A Brief Look at the Tamil Nadu Cyber Security Policy 2020

This post is authored by Sharngan Aravindakshan.

The Tamil Nadu State Government (State Government) released the Tamil Nadu Cyber Security Policy 2020 (TNCS Policy) on September 19, 2020. It has been prepared by the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT), a public sector undertaking which operates under the aegis of the Information Technology Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu. This post takes a brief look at the TNCS Policy and its impact on India’s cybersecurity health.

The TNCS Policy is divided into five chapters –

  1. Outline of Cyber Security Policy;
  2. Security Architecture Framework – Tamil Nadu (SAF-TN);
  3. Best Practices – Governance, Risk Management and Compliance);
  4. Computer Emergency Response Team – Tamil Nadu (CERT-TN)); and
  5. Chapter-V (Cyber Crisis Management Plan).

Chapter-I, titled ‘Outline of Cyber Security Policy’, contains a preamble which highlights the need for the State Government to have a cyber security policy. Chapter-I also lays out the scope and applicability of the TNCS Policy, which is that it is applicable to ‘government departments and associated agencies’, and covers ‘Information Assets that may include Hardware, Applications and Services provided by these Agencies to other Government Departments, Industry or Citizens’. It also applies to ‘private agencies that are entrusted with State Government work’ (e.g. contractors, etc.), as well as ‘Central Infrastructure and Personnel’ who provide services to the State Government, which is likely a reference to Central Government agencies and personnel.

Notably, the TNCS Policy does not define ‘cyber security’, choosing to define ‘information security management’ (ISM)  instead. ISM is defined as involving the “planning, implementation and continuous Security controls and measures to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of Information Assets and its associated Information Systems”. Further, it states that Information security management also includes the following elements –

(a) Security Architecture Framework – SAF-TN;

(b) Best Practices for Governance, Risk Management and Compliance (GRC);

(c) Security Operations – SOC-TN;

(d) Incident Management – CERT-TN;

(e) Awareness Training and Capability Building;

(f) Situational awareness and information sharing.

The Information Technology Department, which is the nodal department for IT security in Tamil Nadu, has been assigned several duties with respect to cyber security including establishing and operating a ‘Cyber Security Architecture for Tamil Nadu’ (CSA-TN) as well as a Security Operations Centre (SOC-TN) and a state Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-TN). Its other duties include providing safe hosting for Servers, Applications and Data of various Departments /Agencies, advising on government procurement of IT and ITES, conducting training programmes on cyber security as well as formulating cyber security related policies for the State Government. Importantly, the TNCS Policy also mentions the formulation of a ‘recommended statutory framework for ensuring legal backing of the policies’. While prima facie it seems that cyber security will have more Central control than State, given the nature of these documents, any direct conflict is in any case unlikely.

Chapter-II gives a break-up of the Cyber Security Architecture of Tamil Nadu (CSA-TN). The CSA-TN’s constituent components are (a) Security Architecture Framework (SAF-TN), (b) Security Operations Centre (SOC-TN), (c) Cyber Crisis Management Plan (CCMP-TN) and (d) the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-TN). It clarifies that the “Architecture” defines the overall scope of authority of the cyber security-related agencies in Tamil Nadu, and also that while the policy will remain consistent, the Architecture will be dynamic to meet evolving technological challenges.

Chapter-III deals with best practices in governance, risk management and compliance, and broadly covers procurement policies, e-mail retention policies, social media policies and password policies for government departments and entities. With respect to procurement policies, it highlights certain objectives, such as building trusted relationships with vendors for improving end-to-end supply chain security visibility and encouraging entities to adopt guidelines for the procurement of trustworthy ICT products. However, the TNCS Policy also specifies that it is not meant to infringe or supersede existing policies such as procurement policies.

On the subject of e-mails, it emphasizes standardizing e-mail retention periods on account of the “need to save space on e-mail server(s)” and the “need to stay in line with Federal and Industry Record e-Keeping Regulations”. E-mail hygiene has proved to be essential especially for government organizations, given that the malware discovered in one of the nuclear facilities situated in Tamil Nadu (nuclear facilities) is believed to have entered the systems through a phishing email. However, surprisingly, other than e-mail retention, the TNCS Policy does not deal with e-mail safety practices. For instance, the Information Security Best Practices released by the Ministry of Home Affairs provides a more comprehensive list of good practices for email communications which includes specific sections on email communications and social engineering. These do not find mention in the TNCS Policy.

On social media policies, the TNCS Policy makes it clear that it prioritizes the ‘online reputation’ of its departments. However, Employees are advised against reacting online and pass on this information to the official spokesperson for an appropriate response. The TNCS Policy also counsels proper disclosure where personal information is collected through online social media platforms. Some best practices for safe passwords are also detailed, such as password age (no reuse of any of the last ten passwords, etc.) and length (passwords may be required to have a minimum number of characters, etc.).

Chapter-IV highlights the roles and responsibilities of the Computer Emergency Response Team – Tamil Nadu (CERT-TN). It specifies that CERT-TN is the nodal agency responsible for implementing the Security Architecture Framework, and for monitoring, detecting, assessing and responding to cyber vulnerabilities, cyber threats, incidents and also demonstrate cyber resilience. The policy also recognizes that CERT-TN is the statutory body that is authorized to issue directives, guidelines and advisories to government departments. It will also establish, operate and maintain the Information Security Management systems for the State Government.

CERT-TN will also coordinate with the National or State Computer Security Incident Response Teams (CSIRTs), government agencies, law enforcement agencies, and research labs. However, the “Coordination Centre” (CoC) is the designated nodal intermediary between the CERT-TN and governmental departments, CERT-In, State CERTs, etc. under the TNCS Policy.  The CoC will also be responsible for monitoring responses to service requests, delivery timelines and other performance related issues for the CERT-TN. The TNCS Policy makes it clear that Incident Handling and Response (IHR) will be as per Standard Operation Process Manuals (prepared by CERT-TN) that will be regularly reviewed and updated. ‘Criticality of the affected resource” will determine the priority of the incident.

Significantly, Chapter-IV also deals with vulnerability disclosures and states that vulnerabilities in e-Governance services will only be reported to CERT-TN or the respective department if they relate to e-Governance services offered by the Government of Tamil Nadu, and will not be publicly disclosed until a resolution is found. Other vulnerabilities may be disclosed to the respective vendors as well. An upper limit of 30 days is prescribed for resolving reported vulnerabilities. An ‘Incident Reporter’ reporting in good faith will not be penalized “provided he cooperates with the stakeholders in resolving the vulnerability and minimizing the impact”, and the Incident Reporter’s contribution in vulnerability discovery and resolution will be publicly credited by CERT-TN.

Chapter-IV also mandates regular security assessments of the State Government’s departmental assets, a help-desk for reporting cyber incidents, training and awareness both for CERT-TN, as well as by CERT-TN for other departments. Departments will also be graded by “maturity of Cyber Security Practices and Resilience Strength by the Key Performance Indicators”. However, these indicators are not specified in the policy itself.

Chapter-V is titled ‘Cyber Crisis Management Plan’ (CCMP), meant for  countering cyber-attacks and cyber terrorism. It envisages establishing a strategic framework and actions to prepare for, respond to, and begin to coordinate recovery from a Cyber-Incident, in the form of guidelines. ‘Detect’(ing) cyber-incidents is noticeably absent in this list of verbs, especially considering the first chapter which laid emphasis on the CERT-TN’s role in “Monitoring, Detecting, Assessing and Responding” to cyber vulnerabilities and incidents.

In conformity with CERT-In’s Cyber Crisis Management Plan for Countering Cyber Attacks and Cyber Terrorism which requires ministries / departments of State governments and Union Territories to draw up their own sectoral Cyber Crisis Management Plans in line with CERT-In’s plan, the TNCS Policy establishes the institutional architecture for implementing such plan.  The TNCS Policy contemplates a ‘Crisis Management Group’ (CMG) for each department, constituted by the Secretary to the Government (Chairman), Heads of all organizations under the administrative control of the department and the Chief Information Security Officers (CISO)/Deputy CISOs within the department. It will be the task of the CMG to prepare a contingency plan in consultation with CERT-In, as well as coordinate with CERT-In in crisis situations. The TNCS Policy also envisions a ‘Crisis Management Cell’ (CMC), under the supervision of the CMG. The CMC will be constituted by the head of the organization, CISO, head of HR/admin and the person In-charge of the IT Section. The TNCS Policy also requires each organization to nominate a CISO, preferably a senior officer with adequate IT experience. The CMC’s priority is to prepare a plan that would ensure continuity of operations and speedy restoration of an acceptable level of service.

Observations

The TNCS Policy is a positive step, with a whole-of-government approach towards increasing governmental cyber security at the State government level. However, its applicability is restricted to governmental departments and their suppliers / vendors / contractors. It does not, therefore, view cyber security as a broader ecosystem that requires each of its stakeholders including the public sector, private sector, NGOs, academia, etc. to play a role in the maintenance of its security and recognize their mutual interdependence as a key feature of this domain.

Given the interconnected nature of cyberspace, cyber security cannot be achieved only through securing governmental assets. As both the ITU National Cybersecurity Strategy Guide and the NATO CCDCOE Guidelines recommend, it requires the creation and active participation of an equally robust private industry, and other stakeholders. The TNCS Policy does not concern itself with the private sector at large, beyond private entities working under governmental contracts. It does not set up any initiatives, nor does it create any incentives for its development. It also does not identify any major or prevalent cyber threats, specify budget allocation for implementing the policy or establish R&D initiatives at the state level. No capacity building measures are provided for, beyond CERT-In’s training and awareness programs.

Approaching cyber security as an ecosystem, whose maintenance requires the participation and growth of several stakeholders including the private sector and civil society organisations, and then using a combination of regulation and incentives, may be the better way.

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