What is the NIST Cybersecurity Framework?

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In cybersecurity and compliance, terms like “framework” and “regulations” are often used interchangeably. As such, non-specialists might struggle to understand how different guidelines and regulatory bodies fit together to support cybersecurity. For example, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) provides several documents outlining guidelines and compliance requirements. However, in terms of larger frameworks, it provides two major examples: the Risk Management Framework (RMF) and the Cybersecurity Framework (CSF).

This article will cover the latter of these two, how they fit into government-sponsored cybersecurity concerns and what that means for your organization. 

 

What is the Cybersecurity Framework?

NIST publishes new and revised security documents yearly, each intended to inform organizations and cybersecurity specialists about the security controls and measures they should implement for compliance and security efforts. NIST also publishes documents on frameworks, or larger, more comprehensive looks at larger practices and approaches to cybersecurity and risk.

The Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) is the significant security and technology framework that NIST has released to help organizations think about their security more thoroughly. Rather than serving as a checklist for controls, technologies or systems they should implement, the CSF gives you an overview of what it means to approach cybersecurity as a practice. 

Broadly, the CSF categorizes cybersecurity into five core functions (literally called the “Framework Core”). These functions are:

  1. Identify: The ability to develop an organizational understanding of your infrastructure, systems and security risk. This includes understanding both technological and business contexts for approaching cybersecurity, planning policies and governance rules around cybersecurity and developing priorities around risk management, asset management and security strategies. 
  2. Protect: The meat of cybersecurity, the ability to implement safeguards and security measures is critical to CSF. This includes identifying and developing security outcomes based on implementations, executing training and continuing education for security measures, and continuously monitoring and maintaining those systems. As such, the CSF maps security controls onto NIST 800-53 controls.
  3. Detect: The capacity to proactively detect and mitigate security events before or as they occur. This function can include audit logging, anomaly detection, SIEM capabilities and continuous monitoring. 
  4. Respond: The capability to respond to breaches and threats as they occur, including response planning, organizational communication and event analysis and real-time mitigation. 
  5. Recover: The resources and expertise to recover from breaches after they’ve occurred. Recover includes steps like recovery planning, system improvements and optimization.

Within these functions, CSF includes several feature categories that make up the bulk of capabilities within these functions. These categories include:

  • Identify: Asset Management, Business Environment, Governance, Risk Assessment, Risk Management Strategy.
  • Protect: Access Control, Awareness and Training, Data Security, Information Protection Processes and Procedures, Maintenance, Protective Technology. 
  • Detect: Anomalies and Events, Security Continuous Monitoring, Detection Processes.
  • Respond: Response Planning, Communications, Analysis, Mitigation, Improvements.
  • Recover: Recovery Planning, Improvements, Communications. 

Outside of the actual core framework, NIST also defines Implementation Tiers that determine the degree that an organization is complying with CSF. These tiers include:

  1. Tier 1: Your organization has Partial implementation of CSF requirements. This tier doesn’t cover any formal risk management or external collaboration.  
  2. Tier 2: Your organization uses risk management to deploy a Risk-Informed implementation. There are no formal relationships or policies to work with third-party vendors.
  3. Tier 3: Your organization can Repeat steps as necessary to improve its cybersecurity systems. Cybersecurity is an organizational priority and the organization can work with external entities using risk-based approaches. 
  4. Tier 4: Your organization has streamlined security for an Adaptive implementation. Your organization can use lessons from security events to adapt to challenges, inform risk assessment and maintain continual working relationships with vendors and security providers. 

 

Why Should You Follow the Cybersecurity Framework?

cybersecurity frameworkNIST guidelines and regulations usually apply to a specific set of organizations, legally. This is why you’ll find NIST documents cited in federal and defense cybersecurity regulations and frameworks like FedRAMP, CMMC and the like. 

The CSF, however, is such a comprehensive approach to cyber hygiene and security that many organizations in and outside of government work look to it to guide them. This is for a few specific reasons:

  • Proper Orientation Towards Security: If your organization isn’t currently preparing for compliance requirements, at minimum, this framework provides a rock-solid approach to cybersecurity as a business and infrastructural priority. Furthermore, it breaks cybersecurity down into manageable categories that make sense from a top-down view. 
  • Deeper Understanding of Your Infrastructure: It’s possible that you don’t truly have a clear understanding of your digital systems. Cybersecurity is a complex and ongoing practice that calls for you to dig deep into your infrastructure and understand where potential vulnerabilities emerge from assets to systems to vendors and interoperability. 
  • Effective and Up-to-Date Security: NIST is dedicated to cybersecurity, and its frameworks and guiding documentation are typically accurate for modern security threats like state-sponsored actors and APTs. As such, following NIST, while a rigorous process, can also protect above and beyond other approaches to compliance. 
  • Driving Security with Risk Assessment: Risk is a major foundation of many NIST documents, including the RMF and CSF. CSF specifically grades implementation maturity on a tier system that includes capabilities for organization-wide risk assessment. Simply put, when risk management drives security, security is better for it. 

 

Security Compliance and Automated Audits with Continuum GRC

Compliance with CSF outside of non-federal systems isn’t mandatory, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t desirable. To demonstrate CSF compliance, just as with any other set of regulations, you must undergo audits to show how you’ve met the core features and capabilities for a given maturity level. 

Fortunately, these audits don’t have to take months of your time. Continuum GRC specializes in automating standard audit processes like CSF to strip out the inefficiencies and bottlenecks that make audits a nightmare. We transform audit processes that can take weeks or months and reduce them down to days through automation and SaaS tools. 

 

Are You Preparing for CSF Audits and Compliance?

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