How to create an information classification policy

/ Digital Transformation
October 17th, 2016

IT security - How to create an information classification policy

Documents are a business asset. If an asset is lost, stolen or damaged, it becomes a risk. Both for the business and for their client.

This means having control systems in place to understand these risks is critical. And having the controls to counter them is equally as important.

It sounds simple. But after a decade of working with businesses, it’s clear that few of them have suitable controls in place. To address this, we’ve created 10 points to guide you through the process of creating your information classification policy.

1. Keeping it simple

When looking at security in any way, it’s important to keep it as simple as possible. This is particularly true when it’s something so regular as dealing with documents.

To make it simple, businesses need to invest in technology. In this case, there are three main technologies worth investing in:

A document getting into the wrong hands is going to cause your business, or a client’s business, damage. That is a fact. So aiming to implement all three is the best way to get a comprehensive solution.

2. Mapping your classifications

Before you get into classifying documents it’s important to ignore technology. Technology comes after you have decided the policies and processes you wish to follow.

What this means is that you need to map documents or types of documents into distinct groups. To do this, you should look at two key areas: the sensitivity of the document and their intended audience. This information will make up the foundation of your Information Classification Policy.

Many businesses already have classifications in place. But they’re often created, implemented and forgotten – quickly becoming unusable without weeks or months of additional work. You need to create an Information Classification Policy and not hide it away. It needs to be clear and easy for everyone to work with and conform to with little effort.

3. Building the Information Classification System

The foundation of any Information Classification Policy is categorising information. Here are a few example document classifications that will fit most business requirements:

  • Public: Documents that are not sensitive and there is no issue with release to the general public i.e. on a website
  • Confidential: Documents only to be viewed internally or with third parties that have signed a non-disclosure agreement
  • Employee Confidential: Documents only to be viewed by employees at the company
  • Management Restricted: Documents only to be viewed by the senior management at the company
  • Private: Documents which contain personal information (useful for managing GDPR compliance)

In general, you don’t want to go over 10 classifications because classification should be as simple as possible. If you find that you have too many classifications, consider only looking at sensitivity or only looking at intended audience to begin with then filling in any gaps.

Information classification policy examples

4. Assembling the Information Classification Team

A policy needs board-level support to ensure the business buys into and uses it. Once you have this, you should form a team which includes key departments in the business to enforce the policy.

This team may include people from technical, HR, legal and any other departments that are suitable for your industry. An appropriate team will be able to protect a business from security breaches whilst letting people access the information they need. And whilst it is important, the technical solution should be the last point to consider.

5. Designing the Information Classification Policy

Once you have your team assembled, you need to start going through your documents. In most organisations, it can be hard to know where to start.

To solve this, you should group documents at a high level. Looking at the impact that a data breach of that type could cause. Focus on the most sensitive document types first. And once that’s locked down, you can move through the less sensitive list.

When going through this process there are a few tips you can follow.

For company documents, it’s advisable to put your company name first. This helps them stand out from any other classification, i.e. from a client or a partner business.

It’s also useful to colour code classifications to help distinguish documents by eye. This helps you identify a sensitive document that’s left on a screen, printer or vacant desk. The beauty of colour classification is that it aids you in taking action internally or externally. It’s simple to prove that the defendant knew the information was restricted.

It’s important that you make it easy for staff to label and classify documents. If it takes more than three clicks to label a document, staff will find ways to circumvent the system. People naturally take the path of least resistance. So if your system is obtuse, employees will find ways to bypass it.

6. Enforcing control with automation

Once you’ve designed the Information Classification System, it’s finally time to look at the technology. Automation is very helpful to ensure enforcement. You shouldn’t rely on people alone as things will drop through the cracks.

It’s important that any technology links back into the core authentication system within a business. This will typically be Active Directory – the system you use to log in to your PC at the office.

Doing this simplifies things as you can use existing user groups to give access to certain classifications. There’s likely to already be an Active Directory group called “Board Members” for example, which you can use straight away.

Of course, grouping people doesn’t guarantee a user will know who they can and can’t send specific documents to. Nor will it prevent them from sending a document to a recipient by mistake.

This is why a business should be using a Rights Management system. Rights Management ensures that the systems know who has permission to access the document. So even if someone does send a restricted document, the recipient won’t be able to view it.

7. Educating employees

One of the largest reasons for data leakage is employees. Make sure to train them on how to use systems and refresh them periodically.

Also educate them on any security risks to the business – known, current or potential. They need to understand why following policies is important and how not following them can impact the business and therefore them.

8. Controlling leavers

So many organisations do not manage ex-employees. It’s important to disable their accounts once they leave the company. Even if they left on good terms, it’s best not to take a risk.

Loose accounts complicate the system at best and act as a open hole for attackers at worst. Hackers or insiders can hijack old accounts and make use of the access privileges. So you need to shut down accounts or strip them of all access rights to reduce the risk to your data.

9. Continually improving

It’s best if you adhere to common processes and document them somewhere accessible. To do this, you need robust information classification and risk policies that integrate with a wider standard. A good example to use as a framework is the ISO 27001 standard.

Doing this ensures that you assess and improve how you are controlling your risks within the business. Keeping you protected from an evolving threat landscape.

10. Widening the focus

It would be ridiculous to only focus on document security whilst ignoring the other risks to your business. So understanding all the risks your business faces and assigning suitable controls is something you must do.

Again, the ISO 27001 standard is a good framework to use for managing your information security on a wider basis. But this shouldn’t stop you going ahead and dealing with document security first. Getting this done will make things easier in the long term.


Businesses must control their risks, as failing to do so has catastrophic consequences. The key is to start simple and then improve. You don’t have to adopt everything at once.

A good starting point is to understand the sort of data you have and then classifying it. A good percentage of your business information could be used to extort or embarrass you. Or even worse, a client.

Once you’ve got your classifications, tie them into document templates. Then automate management and workflow automatically with technology. When done right, businesses can dramatically improve their security since it’s embedded onto the asset. Rights Management can then control who can edit, copy, paste, print, email, transfer or view it at a later date.

Once in place, this can be overlaid with network controls such as Data Leak Prevention. This watches documents flow in and out of the business and can isolate, sandbox or alert relevant people that a breach may occur.

To take it further, systems at the perimeter, such as gateway encryption solutions, can identify sensitive information. Encrypting it to ensure it won’t pass over the open Internet in clear text.

The list can go on but it’s important you start at the beginning by creating an Information Classification System. You need to understand what you have and what the risks and potential controls are first though.

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