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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 11.

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


Chapter 11


A computer security contingency is an event with the potential to disrupt computer operations, thereby disrupting critical mission and business functions. Such an event could be a power outage, hardware failure, fire, or storm. If the event is very destructive, it is often called a disaster.84

Contingency planning directly supports an organization's goal of continued operations. Organizations practice contingency planning because it makes good business sense.

To avert potential contingencies and disasters or minimize the damage they cause organizations can take steps early to control the event. Generally called contingency planning85, this activity is closely related to incident handling, which primarily addresses malicious technical threats such as hackers and viruses.86

Contingency planning involves more than planning for a move offsite after a disaster destroys a data center. It also addresses how to keep an organization's critical functions operating in the event of disruptions, both large and small. This broader perspective on contingency planning is based on the distribution of computer support throughout an organization.

This chapter presents the contingency planning process in six steps:87

    1. Identifying the mission- or business-critical functions.
    2. Identifying the resources that support the critical functions.
    3. Anticipating potential contingencies or disasters.
    4. Selecting contingency planning strategies.
    5. Implementing the contingency strategies.
    6. Testing and revising the strategy.

11.1 Step 1: Identifying the Mission- or Business-Critical Function

This chapter refers to an organization as having critical mission or business functions. In government organizations, the focus is normally on performing a mission, such as providing citizen benefits. In private organizations, the focus is normally on conducting a business, such as manufacturing widgets.

Protecting the continuity of an organization's mission or business is very difficult if it is not clearly identified. Managers need to understand the organization from a point of view that usually extends beyond the area they control. The definition of an organization's critical mission or business functions is often called a business plan.

Since the development of a business plan will be used to support contingency planning, it is necessary not only to identify critical missions and businesses, but also to set priorities for them. A fully redundant capability for each function is prohibitively expensive for most organizations. In the event of a disaster, certain functions will not be performed. If appropriate priorities have been set (and approved by senior management), it could mean the difference in the organization's ability to survive a disaster.

11.2 Step 2: Identifying the Resources That Support Critical Functions

In many cases, the longer an organization is without a resource, the more critical the situation becomes. For example, the longer a garbage collection strike lasts, the more critical the situation becomes.

After identifying critical missions and business functions, it is necessary to identify the supporting resources, the time frames in which each resource is used (e.g., is the resource needed constantly or only at the end of the month?), and the effect on the mission or business of the unavailability of the resource. In identifying resources, a traditional problem has been that different managers oversee different resources. They may not realize how resources interact to support the organization's mission or business. Many of these resources are not computer resources. Contingency planning should address all the resources needed to perform a function, regardless whether they directly relate to a computer.88

The analysis of needed resources should be conducted by those who understand how the function is performed and the dependencies of various resources on other resources and other critical relationships. This will allow an organization to assign priorities to resources since not all elements of all resources are crucial to the critical functions.

11.2.1 Human Resources

Resources That Support Critical Functions

Human Resources
Processing Capability
Computer-Based Services
Data and Applications
Physical Infrastructure
Documents and Papers

People are perhaps an organization's most obvious resource. Some functions require the effort of specific individuals, some require specialized expertise, and some only require individuals who can be trained to perform a specific task. Within the information technology field, human resources include both operators (such as technicians or system programmers) and users (such as data entry clerks or information analysts).

11.2.2 Processing Capability

Contingency Planning Teams

To understand what resources are needed from each of the six resource categories and to understand how the resources support critical functions, it is often necessary to establish a contingency planning team. A typical team contains representatives from various organizational elements, and is often headed by a contingency planning coordinator. It has representatives from the following three groups:

  1. business-oriented groups , such as representatives from functional areas;
  2. facilities management; and
  3. technology management.

Various other groups are called on as needed including financial management, personnel, training, safety, computer security, physical security, and public affairs.

Traditionally contingency planning has focused on processing power (i.e., if the data center is down, how can applications dependent on it continue to be processed?). Although the need for data center backup remains vital, today's other processing alternatives are also important. Local area networks (LANs), minicomputers, workstations, and personal computers in all forms of centralized and distributed processing may be performing critical tasks.

11.2.3 Automated Applications and Data

Computer systems run applications that process data. Without current electronic versions of both applications and data, computerized processing may not be possible. If the processing is being performed on alternate hardware, the applications must be compatible with the alternate hardware, operating systems and other software (including version and configuration), and numerous other technical factors. Because of the complexity, it is normally necessary to periodically verify compatibility. (See Step 6, Testing and Revising.)

11.2.4 Computer-Based Services

An organization uses many different kinds of computer-based services to perform its functions. The two most important are normally communications services and information services. Communications can be further categorized as data and voice communications; however, in many organizations these are managed by the same service. Information services include any source of information outside of the organization. Many of these sources are becoming automated, including on-line government and private databases, news services, and bulletin boards.

11.2.5 Physical Infrastructure

For people to work effectively, they need a safe working environment and appropriate equipment and utilities. This can include office space, heating, cooling, venting, power, water, sewage, other utilities, desks, telephones, fax machines, personal computers, terminals, courier services, file cabinets, and many other items. In addition, computers also need space and utilities, such as electricity. Electronic and paper media used to store applications and data also have physical requirements

11.2.6 Documents and Papers

Many functions rely on vital records and various documents, papers, or forms. These records could be important because of a legal need (such as being able to produce a signed copy of a loan) or because they are the only record of the information. Records can be maintained on paper, microfiche, microfilm, magnetic media, or optical disk.

11.3 Step 3: Anticipating Potential Contingencies or Disasters

Although it is impossible to think of all the things that can go wrong, the next step is to identify a likely range of problems. The development of scenarios will help an organization develop a plan to address the wide range of things that can go wrong.

Scenarios should include small and large contingencies. While some general classes of contingency scenarios are obvious, imagination and creativity, as well as research, can point to other possible, but less obvious, contingencies. The contingency scenarios should address each of the resources described above. The following are examples of some of the types of questions that contingency scenarios may address:

Examples of Some Less Obvious Contingencies

1. A computer center in the basement of a building had a minor problem with rats. Exterminators killed the rats, but the bodies were not retrieved because they were hidden under the raised flooring and in the pipe conduits. Employees could only enter the data center with gas masks because of the decomposing rats.

2. After the World Trade Center explosion when people reentered the building, they turned on their computer systems to check for problems. Dust and smoke damaged many systems when they were turned on. If the systems had been cleaned first, there would not have been significant damage.

Human Resources: Can people get to work? Are key personnel willing to cross a picket line? Are there critical skills and knowledge possessed by one person? Can people easily get to an alternative site?

Processing Capability: Are the computers harmed? What happens if some of the computers are inoperable, but not all?

Automated Applications and Data: Has data integrity been affected? Is an application sabotaged? Can an application run on a different processing platform?

Computer-Based Services: Can the computers communicate? To where? Can people communicate? Are information services down? For how long?

Infrastructure: Do people have a place to sit? Do they have equipment to do their jobs? Can they occupy the building?

Documents/Paper: Can needed records be found? Are they readable?

11.4 Step 4: Selecting Contingency Planning Strategies

The next step is to plan how to recover needed resources. In evaluating alternatives, it is necessary to consider what controls are in place to prevent and minimize contingencies. Since no set of controls can cost-effectively prevent all contingencies, it is necessary to coordinate prevention and recovery efforts.

A contingency planning strategy normally consists of three parts: emergency response, recovery, and resumption.89 Emergency response encompasses the initial actions taken to protect lives and limit damage. Recovery refers to the steps that are taken to continue support for critical functions. Resumption is the return to normal operations. The relationship between recovery and resumption is important. The longer it takes to resume normal operations, the longer the organization will have to operate in the recovery mode.

Example 1: If the system administrator for a LAN has to be out of the office for a long time (due to illness or an accident), arrangements are made for the system administrator of another LAN to perform the duties. Anticipating this, the absent administrator should have taken steps beforehand to keep documentation current. This strategy is inexpensive, but service will probably be significantly reduced on both LANs which may prompt the manager of the loaned administrator to partially renege on the agreement.

Example 2: An organization depends on an on-line information service provided by a commercial vendor. The organization is no longer able to obtain the information manually (e.g., from a reference book) within acceptable time limits and there are no other comparable services. In this case, the organization relies on the contingency plan of the service provider. The organization pays a premium to obtain priority service in case the service provider has to operate at reduced capacity.

Example #3: A large mainframe data center has a contract with a hot site vendor, has a contract with the telecommunications carrier to reroute communications to the hot site, has plans to move people, and stores up-to-date copies of data, applications and needed paper records off-site. The contingency plan is expensive, but management has decided that the expense is fully justified.

Example #4. An organization distributes its processing among two major sites, each of which includes small to medium processors (personal computers and minicomputers). If one site is lost, the other can carry the critical load until more equipment is purchased. Routing of data and voice communications can be performed transparently to redirect traffic. Backup copies are stored at the other site. This plan requires tight control over the architectures used and types of applications that are developed to ensure compatibility. In addition, personnel at both sites must be cross-trained to perform all functions.

The selection of a strategy needs to be based on practical considerations, including feasibility and cost. The different categories of resources should each be considered. Risk assessment can be used to help estimate the cost of options to decide on an optimal strategy. For example, is it more expensive to purchase and maintain a generator or to move processing to an alternate site, considering the likelihood of losing electrical power for various lengths of time? Are the consequences of a loss of computer-related resources sufficiently high to warrant the cost of various recovery strategies? The risk assessment should focus on areas where it is not clear which strategy is the best.

In developing contingency planning strategies, there are many factors to consider in addressing each of the resources that support critical functions. Some examples are presented in the sidebars.

11.4.1 Human Resources

To ensure an organization has access to workers with the right skills and knowledge, training and documentation of knowledge are needed. During a major contingency, people will be under significant stress and may panic. If the contingency is a regional disaster, their first concerns will probably be their family and property. In addition, many people will be either unwilling or unable to come to work. Additional hiring or temporary services can be used. The use of additional personnel may introduce security vulnerabilities.

Contingency planning, especially for emergency response, normally places the highest emphasis on the protection of human life.

11.4.2 Processing Capability

Strategies for processing capability are normally grouped into five categories: hot site; cold site; redundancy; reciprocal agreements; and hybrids. These terms originated with recovery strategies for data centers but can be applied to other platforms.

1. Hot site -- A building already equipped with processing capability and other services.

2. Cold site -- A building for housing processors that can be easily adapted for use.

3. Redundant site -- A site equipped and configured exactly like the primary site. (Some organizations plan on having reduced processing capability after a disaster and use partial redundancy. The stocking of spare personal computers or LAN servers also provides some redundancy.)

4. Reciprocal agreement -- An agreement that allows two organizations to back each other up. (While this approach often sounds desirable, contingency planning experts note that this alternative has the greatest chance of failure due to problems keeping agreements and plans up-to-date as systems and personnel change.)

5. Hybrids -- Any combinations of the above such as using having a hot site as a backup in case a redundant or reciprocal agreement site is damaged by a separate contingency.

Recovery may include several stages, perhaps marked by increasing availability of processing capability. Resumption planning may include contracts or the ability to place contracts to replace equipment.

11.4.3 Automated Applications and Data

The need for computer security does not go away when an organization is processing in a contingency mode. In some cases, the need may increase due to sharing processing facilities, concentrating resources in fewer sites, or using additional contractors and consultants. Security should be an important consideration when selecting contingency strategies.

Normally, the primary contingency strategy for applications and data is regular backup and secure offsite storage. Important decisions to be addressed include how often the backup is performed, how often it is stored off-site, and how it is transported (to storage, to an alternate processing site, or to support the resumption of normal operations).

11.4.4 Computer-Based Services

Service providers may offer contingency services. Voice communications carriers often can reroute calls (transparently to the user) to a new location. Data communications carriers can also reroute traffic. Hot sites are usually capable of receiving data and voice communications. If one service provider is down, it may be possible to use another. However, the type of communications carrier lost, either local or long distance, is important. Local voice service may be carried on cellular. Local data communications, especially for large volumes, is normally more difficult. In addition, resuming normal operations may require another rerouting of communications services.

11.4.5 Physical Infrastructure

Hot sites and cold sites may also offer office space in addition to processing capability support. Other types of contractual arrangements can be made for office space, security services, furniture, and more in the event of a contingency. If the contingency plan calls for moving offsite, procedures need to be developed to ensure a smooth transition back to the primary operating facility or to a new facility. Protection of the physical infrastructure is normally an important part of the emergency response plan, such as use of fire extinguishers or protecting equipment from water damage.

11.4.6 Documents and Papers

The primary contingency strategy is usually backup onto magnetic, optical, microfiche, paper, or other medium and offsite storage. Paper documents are generally harder to backup than electronic ones. A supply of forms and other needed papers can be stored offsite.

11.5    Step 5: Implementing the Contingency Strategies

Once the contingency planning strategies have been selected, it is necessary to make appropriate preparations, document the strategies, and train employees. Many of these tasks are ongoing.

11.5.1 Implementation

Much preparation is needed to implement the strategies for protecting critical functions and their supporting resources. For example, one common preparation is to establish procedures for backing up files and applications. Another is to establish contracts and agreements, if the contingency strategy calls for them. Existing service contracts may need to be renegotiated to add contingency services. Another preparation may be to purchase equipment, especially to support a redundant capability.

Backing up data files and applications is a critical part of virtually every contingency plan. Backups are used, for example, to restore files after a personal computer virus corrupts the files or after a hurricane destroys a data processing center.

It is important to keep preparations, including documentation, up-to-date. Computer systems change rapidly and so should backup services and redundant equipment. Contracts and agreements may also need to reflect the changes. If additional equipment is needed, it must be maintained and periodically replaced when it is no longer dependable or no longer fits the organization's architecture.

Preparation should also include formally designating people who are responsible for various tasks in the event of a contingency. These people are often referred to as the contingency response team. This team is often composed of people who were a part of the contingency planning team.

There are many important implementation issues for an organization. Two of the most important are 1) how many plans should be developed? and 2) who prepares each plan? Both of these questions revolve around the organization's overall strategy for contingency planning. The answers should be documented in organization policy and procedures.

How many plans?.

Relationship Between Contingency Plans and Computer Security Plans

For small or less complex systems, the contingency plan may be a part of the computer security plan. For larger or more complex systems, the computer security plan could contain a brief synopsis of the contingency plan, which would be a separate document.

Some organizations have just one plan for the entire organization, and others have a plan for every distinct computer system, application, or other resource. Other approaches recommend a plan for each business or mission function, with separate plans, as needed, for critical resources.

The answer to the question, therefore, depends upon the unique circumstances for each organization. But it is critical to coordinate between resource managers and functional managers who are responsible for the mission or business.

Who Prepares the Plan?

If an organization decides on a centralized approach to contingency planning, it may be best to name a contingency planning coordinator. The coordinator prepares the plans in cooperation with various functional and resource managers. Some organizations place responsibility directly with the functional and resource managers.

11.5.2 Documenting

The contingency plan needs to be written, kept up-to-date as the system and other factors change, and stored in a safe place. A written plan is critical during a contingency, especially if the person who developed the plan is unavailable. It should clearly state in simple language the sequence of tasks to be performed in the event of a contingency so that someone with minimal knowledge could immediately begin to execute the plan. It is generally helpful to store up-to-date copies of the contingency plan in several locations, including any off-site locations, such as alternate processing sites or backup data storage facilities.

11.5.3 Training

All personnel should be trained in their contingency-related duties. New personnel should be trained as they join the organization, refresher training may be needed, and personnel will need to practice their skills.

Training is particularly important for effective employee response during emergencies. There is no time to check a manual to determine correct procedures if there is a fire. Depending on the nature of the emergency, there may or may not be time to protect equipment and other assets. Practice is necessary in order to react correctly, especially when human safety is involved.

11.6    Step 6: Testing and Revising

Contingency plan maintenance can be incorporated into procedures for change management so that upgrades to hardware and software are reflected in the plan.

A contingency plan should be tested periodically because there will undoubtedly be flaws in the plan and in its implementation. The plan will become dated as time passes and as the resources used to support critical functions change. Responsibility for keeping the contingency plan current should be specifically assigned. The extent and frequency of testing will vary between organizations and among systems. There are several types of testing, including reviews, analyses, and simulations of disasters.

A review can be a simple test to check the accuracy of contingency plan documentation. For instance, a reviewer could check if individuals listed are still in the organization and still have the responsibilities that caused them to be included in the plan. This test can check home and work telephone numbers, organizational codes, and building and room numbers. The review can determine if files can be restored from backup tapes or if employees know emergency procedures.

The results of a "test" often implies a grade assigned for a specific level of performance, or simply pass or fail. However, in the case of contingency planning, a test should be used to improve the plan. If organizations do not use this approach, flaws in the plan may remain hidden and uncorrected.

An analysis may be performed on the entire plan or portions of it, such as emergency response procedures. It is beneficial if the analysis is performed by someone who did not help develop the contingency plan but has a good working knowledge of the critical function and supporting resources. The analyst(s) may mentally follow the strategies in the contingency plan, looking for flaws in the logic or process used by the plan's developers. The analyst may also interview functional managers, resource managers, and their staff to uncover missing or unworkable pieces of the plan.

Organizations may also arrange disaster simulations. These tests provide valuable information about flaws in the contingency plan and provide practice for a real emergency. While they can be expensive, these tests can also provide critical information that can be used to ensure the continuity of important functions. In general, the more critical the functions and the resources addressed in the contingency plan, the more cost-beneficial it is to perform a disaster simulation.

11.7 Interdependencies

Since all controls help to prevent contingencies, there is an interdependency with all of the controls in the handbook.

Risk Management provides a tool for analyzing the security costs and benefits of various contingency planning options. In addition, a risk management effort can be used to help identify critical resources needed to support the organization and the likely threat to those resources. It is not necessary, however, to perform a risk assessment prior to contingency planning, since the identification of critical resources can be performed during the contingency planning process itself.

Physical and Environmental Controls help prevent contingencies. Although many of the other controls, such as logical access controls, also prevent contingencies, the major threats that a contingency plan addresses are physical and environmental threats, such as fires, loss of power, plumbing breaks, or natural disasters.

Incident Handling can be viewed as a subset of contingency planning. It is the emergency response capability for various technical threats. Incident handling can also help an organization prevent future incidents.

Support and Operations in most organizations includes the periodic backing up of files. It also includes the prevention and recovery from more common contingencies, such as a disk failure or corrupted data files.

Policy is needed to create and document the organization's approach to contingency planning. The policy should explicitly assign responsibilities.

11.8 Cost Considerations

The cost of developing and implementing contingency planning strategies can be significant, especially if the strategy includes contracts for backup services or duplicate equipment. There are too many options to discuss cost considerations for each type.

One contingency cost that is often overlooked is the cost of testing a plan. Testing provides many benefits and should be performed, although some of the less expensive methods (such as a review) may be sufficient for less critical resources.


Alexander, M. ed. "Guarding Against Computer Calamity." Infosecurity News. 4(6), 1993. pp. 26-37.

Coleman, R. "Six Steps to Disaster Recovery." Security Management. 37(2), 1993. pp. 61-62.

Dykman, C., and C. Davis, eds. Control Objectives - Controls in an Information Systems Environment: Objectives, Guidelines, and Audit Procedures, fourth edition. Carol Stream, IL: The EDP Auditors Foundation, Inc., 1992 (especially Chapter 3.5).

Fites, P., and M. Kratz, Information Systems Security: A Practitioner's Reference. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993 (esp. Chapter 4, pp. 95-112).

FitzGerald, J. "Risk Ranking Contingency Plan Alternatives." Information Executive. 3(4), 1990. pp. 61-63.

Helsin, C. "Business Impact Assessment." ISSA Access. 5(3), 1992, pp. 10-12.

Isaac, I. Guide on Selecting ADP Backup Process Alternatives. Special Publication 500-124. Gaithersburg, MD: National Bureau of Standards, November 1985.

Kabak, I., and Beam, T. "On the Frequency and Scope of Backups." Information Executive, 4(2), 1991. pp. 58-62.

Kay, R. "What's Hot at Hotsites?" Infosecurity News, 4(5), 1993. pp. 48-52.

Lainhart, J., and Donahue, M. Computerized Information Systems (CIS) Audit Manual: A Guideline to CIS Auditing in Governmental Organizations. Carol Stream, IL: The EDP Auditors Foundation Inc., 1992.

National Bureau of Standards. Guidelines for ADP Contingency Planning. Federal Information Processing Standard 87. 1981.

Rhode, R., and Haskett, J. "Disaster Recovery Planning for Academic Computing Centers." Communications of the ACM. 33(6), 1990. pp. 652-657.


84. There is no distinct dividing line between disasters and other contingencies.
85. Other names include disaster recovery, business continuity, continuity of operations, or business resumption planning.
86. Some organizations include incident handling as a subset of contingency planning. The relationship is further discussed in Chapter 12, Incident Handling.
87. Some organizations and methodologies may use a different order, nomenclature, number, or combination of steps. The specific steps can be modified, as long as the basic functions are addressed.
88. However, since this is a computer security handbook, the descriptions here focus on the computer-related resources. The logistics of coordinating contingency planning for computer-related and other resources is an important consideration.
89. Some organizations divide a contingency strategy into emergency response, backup operations, and recovery. The different terminology can be confusing (especially the use of conflicting definitions of recovery), although the basic functions performed are the same.


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