standards, and will not divulge my password(s) to any person. I further understand that I must report to the Information Systems Security Officer any problem I encounter in the use of the password(s) or when I have reason to believe that the private nature of my password(s) has been compromised.

When user accounts are no longer required, the supervisor should inform the application manager and system management office so accounts can be removed in a timely manner. One useful secondary check is to work with the local organization's personnel officer to establish a procedure for routine notification of employee departures to the systems office. Further issues are discussed in the "Termination" section of this chapter.

It is essential to realize that access and authorization administration is a continuing process. New user accounts are added while others are deleted. Permissions change: sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily. New applications are added, upgraded, and removed. Tracking this information to keep it up to date is not easy, but is necessary to allow users access to only those functions necessary to accomplish their assigned responsibilities -- thereby helping to maintain the principle of least privilege. In managing these accounts, there is a need to balance timeliness of service and record keeping. While sound record keeping practices are necessary, delays in processing requests (e.g., change requests) may lead to requests for more access than is really necessary -- just to avoid delays should such access ever be required.

Managing this process of user access is also one that, particularly for larger systems, is often decentralized. Regional offices may be granted the authority to create accounts and change user access authorizations or to submit forms requesting that the centralized access control function make the necessary changes. Approval of these changes is important -- it may require the approval of the file owner and the supervisor of the employee whose access is being changed.

10.2.2 Audit and Management Reviews

From time to time, it is necessary to review user account management on a system. Within the area of user access issues, such reviews may examine the levels of access each individual has, conformity with the concept of least privilege, whether all accounts are still active, whether management authorizations are up-to-date, whether required training has been completed, and so forth.

These reviews can be conducted on at least two levels:80 (1) on an application-by-application basis or (2) on a systemwide basis. Both kinds of reviews can be conducted by, among others, in-house systems personnel (a self-audit), the organization's internal audit staff, or external auditors. For example, a good practice is for application managers (and data owners, if different) to review all access levels of all application users every month -- and sign a formal access approval list, which will provide a written record of the approvals. While it may initially appear that such reviews should be conducted by systems personnel, they usually are not fully effective. System personnel can verify that users only have those accesses that their managers have specified. However because access requirements may change over time, it is important to involve the application manager, who is often the only individual in a position to know current access requirements.

Outside audit organizations (e.g., the Inspector General [IG] or the General Accounting Office) may also conduct audits. For example, the IG may direct a more extensive review of permissions. This may involve discussing the need for particular access levels for specific individuals or the number of users with sensitive access. For example, how many employees should really have authorization to the check-printing function? (Auditors will also examine non-computer access by reviewing, for example, who should have physical access to the check printer or blank-check stock.)

10.2.3 Detecting Unauthorized/Illegal Activities

Several mechanisms are used besides auditing81 and analysis of audit trails to detect unauthorized and illegal acts. (See Chapters 9 and 18.) For example, fraudulent activities may require the regular physical presence of the perpetrator(s). In such cases, the fraud may be detected during the employee's absence. Mandatory vacations for critical systems and applications personnel can help detect such activity (however, this is not a guarantee, for example, if problems are saved for the employees to handle upon their return). It is useful to avoid creating an excessive dependence upon any single individual, since the system will have to function during periods of absence. Particularly within the government, periodic rescreening of personnel is used to identify possible indications of illegal activity (e.g., living a lifestyle in excess of known income level).

10.2.4 Temporary Assignments and In-house Transfers

One significant aspect of managing a system involves keeping user access authorizations up to date. Access authorizations are typically changed under two types of circumstances: (1) change in job role, either temporarily (e.g., while covering for an employee on sick leave) or permanently (e.g., after an in-house transfer) and (2) termination discussed in the following section.

Users often are required to perform duties outside their normal scope during the absence of others. This requires additional access authorizations. Although necessary, such extra access authorizations should be granted sparingly and monitored carefully, consistent with the need to maintain separation of duties for internal control purposes. Also, they should be removed promptly when no longer required.

Permanent changes are usually necessary when employees change positions within an organization. In this case, the process of granting account authorizations (described in Section 10.2.1) will occur again. At this time, however, is it also important that access authorizations of the prior position be removed. Many instances of "authorization creep" have occurred with employees continuing to maintain access rights for previously held positions within an organization. This practice is inconsistent with the principle of least privilege.

10.2.5 Termination

Termination of a user's system access generally can be characterized as either "friendly" or "unfriendly." Friendly termination may occur when an employee is voluntarily transferred, resigns to accept a better position, or retires. Unfriendly termination may include situations when the user is being fired for cause, "RIFed,"82 or involuntarily transferred. Fortunately, the former situation is more common, but security issues have to be addressed in both situations. Friendly Termination

Friendly termination refers to the removal of an employee from the organization when there is no reason to believe that the termination is other than mutually acceptable. Since terminations can be expected regularly, this is usually accomplished by implementing a standard set of procedures for outgoing or transferring employees. These are part of the standard employee "out-processing," and are put in place, for example, to ensure that system accounts are removed in a timely manner. Out-processing often involves a sign-out form initialed by each functional manager with an interest in the separation. This normally includes the group(s) managing access controls, the control of keys, the briefing on the responsibilities for confidentiality and privacy, the library, the property clerk, and several other functions not necessarily related to information security.

In addition, other issues should be examined as well. The continued availability of data, for example, must often be assured. In both the manual and the electronic worlds, this may involve documenting procedures or filing schemes, such as how documents are stored on the hard disk, and how are they backed up. Employees should be instructed whether or not to "clean up" their PC before leaving. If cryptography is used to protect data, the availability of cryptographic keys to management personnel must be ensured. Authentication tokens must be collected.

Confidentiality of data can also be an issue. For example, do employees know what information they are allowed to share with their immediate organizational colleagues? Does this differ from the information they may share with the public? These and other organizational-specific issues should be addressed throughout an organization to ensure continued access to data and to provide continued confidentiality and integrity during personnel transitions. (Many of these issues should be addressed on an ongoing basis, not just during personnel transitions.) The training and awareness program normally should address such issues. Unfriendly Termination

Unfriendly termination involves the removal of an employee under involuntary or adverse conditions. This may include termination for cause, RIF, involuntary transfer, resignation for "personality conflicts," and situations with pending grievances. The tension in such terminations may multiply and complicate security issues. Additionally, all of the issues involved in friendly terminations are still present, but addressing them may be considerably more difficult.

The greatest threat from unfriendly terminations is likely to come from those personnel who are capable of changing code or modifying the system or applications. For example, systems personnel are ideally positioned to wreak considerable havoc on systems operations. Without appropriate safeguards, personnel with such access can place logic bombs (e.g., a hidden program to erase a disk) in code that will not even execute until after the employee's departure. Backup copies can be destroyed. There are even examples where code has been "held hostage." But other employees, such as general users, can also cause damage. Errors can be input purposefully, documentation can be misfiled, and other "random" errors can be made. Correcting these situations can be extremely resource intensive.

Given the potential for adverse consequences, security specialists routinely recommend that system access be terminated as quickly as possible in such situations. If employees are to be fired, system access should be removed at the same time (or just before) the employees are notified of their dismissal. When an employee notifies an organization of a resignation and it can be reasonably expected that it is on unfriendly terms, system access should be immediately terminated. During the "notice" period, it may be necessary to assign the individual to a restricted area and function. This may be particularly true for employees capable of changing programs or modifying the system or applications. In other cases, physical removal from their offices (and, of course, logical removal, when logical access controls exist) may suffice.

10.3 Contractor Access Considerations

Many federal agencies as well as private organizations use contractors and consultants to assist with computer processing. Contractors are often used for shorter periods of time than regular employees. This factor may change the cost-effectiveness of conducting screening. The often higher turnover among contractor personnel generates additional costs for security programs in terms of user administration.

10.4 Public Access Considerations

Many federal agencies have begun to design, develop, and implement public access systems for electronic dissemination of information to the public. Some systems provide electronic interaction by allowing the public to send information to the government (e.g., electronic tax filing) as well as to receive it. When systems are made available for access by the public (or a large or significant subset thereof), additional security issues arise due to: (1) increased threats against public access systems and (2) the difficulty of security administration.

OMB Circular A-130, Appendix III "Security of Federal Automated Information" and NIST CSL Bulletin "Security Issues in Public Access Systems" both recommend segregating information made directly accessible to the public from official records.

While many computer systems have been victims of hacker attacks, public access systems are well known and have published phone numbers and network access IDs. In addition, a successful attack could result in a lot of publicity. For these reasons, public access systems are subject to a greater threat from hacker attacks on the confidentiality, availability, and integrity of information processed by a system. In general, it is safe to say that when a system is made available for public access, the risk to the system increases -- and often the constraints on its use are tightened.

Besides increased risk of hackers, public access systems can be subject to insider malice. For example, an unscrupulous user, such as a disgruntled employee, may try to introduce errors into data files intended for distribution in order to embarrass or discredit the organization. Attacks on public access systems could have a substantial impact on the organization's reputation and the level of public confidence due to the high visibility of public access systems. Other security problems may arise from unintentional actions by untrained users.

In systems without public access, there are procedures for enrolling users that often involve some user training and frequently require the signing of forms acknowledging user responsibilities. In addition, user profiles can be created and sophisticated audit mechanisms can be developed to detect unusual activity by a user. In public access systems, users are often anonymous. This can complicate system security administration.

In most systems without public access, users are typically a mix of known employees or contractors. In this case, imperfectly implemented access control schemes may be tolerated. However, when opening up a system to public access, additional precautions may be necessary because of the increased threats.

10.5 Interdependencies

User issues are tied to topics throughout this handbook.

Training and Awareness discussed in Chapter 13 is a critical part of addressing the user issues of computer security.

Identification and Authentication and Access Controls in a computer system can only prevent people from doing what the computer is instructed they are not allowed to do, as stipulated by Policy. The recognition by computer security experts that much more harm comes from people doing what they are allowed to do, but should not do, points to the importance of considering user issues in the computer security picture, and the importance of Auditing.

Policy, particularly its compliance component, is closely linked to personnel issues. A deterrent effect arises among users when they are aware that their misconduct, intentional or unintentional, will be detected.

These controls also depend on manager's (1) selecting the right type and level of access for their employees and (2) informing system managers of which employees need accounts and what type and level of access they require, and (3) promptly informing system managers of changes to access requirements. Otherwise, accounts and accesses can be granted to or maintained for people who should not have them.

10.6 Cost Considerations

There are many security costs under the category of user issues. Among these are:

Screening -- Costs of initial background screening and periodic updates, as appropriate.83

Training and Awareness -- Costs of training needs assessments, training materials, course fees, and so forth, as discussed separately in Chapter 13.

User Administration -- Costs of managing identification and authentication, which, particularly for large distributed systems, may be rather significant.

Access Administration -- Particularly beyond the initial account set-up, are ongoing costs of maintaining user accesses currently and completely.

Auditing -- Although such costs can be reduced somewhat when using automated tools, consistent, resource-intensive human review is still often necessary to detect and resolve security anomalies


Fites, P., and M. Kratz. Information Systems Security: A Practitioner's Reference. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993. (See especially Chapter 6.)

National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Security Issues in Public Access Systems." Computer Systems Laboratory Bulletin. May 1993.

North, S. "To Catch a `Crimoid.'" Beyond Computing. 1(1), 1992. pp. 55-56.

Pankau, E. "The Consummate Investigator." Security Management. 37(2), 1993. pp. 37-41.

Schou, C., W. Machonachy, F. Lynn McNulty, and A. Chantker. "Information Security Professionalism for the 1990s." Computer Security Journal. 9(1), 1992. pp. 27-38.

Wagner, M. "Possibilities Are Endless, and Frightening." Open Systems Today. November 8 (136), 1993. pp. 16-17.

Wood, C. "Be Prepared Before You Fire." Infosecurity News. 5(2), 1994. pp. 51-54.

Wood, C. "Duress, Terminations and Information Security." Computers and Security. 12(6), 1993. pp. 527-535.


77. A distinction is made between users and personnel, since some users (e.g., contractors and members of the public) may not be considered personnel (i.e., employees).
78. In the federal government, separate and unique screening procedures are not established for each position. Rather, positions are categorized by general sensitivity and are assigned a corresponding level of background investigation or other checks.
79. Whenever users are asked to sign a document, appropriate review by organizational legal counsel and, if applicable, by employee bargaining units should be accomplished.
80. Note that this is not an either/or distinction.
81. The term auditing is used here in a broad sense to refer to the review and analysis of past events.
82. RIF is a term used within the government as shorthand for "reduction in force."
83. When analyzing the costs of screening, it is important to realize that screening is often conducted to meet requirements wholly unrelated to computer security.

Last updated: July 16, 2004
Page created: July 1, 2004