Content Security in SharePoint

Security is a polarising topic in the SharePoint community. It seems that everyone has a slight variation to what would be considered a best practice approach to implementing security across a site. There are so many conditions that determine which approach would be the best to use that it’s difficult to outline a best practice approach in the first place. This article, while filed under the Best Practices category, should only be considered my personal best practice approach to implementing a security model across a SharePoint 2007 or 2010 site.

If you have the time, there is a tonne of background reading to get through on the subject. Technet includes pages dedicated to both versions of SharePoint including Security and protection for Office SharePoint Server 2007  and Security and protection for SharePoint Server 2010. In this article i’m focussing on securing site content which is more specifically targeted in the Downloadable book: Security for Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Security planning for sites and content (SharePoint Server 2010).

I’ve always favoured a simplistic approach to site security. I used to advocate maintaining security groups in active directory, assigning those security groups to SharePoint groups and then assigning the relevant permissions to those groups across the site where necessary. The premise behind this methodology was to have one source of truth (AD) which was often maintained more religiously when staff joined or left the organisation. It was to allow a ‘set and forget’ approach to security within SharePoint – the security across the site would ideally never change, only the staff members assigned to the security groups. In reality, this approach is far too idealistic.

I’ve since realised that a lot of the time the security methodology will be largely influenced by the context of the organisation. Security groups may make a lot of sense throughout the organisation, but they may not map ideally to the SharePoint site. Some organisations may not and will not assign email addresses to security groups which renders them a tad ineffectual when it comes to workflow notifications. Some will refuse to create SharePoint-specific security groups in AD altogether. AD maintenance may be carried out solely by an over-worked IT department at a low priority, so getting a particular user added to a group may take longer than necessary. Or you may want to display the members of a given site using the Site Users web part and notice you end up with the security group listed rather than the individuals (there is a way around this in SP2010 however, check out Robi Voncina’s Display members of AD group in SharePoint 2010  solution on CodePlex). You get the idea – there’s not necessarily a one size fits all approach that will work in every scenario.

There are however a few golden rules which can be followed with a few potential caveats to implement a solid security methodology across a site.

1. Plan your security

One of the biggest issues with security in SharePoint is it seems to be done ad-hoc initially and grows wildly once the site is live. Security is granted on an as-needed basis with little fore-thought which generally results in a sprawling mess which is hard to track and maintain. Initially the security implementation should be well thought out and planned – identify the levels of access required, the users which will need those levels of access and identify the logical groupings of those users. When security needs to be modified, assess how the change fits in to the initial model and implement the most logical option to affect the change.

2. Document your security

This is particularly important in terms of tracking the customisations to security – preferably everything should be documented. It allows you to have an over-arching view of what is in place – determine what users have access to which portions of the site – something which is otherwise difficult to ascertain. At the very least where ever inheritance has been broken should be clearly identified, especially at more granular levels such as list or item level security (which preferably should be avoided).

3. Inherit permissions where ever possible

Aside from making the job far easier for point 2, it really keeps the security structure a lot more clear and clean to identify which users have certain levels of access across the site. Breaking inheritance at the sub-site level is not too much of a concern but at the list and item level should be avoided if possible. SharePoint helps out in this regard seeing inheriting permissions is the default.

4. Always use SharePoint groups when applying security across a site

You may not be able to only use AD security groups as identified above, but you should always use the SharePoint groups. Permissions should only be assigned to these groups rather than individuals – you are able to add both AD users and security groups to the SharePoint groups. It keeps everything a bit neater and consistent across the site rather than having some SharePoint groups, some security groups and some individuals. It’s worth preventing group-sprawl if possible – maintaining as few logically seperated groups as possible will ensure ease of maintenance.

5. Use AD security groups where appropriate

I still prefer using security groups to keep the SharePoint security structure clean and concise – but only when it makes sense to do so. Leverage the Domain Users group to provide global read access across a site for instance.

6. Use the principle of least-privilege

This is just good practice in all forms of IT. No user should ever have access to functionality that they don’t need. I’ve seen plenty of implementations which give site ownership to a wide range of users so they can edit a particular page of a sub-site, then wonder where a certain list item disappeared to.

The goal for any security implementation should be simplicity, understandability, maintenance efficiency and most importantly effectiveness in securing the content. The best way to get there is to plan and document the approach, for the time invested in the beginning will save a lot of headaches moving forward.

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2 Responses to Content Security in SharePoint

  1. No disagreement with any of the suggestions you present, but I wonder where/when you’d recommend encryption for SharePoint content? We’re seeing many use cases where encryption is required to either meet compliance requirements for regulated content, or where there’s an insider threat sensitivity due to the kind of content being stored (e.g. HR files, IP, financial documents).

    Charles Smith
    CipherPoint Software
    http://www.cipherpoint.com

    • Matt says:

      Hi Charles

      It’s not a requirement that i’ve encountered yet in my time as a SharePoint consultant but it looks like you’ve answered you’re own question 😉 Compliance would have been the first thing that came to mind for me. Content encyption is not a native feature obviously so you would need to rely on a product such as your own or (in the spirit of impartiallity) Cryptzone’s to do the trick.

      It’s good to know these products exist in the event the requirement ever does arise, thanks for your post.

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