Creating and enforcing acceptable use policies

If you haven't developed an Acceptable Use Policy for your organization's computers and network, you're leaving your company open to security breaches, possible regulatory fines and lawsuits – both from those impacted by your users' actions and by users who are disciplined for inappropriate network use.

Today organizations of all sizes have to worry about what their employees are doing with company computer equipment and Internet connections. It's no longer just a matter of wasted time that should be spent on job duties or the cost of network bandwidth. In the growing jungle of government regulations, civil lawsuits, and criminal charges for inappropriate online behavior, it's essential that companies cover their assets by establishing and enforcing clear rules governing computer and network usage. Policies are also needed to protect the security of the network and prevent users from introducing viruses or opening their systems and the entire network to attacks.

That's the reason you need an acceptable use policy (AUP) from the very beginning. It's not enough to just tell your employees not to use their work machines for non-work-related activities. You need to create and distribute a written policy and have users sign off that they've received and read it. The trick is to design a policy that's effective, fair, and won't be outdated as your organization grows.

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Elements of a good acceptable use policy

An AUP sets out a formal set of rules that limit the ways in which network and computer equipment can be used. It should contain explicit statements defining procedural requirements and the responsibilities of users.

Some tips for creating your policy include the following:

  • Prohibited activities should be clearly spelled out. Phrases such as "Inappropriate use is prohibited" are vague and ambiguous. You must define what constitutes inappropriate use. Of course, you probably won't be able to think of every single individual action that would be considered "inappropriate," but the most common misuses should be specifically named. For example, you can prohibit sending e-mail containing sexually explicit or pornographic text or images, prohibit using the Web browser to visit online gambling sites, and so forth.
  • Blanket statements can address activities you don't specifically name. For example, you can prohibit engaging in any Internet activity that violates any local, state or federal law, or from sending any e-mail, instant messages, documents, or other communications that disclose any confidential information about the company, its clients, or partners.
  • To be effective and enforceable, the policy must be supported by management and there must be a designated person who has the responsibility for overseeing development and updating of the policy. This is often the Chief Information Officer (CIO).

The policies should be reviewed by the company attorney. Although it may be necessary to include some legal jargon in the policy document, each policy should also include a summary that "dumbs down" any difficult language into layman's terms that the average user can be expected to understand.

Policy content

Some things normally included in UAPs include:

  • The company's privacy policy regarding network users and a statement that all communications stored on or sent to or from company computers or the company network may be monitored by the company for security purposes.
  • Policy regarding proprietary company information.
  • Policy regarding sharing of passwords and account information: prohibiting users from logging onto any account other than their own, or allowing anyone else to log on with their credentials or use their systems when they are logged on.
  • Security policies such as requirements to lock down workstations when away from the desk; policies regarding email attachments; prohibiting users from disabling or circumventing security features and mechanisms on the computers and network; prohibiting unauthorized installation of software; prohibiting unauthorized copying of company information to removable media, or sending it outside the network.
  • Policies regarding use of encryption.
  • Policies regarding posting to newsgroups and discussion boards, requirements for disclaimers stating that personal opinions of the sender do not represent the company's position.
  • Policies regarding attaching personally owned laptops, handheld computers, and smart phones to the company network. Prohibitions on attaching unauthorized modems, wireless access points, and other devices to the company network.
  • Definitions of inappropriate use and behavior, such as pornography, copyright violations, and illegal file sharing; sending harassing or threatening content; sending spam; engaging in phishing and other fraudulent activities; hacking into another system within or outside the network; distributing malicious code, accessing data on the network without permission; intercepting data on the network intended for others (using "sniffers" or otherwise); using spoofing techniques to disguise email addresses or other network activity.

These are examples of topics commonly addressed by AUPs. It is not complete, and will differ from company to company.

Consequences and enforcement

The consequences for violation of the policies should be defined in the policy itself. Since violations themselves vary in severity, consequences should also vary depending on the specific violation and the violator's intent. For instance, consequences for sending a short personal e-mail to a friend with innocuous content would not be the same as consequences for using the company network to conduct a part-time (legal) business, which in turn would not be the same as those for downloading child pornography to the company's computers.

In fact, the first instance might or might not be defined as a violation of policy at all. Some companies permit limited personal use of company e-mail accounts, just as they permit limited personal use of company phones. Which brings us to another issue: you should only set policies that you intend to enforce.

If you create an overly restrictive policy "just in case" you might need to use it against someone, and then proceed to ignore it, users who are subsequently disciplined for violating that or other policies could argue that you had established a conflicting unwritten policy by knowingly permitting violation of policies in the past, and/or that you enforce policies in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner. The disciplined employee might even be able to successfully sue you on those grounds.

Thus, enforcement of policies should be applied equally. That doesn't mean some people can't be exempted from certain policies, but if that's the case, the exemptions should be spelled out in the policy itself. For instance, your policy might prohibit sending e-mail outside the company that discusses the company's financial information, with a clause stating that the policy doesn't apply to the company financial officer, CEO, and others who may have a legitimate business need to do so.

Structuring policies for scalability

Your policies should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. As the company grows, management philosophies change and technology evolves, some policies will need to be modified.

To make your policy document more scalable, consider structuring it so that each policy prohibition is a separate sub-document, with related sub-documents gathered into chapters. Each sub-document would be identified by its chapter and section number. Policies can then be kept in ring binders. When changes are necessary, only the section has to be removed and replaced.