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Operational Security (OPSEC)

What is Operational Security?

Operational security (OPSEC) is a security and risk management process that prevents sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands. 

Another OPSEC meaning is a process that identifies seemingly innocuous actions that could inadvertently reveal critical or sensitive data to a cyber criminal. OPSEC is both a process and a strategy, and it encourages IT and security managers to view their operations and systems from the perspective of a potential attacker. It includes analytical activities and processes like behavior monitoring, social media monitoring, and security best practice.

A crucial piece of what is OPSEC is the use of risk management to discover potential threats and vulnerabilities in organizations’ processes, the way they operate, and the software and hardware their employees use. Looking at systems and operations from a third party’s point of view enables OPSEC teams to discover issues they may have overlooked and can be crucial to implementing the appropriate countermeasures that will keep their most sensitive data secure.

How Did OPSEC Come Into the Picture?

OPSEC first came about through a U.S. military team called Purple Dragon in the Vietnam War. The counterintelligence team realized that its adversaries could anticipate the U.S.’s strategies and tactics without managing to decrypt their communications or having intelligence assets to steal their data. They concluded that the U.S. military forces were actually revealing information to their enemy. Purple Dragon coined the first OPSEC definition, which was: “The ability to keep knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses away from hostile forces.”

This OPSEC process has since been adopted by other government agencies, such as the Department of Defense, in their efforts to protect national security and trade secrets. It is also used by organizations that want to protect customer data and is instrumental in helping them address corporate espionage, information security, and risk management.

Why is OPSEC Important?

OPSEC is important because it encourages organizations to closely assess the security risks they face and spot potential vulnerabilities that a typical data security approach may not. OPSEC security enables IT and security teams to fine-tune their technical and non-technical processes while reducing their cyber risk and safeguarding them against malware-based attacks

An effective OPSEC program is important to prevent the inadvertent or unintended exposure of classified or sensitive data. It enables organizations to prevent the details of their future activities, capabilities, and intentions from being made public. However, the key to achieving this is understanding what this information is about, where it is located, what level of protection is applied to it, what the impact would be if it is compromised, and how the organization would respond.

If such information is leaked, attackers may be able to cause major damage. For example, they may be able to build wider cyberattacks and commit identity fraud or theft if employees reuse their login credentials across multiple online services. 

The 5 Steps of Operational Security

There are five steps to OPSEC that allow organizations to secure their data processes.

Identify Sensitive Data

Understanding what data organizations have and the sensitive data they store on their systems is a crucial first step to OPSEC security. This includes identifying information such as customer details, credit card data, employee details, financial statements, intellectual property, and product research. It is vital for organizations to focus their resources on protecting this critical data.

Identify Possible Threats

With sensitive information identified, organizations then need to determine the potential threats presented to this data. This includes third parties that may want to steal the data, competitors that could gain an advantage by stealing information, and insider threats or malicious insiders like disgruntled workers or negligent employees

Analyze the Vulnerabilities

Organizations then need to analyze the potential vulnerabilities in their security defenses that could provide an opportunity for the threats to materialize. This involves assessing the processes and technology solutions that safeguard their data and identifying loopholes or weaknesses that attackers could potentially exploit.

What is the Threat Level?

Each identified vulnerability then has to have a level of threat attributed to it. The vulnerabilities should be ranked based on the likelihood of attackers targeting them, the level of damage caused if they are exploited, and the amount of time and work required to mitigate and repair the damage. The more damage that could be inflicted and the higher the chances of an attack occurring, the more resources and priority that organizations should place in mitigating the risk.

Devise a Plan To Mitigate the Threats

This information provides organizations with everything they need to devise a plan to mitigate the threats identified. The final step in OPSEC is putting countermeasures in place to eliminate threats and mitigate cyber risks. These typically include updating hardware, creating policies around safeguarding sensitive data, and providing employee training on security best practice and corporate data policies. 

An OPSEC process plan must be simple to understand, straightforward to implement and follow, and be updated as the security threat landscape evolves.

Best Practices for OPSEC

OPSEC uses risk management processes to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities before they are exploited and cause problems for organizations. Businesses can build and implement a comprehensive and robust OPSEC program by following these best practices:

  1. Change management processes: Organizations must implement specific change management processes that their employees can follow in case network changes are performed. These changes must be controlled and logged so that organizations can appropriately audit and monitor the amendments.
  2. Restrict device access: Organizations must restrict access to their networks to only devices that absolutely require it. Military agencies and other government organizations deploy a "need to know" basis around their networks, and this theory also must be applied to corporate networks. Network device authentication should be used as a common rule of thumb when it comes to access and information sharing.
  3. Deploy least privilege access: Employees need to be assigned the minimum level of access to data, networks, and resources that they require to do their jobs successfully. This means deploying the principle of least privilege, which ensures that any program, process, or user only has the bare minimum privilege required to perform its function. This is crucial to organizations ensuring better security levels, preventing insider threats, minimizing the attack surface, limiting the risk of malware, and improving their audit and compliance readiness.
  4.  Implement dual control: Users responsible for managing their networks should not be made in charge of security. Organizations must ensure that teams or individuals responsible for maintaining their corporate networks are separate from those who set security policies.
  5. Deploy automation: Humans are often the weakest link in an organization’s security processes. Human error can result in mistakes, data inadvertently ending up in the wrong hands, important details being overlooked or forgotten, and critical processes being bypassed.
  6. Plan for disaster: A critical part of any security defense is to plan for disaster and institute a solid incident response plan. Even the most robust OPSEC security needs to be supported with plans that identify potential risks and outline how an organization will go about responding to cyberattacks and mitigating the potential damages.

How Fortinet Can Help

Fortinet provides a range of solutions that help organizations improve their information security, protect their most sensitive data, and keep their users and devices secure at all times.

The Fortinet FortiGate next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) safeguard organizations from internal and external security threats through features like packet filtering, network monitoring, Internet Protocol security (IPsec), and secure sockets layer virtual private network (SSL VPN) support. They also possess deeper content inspection features, which enable organizations to detect and block advanced cyberattacks and malware.  FortiGate Rugged NGFWs deliver enterprise security for operational technology environments with full network visibility and threat protection. 

Fortinet NGFWs also include application control, intrusion prevention, and advanced network visibility, which are crucial to understanding the threats that organizations face. With Fortinet NGFWs, organizations can also future-proof their security defenses against the evolving cyber threat landscape, ensuring they are constantly protected against the latest, most sophisticated attack vectors.

Many of the most damaging security breaches are caused by compromised user accounts and weak passwords, which are exacerbated by employees not following best practices and having inappropriate access levels. Fortinet enables organizations to take control of networks with its identity and access management (IAM) solution, which secures identity and access across the vast range of directories, cloud applications like Azure Cloud, networking devices, and servers that make up modern systems. The Fortinet IAM solution confirms users and devices as they enter a network and ensures only the right people with the right level of privilege are able to access systems and resources.

The Fortinet IAM solution prevents unauthorized access to networks and resources through the FortiAuthenticator tool, which provides centralized authentication, such as certificate management, guest access management, and single sign-on (SSO)FortiToken enables organizations to confirm users’ identity by adding two-factor authentication (2FA) to their login through mobile or physical tokens.

The Fortinet information security awareness and training service developed by the Fortinet NSE Training Institute is also crucial to providing employees with the knowledge they need to work securely. This is increasingly important as cyber criminals deploy more sophisticated attacks and target remote workers in an attempt to intercept corporate networks. Fortinet training enables employees to understand how and when they are being attacked, the latest cyber threats being tapped by attackers, and the common signs of a cyberattack.

Learn more about IT Operations (ITOps) and IT Security Policies.  


What is OPSEC in cybersecurity?

Operational security (OPSEC) is a process that organizations deploy to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands. OPSEC identifies actions that may seem innocuous but could inadvertently result in critical or sensitive data being revealed or leaked to a potential attacker. 

OPSEC encourages IT and security managers to assess their operations and systems from the perspective of potential hackers. It includes the use of analytical activities and processes like behavior monitoring, social media monitoring, and security best practice.

What are the 5 steps of operational security?

The five steps of operational security are: 

  1. Identify sensitive data
  2. Identify possible threats
  3. Analyze security threats and vulnerabilities
  4. Appraise the threat level and vulnerability risk
  5. Devise a plan to mitigate the threats

Why is operational security important?

OPSEC is important because it helps organizations protect their most sensitive data and prevent it from getting into the wrong hands. It provides a different way of approaching cybersecurity and data security by encouraging IT and security teams to look at their systems and processes from the perspective of potential attackers. This approach helps prevent the inadvertent leak or exposure of sensitive data and improves organizations’ security defenses.

What is the first law of OPSEC?

The first law of OPSEC is: If you do not know the threat, how do you know what to protect? This law is addressed by the first step of OPSEC, which outlines that organizations need to identify the sensitive data they have, such as customer details, credit card data, employee details, financial statements, intellectual property, and product research. It is vital for organizations to focus their resources on protecting this critical data.