Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

Version 2.0: September 2009


To provide a toolkit that constructs resources pertaining to confidential data handling. Many of the EDUCAUSE/Internet2 Higher Education Information Security Council (formerly the Security Task Force) working groups are working on components of the toolkit, but this consolidation and organization of resources anchors the overarching themes related to information protection.


The following steps and ensuing sub-items are intended to provide a general roadmap. Institutions will be at varying stages of progress. Some will start with the need to establish actions in the areas of policies, processes, or technology. Some will be ready to implement, and some will be able to revise and fine-tune their processes. You will also need to prioritize your actions to mitigate risks because of the comprehensive nature of the recommendations. We've attempted to organize these in a sequence that allows you to logically follow through each step. Although each item is recommended as an effective practice, we recognize that state/local legal requirements, institutional policy, or campus culture might cause each institution to approach this differently.

Definition - "Confidential Data"

Confidential data includes both sensitive personal information and sensitive institutional information. Unauthorized access to personal confidential data may result in a significant invasion of privacy, or may expose individuals to significant financial risk. Unauthorized access to or modification of institutional confidential data may result in direct, materially negative impacts on the finances, operations, or reputation of the institution. Examples of personal confidential data include information protected under privacy laws, information concerning the pay and benefits of employees, personal identification information, medical/health information held by the institution pertaining to those affiliated with it, and data collected in the course of research on human subjects. Institutional confidential data, for example, includes institutional financial and planning information, legally privileged information, invention disclosures, and other information concerning pending patent applications.

Definition - "Policy", "Standard", "Procedure"

This document makes use of all 3 terms, and they are not synonomous. For the purposes of this document, a policy is a relatively abstract statement of a goal.  A standard is a group of specific technical settings, protocols, vendors, or benchmarks. A procedure is a set of specific operating instructions. Standards and procedures are frequently developed to support policies, but can also stand alone in some situations.

For example, an institution might have a policy that states that all confidential data must be encrypted. It might also have a standard that states that the encryption must use the AES cipher with a key length of 256 bits for file encryption and use the TLS/SSL protocol for network entcryption using the AES or Blowfish ciphers, or simply require use of software "XYZ" (which is available correctly configured) to encrypt data. Finally, a procedure would give specific instructions for ensuring that the encryption policy and standards are being implemented correctly..."To encrypt a file, run this program from the server, choose the filename, choose a password, and click 'OK'," or "To ensure that your network traffic is encrypted, look at the bottom of the browser for an icon of a padlock. If it is not there, call the Help Desk at 555-1212 to report a problem."


  • Step 1: Create a security risk-aware culture that includes an information security risk management program
  • Step 2: Define institutional data types
  • Step 3: Clarify responsibilities and accountability for safeguarding confidential data
  • Step 4: Reduce access to confidential data not absolutely essential to institutional processes
  • Step 5: Establish and implement stricter controls for safeguarding confidential data
  • Step 6: Provide awareness and training
  • Step 7: Verify compliance routinely with your policies and procedures

Step 1: Create a security risk-aware culture that includes an information security risk management program

Statistics consistently show that the lack of security awareness and management attention to security are frequent causes of data exposure incidents. Subsequent steps in the Blueprint should significantly lower the risk of such incidents. The risk reduction, however, will be short-lived unless everyone in the institution assumes responsibility for protection of institutional data and executives and managers fully appreciate and act on the fact that strong security programs have a direct positive impact on such critical institutional issues as:

a. Meeting organizational goals
b. Maintaining efficient, uninterrupted operational processes
c. Fostering a positive public image
d. Complying with legal statutes, regulations, contractual obligations

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
1.1 Institution-wide security risk management program.
An institution-wide security risk management program should include information, templates, and tools to guide the completion of an impact analysis for institutional data assets, a risk assessment for those assets, and continuity planning for events that could damage the assets or otherwise make them unavailable. Completing such a risk management process provides insight into existing risks within a given IT environment and strategies for reducing or eliminating those risks. Implementing a policy that requires organizational units to cycle through the program on a regular schedule helps insure managers stay abreast of changing risks and respond accordingly.
Tool: Risk Management Framework Higher Education
  Tool: ISG Self-Assessment Tool for Higher Education Higher Education
  Policy: Harvard University's Enterprise Security Policy Higher Education
  Info: National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP)
  Policy: NIST Risk Management Guide for Information Technology Systems (SP 800-30) Government
  Policy: NIST Managing Risk from Information Systems: An Organizational Perspective (DRAFT SP 800-39) Government
1.2 Roles and responsibilities defined for overall information security program at the central and distributed level.
In a culture of security risk awareness, all individuals within the institution understand their roles and responsibilities for protecting data to which they have access. These roles and responsibilities should be clearly stated and communicated, and individuals should be held accountable for fulfilling them. Certain individuals, for example in the Registrar's office or in the central IT organization, will likely have greater security responsibilities than others, but everyone in the institution must personally assume some responsibility for the security of institutional data in electronic and/or paper form.
Policy: Indiana University Trustees Resolution Higher Education
  Policy: Indiana University School of Medicine Roles Higher Education
  Policy: Yale University Information Access and Security Policy Higher Education
1.3 Executive leadership support in the form of policies and governance actions.
In today's environment funding for security is commonly considered a "sunk cost" and security resources are focused primarily on reactive, band-aid tactics. In an institution that is security risk-aware, however, security would be viewed as an investment in the mission of the institution and security resources would be focused on proactive, risk management based strategies. Making a transition to a culture of security risk awareness can be enabled through the adoption of a governance model for security that integrates the security program into overall goals, objectives, and operational processes of the institution.
Info: Information Technology Security: Governance, Strategy, and Practice in Higher Education Higher Education
  Info: Governing for Enterprise Security article series - Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute Research

Top of page

Step 2: Define institutional data types.

A thorough understanding of the different information resources maintained and used by an institution is a key aspect of determining the requirements for protection of confidential data. Typically data types are grouped such that controls may then be applied in a manner that is commensurate to reduce financial, legal, and reputational risks to the institution.

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
2.1 Understand the legal and regulatory landscape. An important consideration when safeguarding the privacy and security of data held by an institution (and outside parties on its behalf) is complying with applicable federal, state, and international laws and regulations related to the privacy and security of the data held by the institution, as well as any contractual protection obligations that may exist. Specific security controls are often legally prescribed for various data types, and these must be taken into consideration when developing a protection plan. Info: Policing the Internet: Higher Education Law and Policy Higher Education
  Info: Liability for Negligent Security Higher Education
  Info: Gramm-Leach-Bliley Higher Education
  Info: HIPAA Higher Education
  Info: FERPA Higher Education
  Info: FACTA Red Flag Rule Government
  Info: State Security Breach Notification Laws Government
  Info: Payment Card Industry (PCI) Security Standards Council Industry
2.2 Develop a classification system. A data classification schema must be developed with input from legal counsel and data stewards as defined in section 3.1. Consistency and reliability of controls and clarity of responsibility are achieved by developing a schema which can be applied to any data type, but which allows for individual exception. Policy: Data Classification Policies Higher Education
  Tool: Risk Management Framework Higher Education
  Info: SANS Information Sensitivity Policy Industry
2.3 Apply the schema. Using the schema, a classification is assigned to institutional data to the extent possible or necessary. Assignment involves review and subsequent documentation of data types and their information sensitivity classification. Info: Iowa State University Data Classification and Retention System Higher Education
  Tool: Classifying Institutional Data Higher Education
  Info: FIPS 199 Government
  Info: SANS Information Sensitivity Policy Industry

Top of page

Step 3: Clarify responsibilities and accountability for safeguarding confidential data

Along with understanding and grouping information resources, assigning responsibility for those resources is a critical component to ensure that they are properly handled.

Consider a file of employee salary information as an example. This file could be the responsibility of the central Human Resources Department, which maintains master files.  It could also be the responsibility of Information Technology, which maintains the human resources information system, or of departmental staff who maintain local human resources files.  Responsibility might also be split between these entities.

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
3.1 Data stewardship roles and responsibilities. It is not sufficient to have a classification system as delineated in Step 2. Individuals both at the user level and in management must understand their role in classifying and protecting the data. Consider adding such responsibilities directly to the formal job description for key roles.
Policy: Data Classification Policy of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Higher Education
  Policy: Boston College Data Security Policy Higher Education
3.2 Legally binding third party agreements that assign responsibility for secure data handling. If you give confidential data to an outside party, for example, to maintain student loans, or develop a web site, or handle health insurance, you need to ensure in a contract that the other party understands that it is liable for properly safeguarding the information. The 2008 Verizon Business Data Breach Report, based on analysis of over 500 actual breaches, showed that 39% of the breaches stemmed from a business partner. While not legally binding, obtaining a SAS-70 statement, SAS-112 procedures, or a form from the BITS Shared Assessments program is helpful in gauging the strength of an outside party's data handling measures.
Info: Third Party Contractual Language Higher Education
  Info: The Third Party Network Connection Agreement Industry
  Info: Application Service Provider Standards Industry
3.3 Develop policies and assign accountability for data retention, data disposal, and electronic discovery. Data has its own "life cycle" from its collection to its eventual disposal. Your policies should describe data handling at significant points in this cycle.
Info + Policy: Ohio State University Records Management
Higher Education
  Policy: Cornell Retention of University Records
Higher Education
  Policy: Harvard secure disposal policy
Higher Education
  Info: EDUCAUSE Review article - Electronically Stored Information and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Higher Education
  Tool: Guidelines for Information Media Sanitization Higher Education

Top of page

Step 4: Reduce access to confidential data not absolutely essential to institutional processes

One of the most effective means of not accidentally exposing confidential data is simply reducing access to the data. This includes not collecting such data if not absolutely necessary, not showing it on printed reports or computer screens, and eliminating cases where it has been historically stored in locations, both electronic and paper, where it is no longer required.

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
4.1 Establish, apply and maintain policies and procedures for data collection processes (including forms) to request only the minimum necessary confidential information. Not requesting nor collecting restricted/regulated data is the best method of ensuring that it is not leaked -- an organization doesn't have to worry about protecting (in storage or transit) what it does not have. This should apply to online and paper forms. Info: EDUCAUSE FERPA resources Higher Education
  Policy: EDUCAUSE/Cornell ICPL Policies
Higher Education
  Info: 2008 FERPA Final Rule (PDF, HTML)
  Policy: SANS Information Sensitivity Policy (PDF, MS Word) Industry
4.2 Establish, apply and maintain policies and procedures for application outputs (e.g., queries, hard copy reports, etc.) to provide only the minimum necessary confidential information. In many or most cases an analysis of the information which is absolutely essential on a report or screen will reveal that full or even partial confidential information which is superfluous (e.g., an employee SSN on a pay stub is not needed and is a liability; a partial credit card number or the last few digits of a bank account are usually all that is needed on a payment screen when displaying a transaction). Policy: Data Classification Policies Higher Education
  Tool/Info: Data Classification Toolkit
Higher Education
  Info: NIST 800-60 (Rev. 1 2008): Guide for Mapping Types of Information and Information Systems to Security Categories (Guide, Appendices)
  Info: New Zealand Government "Information Classification".
  Info: Sun Blueprint Series "Data Security Policy - Structure and Guidelines"
  Info: Shon Harris on "Drafting Data Classification Policies and Guidelines"
4.3 Inventory and review the presence of existing confidential data on servers, desktops, and mobile devices. Use data scanning tools and store/update the results in a database. IT GRC (Governance, Risk and Compliance) software now exists which can maintain an asset inventory database of confidential data sources and systems. Info: Baylor University IT Asset Management Presentation Higher Education
  Tool: Cornell University Spider Higher Education
  Info: Northwestern University's Guideline for Using Sensitive Data Search Tools Higher Education
  Tool: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Firefly SSN Finder for Windows Higher Education
  Tool: University of Texas at Austin Sensitive Number Finder (SENF) Higher Education
  Tool: Virginia Tech Find_SSNs Tool Higher Education
4.4 Establish, apply and maintain policies and procedures to eliminate unnecessary confidential data on servers, desktops, and mobile devices. Initiate a confidential data elimination project if there is not a continuous process currently in place. Policy: SANS Information Sensitivity Policy (PDF, MS Word) Industry
4.5 Eliminate dependence on SSNs as primary identifiers and as a form of authentication* Info: Elimination of Social Security Numbers As Primary Identifiers Higher Education
*Note: SSNs may need to be used for certain things (e.g., student employees, student financial aid, etc.) and we recommend that schools limit the use of SSNs to only necessary processes Tool: UCONN SSN Elimination Project Action Plan
Higher Education

Top of page

Step 5: Establish and implement stricter controls for safeguarding confidential data

Controls provide enforcement of higher level policy via either detailed procedure(s), technological mechanism(s), or both. A high level policy or assignment of responsibility does not actually protect confidential data; detailed controls provide the protection.

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
5.1 Inventory and review/remediate security of computing resources. For network resources, segregate guest access and block unrestricted access to wired and wireless networks unless a known user logs in. For computational resources, consider testing computers upon network access to verify that they are fully patched. Tool: NetReg Other
5.2 Establish and maintain standards for the security configuration of computing resources. This includes applications, servers, desktops, and mobile systems. It also includes network resources such as firewall, intrusion detection/prevention, and router configurations. Note that "standards" are not "policies" -- standards are specific, prescriptive lists  of appropriate settings that change as the base of computing resources change, whereas policies tend to be both more general and more static over time.
Policy: Harvard policy on Internet access to confidential information Higher Education
  Info: NIST user guide for securing external devices Government
  Info: NIST guide to general server security Government
  Info: NIST guide to secure web servers Government
  Info: NSA configuration guidelines Government
  Info: CIS Benchmarks Industry
  Info: NIST guidelines on firewalls and firewall policy Government
  Info: Network devices Government
5.3 Establish and maintain encryption standards and strategies for data in transit and at rest. If data is confidential, it is usually beneficial to encrypt it to protect it from unauthorized access, either as it transits networks, as it is stored in files or databases, or both. In some cases, such as credit card data, encryption is contractually required. Policy: Yale University IT Acceptable Use Policy (see Section F for Data Encryption Policy) Higher Education
  Tool: Yale University Endorsed Encryption Implementation Procedure Higher Education
  Policy: Harvard Enterprise Security Policy - section 2.3 Higher Education
  Policy: Cryptographic Standards and Application Industry
  Policy: SANS Acceptable Encryption Policy Industry
5.4 Establish and maintain standards regarding (a) confidential data on mobile devices and home computers, and (b) data storage and archiving. These areas are frequently overlooked, and are also frequently the source of a data loss.
Policy: Harvard Central Admin. remote access policy Higher Education
  Policy: SANS remote access policy Industry
  Policy: SANS mobile device encryption Industry
5.5 Establish and maintain policies concerning identity management and resource provisioning processes. Improper issuance of user credentials and improper controls over user access to resources can lead to unauthorized access by users who have access privileges but should not, or who have a login but also have access to systems or data they should not have such access to. Improper revocation of credentials and keys is as critical an issue as improper issuance, and must also be addressed fully.
Info: EDUCAUSE Spotlight on Identity Management Higher Education
  Info: InCommon Higher Education
  Info: EDUCAUSE Identity and Access Management resources Higher Education
5.6 Establish and maintain technical procedures for data retention and secure disposal of equipment and data. Step 3.3 covers policies for data retention and disposal. It is also necessary to have detailed technical procedures. Computers, disk drives, tapes, and other data are all too often donated to charity, sent to a dump, or sold as surplus with confidential information intact on them.  Technical procedures might include how to archive old documents and what specific steps should be taken to sanitize media prior to disposal.
Policy: Harvard secure disposal policy Higher Education
  Info: NIST guidelines for media sanitization - in revision Government
  Policy: NIST records management policy Government
  Info: an electronic record retention policy: no longer a luxury Industry
5.7 Consider performing background checks on individuals handling confidential data. Persons with criminal records or credit histories indicating an inability to handle money responsibly may not be ideal candidates to handle confidential data. Yet many institutions do not perform any checks on employees or potential employees handling confidential data. This is a sensitive topic at many institutions, thus the "consider" in the statement. Info: EDUCAUSE: background checks Higher Education
  Info: PCI background check requirement Industry

Top of page

Step 6: Provide awareness and training

Assure that training requirements for each law, regulation, or control are being met. Build a list of training requirements that shows who must be trained based on what topics.

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
6.1 Make confidential data handlers aware of privacy and security requirements. Changes to regulations for data privacy and security must be communicated to the affected areas of the higher education community. Info: NIST SP800-50: Building an Information Technology Security Awareness and Training Program, October 2003 Industry
6.2 Require acknowledgment by data users of their responsibility for safeguarding such data. Each person with access to confidential information should be presented with an acknowledgment to ensure understanding their role, whether its as a consumer/user of information, a creator of information, or a steward/manager of information. Policy: Confidentiality Agreement or Statement
Policy: Template Non-Disclosure and Confidentiality Agreements (Texas State University, San Marcos)
Higher Education
6.3 Enhance general privacy and security awareness programs to specifically address safeguarding confidential data. A key component of any awareness program is instruction regarding the data sensitivity classifications for information as defined by your institution. In addition, the controls and safeguards for each confidential data classification should be described. Info: Campus-wide Security Education and Awareness (Chapter 7 in the online book "Computer and Network Security in Higher Education") Higher Education
  Info: NIST SP800-50: Building an Information Technology Security Awareness and Training Program, October 2003 Industry
6.4 Clearly communicate how to safeguard data so that collaboration mechanisms, and their respective strengths and limitations in terms of access control, are clearly understood.    

Top of page

Step 7: Regularly verify compliance with your policies, standards, and procedures

Assure that requirements for each data element or system are being managed. Build a list of compliance requirements that indicates which data elements (or systems) the requirements apply to and which data steward (or person) is responsible for each requirement.

Sub-Step Resource Resource Type
7.1 Conduct regular meetings with stakeholders such as data stewards, legal counsel, compliance officers, public safety, public relations, and IT groups to review institutional risk and compliance and to revise existing policies and procedures as needed    
7.2 Utilize audit function within the institution to verify compliance. This can be either an internal audit department or external auditors. Info: Auditing and Assessment Industry
7.3 Routinely scan and test computing resources and services. Scan  servers, desktops, mobile devices, and networks containing confidential data to verify compliance with institutional policy and standards.  Test these devices for weaknesses in operating systems, applications, and encryption that would indicate that institutional procedures are not being followed properly. Remediate any issues uncovered.
Info: Vulnerabilities and Vulnerability Scanning Industry
  Info: Vulnerabilities and Vulnerability Scanning Industry
  Info: Security Self-Assessment Guide for Information Technology Systems Industry
  Tool: Nessus Vendor
7.4 Routinely monitor log files of critical computing resources. Seek out anomolous behavior. Flag changes to privileges so they can be spot-checked in mini-audits. Flag configuration changes for possible match-up to any change control process in place. Such monitoring can largely be automated. Tool: Swatch
  Tool: AWStats
  Tool: Splunk (free version)
7.5 Routinely audit access privileges Info: InCommon Identity Assurance Higher Education
  Info: Statement on Auditing Standards (SAS) No. 70
7.6 Review procurement procedures and contract language to ensure that they protect data. Contract language is covered in Step 3.2, but it is vital to periodically check that these contracts are being consistently applied across a variety of procurement situations.
7.7 Implement system development methodologies that prevent new data handling problems from being introduced into the environment Info: Security Considerations in the Information System Development Life Cycle Industry
7.8 Implement incident response policies and procedures. Even after implementing this entire blueprint, if you hold confidential data, it will be at risk, albeit at a much lower level of risk. It is wise to have procedures in place should any of this data be exposed to unauthorized parties before such a breach occurs, as the environment when a potential breach is discovered is fast-moving and dynamic, making it difficult to follow proper procedures if they are not already in place. Tool: Data Incident Notification Toolkit Higher Education
  Info: Computer Security Incident Handling Guide Industry

Top of page

Questions or comments? Contact us.

Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

confidential confidential Delete
sensitive sensitive Delete
personally personally Delete
identifiable identifiable Delete
data data Delete
pii pii Delete
handling handling Delete
educause educause Delete
heisc heisc Delete
Enter labels to add to this page:
Please wait 
Looking for a label? Just start typing.