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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 15.

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


Chapter 15


Physical and environmental security controls are implemented to protect the facility housing system resources, the system resources themselves, and the facilities used to support their operation.

The term physical and environmental security, as used in this chapter, refers to measures taken to protect systems, buildings, and related supporting infrastructure against threats associated with their physical environment.103 Physical and environmental security controls include the following three broad areas:

  1. The physical facility is usually the building, other structure, or vehicle housing the system and network components. Systems can be characterized, based upon their operating location, as static, mobile, or portable. Static systems are installed in structures at fixed locations. Mobile systems are installed in vehicles that perform the function of a structure, but not at a fixed location. Portable systems are not installed in fixed operating locations. They may be operated in wide variety of locations, including buildings or vehicles, or in the open. The physical characteristics of these structures and vehicles determine the level of such physical threats as fire, roof leaks, or unauthorized access.
  2. The facility's general geographic operating location determines the characteristics of natural threats, which include earthquakes and flooding; man-made threats such as burglary, civil disorders, or interception of transmissions and emanations; and damaging nearby activities, including toxic chemical spills, explosions, fires, and electromagnetic interference from emitters, such as radars.
  3. Supporting facilities are those services (both technical and human) that underpin the operation of the system. The system's operation usually depends on supporting facilities such as electric power, heating and air conditioning, and telecommunications. The failure or substandard performance of these facilities may interrupt operation of the system and may cause physical damage to system hardware or stored data.

This chapter first discusses the benefits of physical security measures, and then presents an overview of common physical and environmental security controls. Physical and environmental security measures result in many benefits, such as protecting employees. This chapter focuses on the protection of computer systems from the following:

Interruptions in Providing Computer Services. An external threat may interrupt the scheduled operation of a system. The magnitude of the losses depends on the duration and timing of the service interruption and the characteristics of the operations end users perform.

Physical Damage. If a system's hardware is damaged or destroyed, it usually has to be repaired or replaced. Data may be destroyed as an act of sabotage by a physical attack on data storage media (e.g., rendering the data unreadable or only partly readable). If data stored by a system for operational use is destroyed or corrupted, the data needs to be restored from back-up copies or from the original sources before the system can be used. The magnitude of loss from physical damage depends on the cost to repair or replace the damaged hardware and data, as well as costs arising from service interruptions.

Unauthorized Disclosure of Information. The physical characteristics of the facility housing a system may permit an intruder to gain access both to media external to system hardware (such as diskettes, tapes and printouts) and to media within system components (such as fixed disks), transmission lines or display screens. All may result in loss of disclosure-sensitive information.

Loss of Control over System Integrity. If an intruder gains access to the central processing unit, it is usually possible to reboot the system and bypass logical access controls. This can lead to information disclosure, fraud, replacement of system and application software, introduction of a Trojan horse, and more. Moreover, if such access is gained, it may be very difficult to determine what has been modified, lost, or corrupted.

Physical Theft. System hardware may be stolen. The magnitude of the loss is determined by the costs to replace the stolen hardware and restore data stored on stolen media. Theft may also result in service interruptions.

This chapter discusses seven major areas of physical and environmental security controls:

  • physical access controls,

  • fire safety,

  • supporting utilities,

  • structural collapse,

  • plumbing leaks,

  • interception of data, and

  • mobile and portable systems.

15.1 Physical Access Controls

Life Safety

It is important to understand that the objectives of physical access controls may be in conflict with those of life safety. Simply stated, life safety focuses on providing easy exit from a facility, particularly in an emergency, while physical security strives to control entry. In general, life safety must be given first consideration, but it is usually possible to achieve an effective balance between the two goals.

For example, it is often possible to equip emergency exit doors with a time delay. When one pushes on the panic bar, a loud alarm sounds, and the door is released after a brief delay. The expectation is that people will be deterred from using such exits improperly, but will not be significantly endangered during an emergency evacuation.

Physical access controls restrict the entry and exit of personnel (and often equipment and media) from an area, such as an office building, suite, data center, or room containing a LAN server.

The control over physical access to the elements of a system can include controlled areas, barriers that isolate each area, entry points in the barriers that isolate each area, entry points in the barriers, and screening measures at each of the entry points. In addition, staff members who work in a restricted area serve an important role in providing physical security, as they can be trained to challenge people they do not recognize.

Physical access controls should address not only the area containing system hardware, but also locations of wiring used to connect elements of the system, the electric power service, the air conditioning and heating plant, telephone and data lines, backup media and source documents, and any other elements required system's operation. This means that all the areas in the building(s) that contain system elements must be identified.

There are many types of physical access controls, including badges, memory cards, guards, keys, true-floor-to-true-ceiling wall construction, fences, and locks.

It is also important to review the effectiveness of physical access controls in each area, both during normal business hours, and at other times-particularly when an area may be unoccupied. Effectiveness depends on both the characteristics of the control devices used (e.g., keycard-controlled doors) and the implementation and operation. Statements to the effect that "only authorized persons may enter this area" are not particularly effective. Organizations should determine whether intruders can easily defeat the controls, the extent to which strangers are challenged, and the effectiveness of other control procedures. Factors like these modify the effectiveness of physical controls.

The feasibility of surreptitious entry also needs to be considered. For example, it may be possible to go over the top of a partition that stops at the underside of a suspended ceiling or to cut a hole in a plasterboard partition in a location hidden by furniture. If a door is controlled by a combination lock, it may be possible to observe an authorized person entering the lock combination. If keycards are not carefully controlled, an intruder may be able to steal a card left on a desk or use a card passed back by an accomplice.

Types of Building Construction

There are four basic kinds of building construction: (a) light frame, (b) heavy timber, (c) incombustible, and (d) fire resistant. Note that the term fireproof is not used because no structure can resist a fire indefinitely. Most houses are light frame, and cannot survive more than about thirty minutes in a fire. Heavy timber means that the basic structural elements have a minimum thickness of four inches. When such structures burn, the char that forms tends to insulate the interior of the timber and the structure may survive for an hour or more depending on the details. Incombustible means that the structure members will not burn. This almost always means that the members are steel. Note, however, that steel loses it strength at high temperatures, at which point the structure collapses. Fire resistant means that the structural members are incombustible and are insulated. Typically, the insulation is either concrete that encases steel members, or is a mineral wool that is sprayed onto the members. Of course, the heavier the insulation, the longer the structure will resist a fire.

Note that a building constructed of reinforced concrete can still be destroyed in a fire if there is sufficient fuel present and fire fighting is ineffective. The prolonged heat of a fire can cause differential expansion of the concrete, which causes spalling. Portions of the concrete split off, exposing the reinforcing, and the interior of the concrete is subject to additional spalling. Furthermore, as heated floor slabs expand outward, they deform supporting columns. Thus, a reinforced concrete parking garage with open exterior walls and a relatively low fire load has a low fire risk, but a similar archival record storage facility with closed exterior walls and a high fire load has a higher risk even though the basic building material is incombustible.

Corrective actions can address any of the factors listed above. Adding an additional barrier reduces the risk to the areas behind the barrier. Enhancing the screening at an entry point can reduce the number of penetrations. For example, a guard may provide a higher level of screening than a keycard-controlled door, or an anti-pass back feature can be added. Reorganizing traffic patterns, work flow, and work areas may reduce the number of people who need access to a restricted area. Physical modifications to barriers can reduce the vulnerability to surreptitious entry. Intrusion detectors, such as closed-circuit television cameras, motion detectors, and other devices, can detect intruders in unoccupied spaces.

15.2 Fire Safety Factors

Building fires are a particularly important security threat because of the potential for complete destruction of both hardware and data, the risk to human life, and the pervasiveness of the damage. Smoke, corrosive gases, and high humidity from a localized fire can damage systems throughout an entire building. Consequently, it is important to evaluate the fire safety of buildings that house systems. Following are important factors in determining the risks from fire.

Ignition Sources. Fires begin because something supplies enough heat to cause other materials to burn. Typical ignition sources are failures of electric devices and wiring, carelessly discarded cigarettes, improper storage of materials subject to spontaneous combustion, improper operation of heating devices, and, of course, arson.

Fuel Sources. If a fire is to grow, it must have a supply of fuel, material that will burn to support its growth, and an adequate supply of oxygen. Once a fire becomes established, it depends on the combustible materials in the building (referred to as the fire load) to support its further growth. The more fuel per square meter, the more intense the fire will be.

Building Operation. If a building is well maintained and operated so as to minimize the accumulation of fuel (such as maintaining the integrity of fire barriers), the fire risk will be minimized.

Building Occupancy. Some occupancies are inherently more dangerous than others because of an above-average number of potential ignition sources. For example, a chemical warehouse may contain an above-average fuel load.

Fire Detection. The more quickly a fire is detected, all other things being equal, the more easily it can be extinguished, minimizing damage. It is also important to accurately pinpoint the location of the fire.

Fire Extinguishment. A fire will burn until it consumes all of the fuel in the building or until it is extinguished. Fire extinguishment may be automatic, as with an automatic sprinkler system or a HALON discharge system, or it may be performed by people using portable extinguishers, cooling the fire site with a stream of water, by limiting the supply of oxygen with a blanket of foam or powder, or by breaking the combustion chemical reaction chain.

Halons have been identified as harmful to the Earth's protective ozone layer. So, under an international agreement (known as the Montreal Protocol), production of halons ended January 1, 1994. In September 1992, the General Services Administration issued a moratorium on halon use by federal agencies.

When properly installed, maintained, and provided with an adequate supply of water, automatic sprinkler systems are highly effective in protecting buildings and their contents.104 Nonetheless, one often hears uninformed persons speak of the water damage done by sprinkler systems as a disadvantage. Fires that trigger sprinkler systems cause the water damage.105 In short, sprinkler systems reduce fire damage, protect the lives of building occupants, and limit the fire damage to the building itself. All these factors contribute to more rapid recovery of systems following a fire.

Each of these factors is important when estimating the occurrence rate of fires and the amount of damage that will result. The objective of a fire-safety program is to optimize these factors to minimize the risk of fire.

15.3 Failure of Supporting Utilities

Systems and the people who operate them need to have a reasonably well-controlled operating environment. Consequently, failures of heating and air-conditioning systems will usually cause a service interruption and may damage hardware. These utilities are composed of many elements, each of which must function properly.

For example, the typical air-conditioning system consists of (1) air handlers that cool and humidify room air, (2) circulating pumps that send chilled water to the air handlers, (3) chillers that extract heat from the water, and (4) cooling towers that discharge the heat to the outside air. Each of these elements has a mean-time-between-failures (MTBF) and a mean-time-to-repair (MTTR). Using the MTBF and MTTR values for each of the elements of a system, one can estimate the occurrence rate of system failures and the range of resulting service interruptions.

This same line of reasoning applies to electric power distribution, heating plants, water, sewage, and other utilities required for system operation or staff comfort. By identifying the failure modes of each utility and estimating the MTBF and MTTR, necessary failure threat parameters can be developed to calculate the resulting risk. The risk of utility failure can be reduced by substituting units with lower MTBF values. MTTR can be reduced by stocking spare parts on site and training maintenance personnel. And the outages resulting from a given MTBF can be reduced by installing redundant units under the assumption that failures are distributed randomly in time. Each of these strategies can be evaluated by comparing the reduction in risk with the cost to achieve it.

15.4 Structural Collapse

A building may be subjected to a load greater than it can support. Most commonly this is a result of an earthquake, a snow load on the roof beyond design criteria, an explosion that displaces or cuts structural members, or a fire that weakens structural members. Even if the structure is not completely demolished, the authorities may decide to ban its further use, sometimes even banning entry to remove materials. This threat applies primarily to high-rise buildings and those with large interior spaces without supporting columns.

15.5 Plumbing Leaks

While plumbing leaks do not occur every day, they can be seriously disruptive. The building's plumbing drawings can help locate plumbing lines that might endanger system hardware. These lines include hot and cold water, chilled water supply and return lines, steam lines, automatic sprinkler lines, fire hose standpipes, and drains. If a building includes a laboratory or manufacturing spaces, there may be other lines that conduct water, corrosive or toxic chemicals, or gases.

As a rule, analysis often shows that the cost to relocate threatening lines is difficult to justify. However, the location of shutoff valves and procedures that should be followed in the event of a failure must be specified. Operating and security personnel should have this information immediately available for use in an emergency. In some cases, it may be possible to relocate system hardware, particularly distributed LAN hardware.

15.6 Interception of Data

Depending on the type of data a system processes, there may be a significant risk if the data is intercepted. There are three routes of data interception: direct observation, interception of data transmission, and electromagnetic interception.

Direct Observation. System terminal and workstation display screens may be observed by unauthorized persons. In most cases, it is relatively easy to relocate the display to eliminate the exposure.

Interception of Data Transmissions. If an interceptor can gain access to data transmission lines, it may be feasible to tap into the lines and read the data being transmitted. Network monitoring tools can be used to capture data packets. Of course, the interceptor cannot control what is transmitted, and so may not be able to immediately observe data of interest. However, over a period of time there may be a serious level of disclosure. Local area networks typically broadcast messages.106 Consequently, all traffic, including passwords, could be retrieved. Interceptors could also transmit spurious data on tapped lines, either for purposes of disruption or for fraud.

Electromagnetic Interception. Systems routinely radiate electromagnetic energy that can be detected with special-purpose radio receivers. Successful interception will depend on the signal strength at the receiver location; the greater the separation between the system and the receiver, the lower the success rate. TEMPEST shielding, of either equipment or rooms, can be used to minimize the spread of electromagnetic signals. The signal-to-noise ratio at the receiver, determined in part by the number of competing emitters will also affect the success rate. The more workstations of the same type in the same location performing "random" activity, the more difficult it is to intercept a given workstation's radiation. On the other hand, the trend toward wireless (i.e., deliberate radiation) LAN connections may increase the likelihood of successful interception.

15.7 Mobile and Portable Systems

The analysis and management of risk usually has to be modified if a system is installed in a vehicle or is portable, such as a laptop computer. The system in a vehicle will share the risks of the vehicle, including accidents and theft, as well as regional and local risks.

Encryption of data files on stored media may also be a cost-effective precaution against disclosure of confidential information if a laptop computer is lost or stolen.

Portable and mobile share an increased risk of theft and physical damage. In addition , portable systems can be "misplaced" or left unattended by careless users. Secure storage of laptop computers is often required when they are not in use.

If a mobile or portable system uses particularly valuable or important data, it may be appropriate to either store its data on a medium that can be removed from the system when it is unattended or to encrypt the data. In any case, the issue of how custody of mobile and portable computers are to be controlled should be addressed. Depending on the sensitivity of the system and its application, it may be appropriate to require briefings of users and signed briefing acknowledgments. (See Chapter 10 for an example.)

15.8 Approach to Implementation

Like other security measures, physical and environmental security controls are selected because they are cost-beneficial. This does not mean that a user must conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis for the selection of every control. There are four general ways to justify the selection of controls:

  1. They are required by law or regulation. Fire exit doors with panic bars and exit lights are examples of security measures required by law or regulation. Presumably, the regulatory authority has considered the costs and benefits and has determined that it is in the public interest to require the security measure. A lawfully conducted organization has no option but to implement all required security measures.
  2. The cost is insignificant, but the benefit is material. A good example of this is a facility with a key-locked low-traffic door to a restricted access. The cost of keeping the door locked is minimal, but there is a significant benefit. Once a significant benefit/minimal cost security measure has been identified, no further analysis is required to justify its implementation.
  3. The security measure addresses a potentially "fatal" security exposure but has a reasonable cost. Backing up system software and data is an example of this justification . For most systems, the cost of making regular backup copies is modest (compared to the costs of operating the system), the organization would not be able to function if the stored data were lost, and the cost impact of the failure would be material. In such cases, it would not be necessary to develop any further cost justification for the backup of software and data. However, this justification depends on what constitutes a modest cost, and it does not identify the optimum backup schedule. Broadly speaking, a cost that does not require budgeting of additional funds would qualify.
  4. The security measure is estimated to be cost-beneficial. If the cost of a potential security measure is significant, and it cannot be justified by any of the first three reasons listed above, then its cost (both implementation and ongoing operation) and its benefit (reduction in future expected losses) need to be analyzed to determine if it is cost-beneficial. In this context, cost-beneficial means that the reduction in expected loss is significantly greater than the cost of implementing the security measure.

Arriving at the fourth justification requires a detailed analysis. Simple rules of thumb do not apply. Consider, for example, the threat of electric power failure and the security measures that can protect against such an event. The threat parameters, rate of occurrence, and range of outage durations depend on the location of the system, the details of its connection to the local electric power utility, the details of the internal power distribution system, and the character of other activities in the building that use electric power. The system's potential losses from service interruption depends on the details of the functions it performs. Two systems that are otherwise identical can support functions that have quite different degrees of urgency. Thus, two systems may have the same electric power failure threat and vulnerability parameters, yet entirely different loss potential parameters.

Furthermore, a number of different security measures are available to address electric power failures. These measures differ in both cost and performance. For example, the cost of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) depends on the size of the electric load it can support, the number of minutes it can support the load, and the speed with which it assumes the load when the primary power source fails. An on-site power generator could also be installed either in place of a UPS (accepting the fact that a power failure will cause a brief service interruption) or in order to provide long-term backup to a UPS system. Design decisions include the magnitude of the load the generator will support, the size of the on-site fuel supply, and the details of the facilities to switch the load from the primary source or the UPS to the on-site generator.

This example shows systems with a wide range of risks and a wide range of available security measures (including, of course, no action), each with its own cost factors and performance parameters.

15.9 Interdependencies

Physical and environmental security measures rely on and support the proper functioning of many of the other areas discussed in this handbook. Among the most important are the following:

Logical Access Controls. Physical security controls augment technical means for controlling access to information and processing. Even if the most advanced and best-implemented logical access controls are in place, if physical security measures are inadequate, logical access controls may be circumvented by directly accessing the hardware and storage media. For example, a computer system may be rebooted using different software.

Contingency Planning. A large portion of the contingency planning process involves the failure of physical and environmental controls. Having sound controls, therefore, can help minimize losses from such contingencies.

Identification and Authentication (I&A). Many physical access control systems require that people be identified and authenticated. Automated physical security access controls can use the same types of I&A as other computer systems. In addition, it is possible to use the same tokens (e.g., badges) as those used for other computer-based I&A.

Other. Physical and environmental controls are also closely linked to the activities of the local guard force, fire house, life safety office, and medical office. These organizations should be consulted for their expertise in planning controls for the systems environment.

15.10 Cost Considerations

Costs associated with physical security measures range greatly. Useful generalizations about costs, therefore, are difficult make. Some measures, such as keeping a door locked, may be a trivial expense. Other features, such as fire-detection and -suppression systems, can be far more costly. Cost considerations should include operation. For example, adding controlled-entry doors requires persons using the door to stop and unlock it. Locks also require physical key management and accounting (and rekeying when keys are lost or stolen). Often these effects will be inconsequential, but they should be fully considered. As with other security measures, the objective is to select those that are cost-beneficial.


Alexander, M., ed. "Secure Your Computers and Lock Your Doors." Infosecurity News. 4(6), 1993. pp. 80-85.

Archer, R. "Testing: Following Strict Criteria." Security Dealer. 15(5), 1993. pp. 32-35.

Breese, H., ed. The Handbook of Property Conservation. Norwood, MA: Factory Mutual Engineering Corp.

Chanaud, R. "Keeping Conversations Confidential." Security Management. 37(3), 1993. pp. 43-48.

Miehl, F. "The Ins and Outs of Door Locks." Security Management. 37(2), 1993. pp. 48-53.

National Bureau of Standards. Guidelines for ADP Physical Security and Risk Management. Federal Information Processing Standard Publication 31. June 1974.

Peterson, P. "Infosecurity and Shrinking Media." ISSA Access. 5(2), 1992. pp. 19-22.

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Zimmerman, J. "Using Smart Cards - A Smart Move." Security Management. 36(1), 1992. pp. 32-36.


103. This chapter draws upon work by Robert V. Jacobson, International Security Technology, Inc., funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
104. As discussed in this section, many variables affect fire safety and should be taken into account in selecting a fire extinguishment system. While automatic sprinklers can be very effective, selection of a fire extinguishment system for a particular building should take into account the particular fire risk factors. Other factors may include rate changes from either a fire insurance carrier or a business interruption insurance carrier. Professional advice is required.
105. Occurrences of accidental discharge are extremely rare, and, in a fire, only the sprinkler heads in the immediate area of the fire open and discharge water.
106. An insider may be able to easily collect data by configuring their ethernet network interface to receive all network traffic, rather than just network traffic intended for this node. This is called the promiscuous mode.

Last updated: July 22, 2004
Page created: July 1, 2004