NIST cybersecurity framework (CSF) explained: what is NIST?

June 14, 2020  |  Carisa Brockman

NIST Cybersecurity Framework like the framework of a house

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) has only been around for four years and while developed for critical infrastructure, resulting from Executive Order 13636, it has been widely adopted across both private and public sectors and organizational sizes.  It is used inside of the US government, with 20 states using it (at last count). In addition, international organizations such as the Italian government, as well as private sector organizations including technology and education are using the framework.  

How does the NIST CSF benefit you?

If there’s one overarching theme of the NIST CSF when it comes to implementation, it’s that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.  Your risk profile, regulatory requirements, and financial and time constraints are unique, and the NIST CSF allows each organization to take these factors into account when implementing the CSF.  Moreover, implementation is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Without the restrictions of a formal compliance regulation to hold you back, you are free to implement the NIST framework in whatever way best fits your business needs.  Once you establish your unique, current profile and target profile, you can use the gaps between them as a tool to help prioritize improvement actions, based upon your budget and resources.  

The NIST CSF allows you to establish or build upon your foundation by identifying what needs to be protected, implementing safeguards, and detecting, responding to, and recovering from events and incidents.  In the simplest terms, NIST CSF defines outcomes based upon your unique threats and risks, as well as how you manage risks within your organization:

Know what you have and what you are facing

The NIST CSF calls on organizations to identify your data and the devices that store, transmit, and process information.  This means you must have an inventory of data, the devices, the applications, and the underlying infrastructure that process and store that data.  

Now that you know what data you have, you can identify threats and vulnerabilities in the environment.   This allows you to focus on protecting the ‘riskiest’ assets or what is most valuable to your organization. 

Put protection measures in place

Once you know what you need to protect, put measures in place to safeguard that data.  Taking the approach of "We have a firewall. Our data is protected" is long gone.  A layered approach to security is imperative protecting the connectivity layer, the application layer, and the device itself. 

Monitor, monitor, monitor

There are always changing circumstances, even with the most mature security programs.  That is why you must continually monitor the environment to detect events and potential incidents.  Not only must you monitor but you must improve your monitoring strategy and technologies that you use.  Detection must be efficient and effective - your organization can fall into one of these two buckets:  you have been breached and you know it or you have been breached and you don’t know it.  Continually optimize and tune the technologies and processes you have in place.  You cannot respond to what you can’t detect

Have a plan

Like we all know, it’s not if you get breached, it’s when.  Having a formal, tested response plan that is known by the organization, its stakeholders, and responders is crucial.  Like detection, response must be efficient and effective, so you can get back to business as soon as possible.   Also, like detection, the response plan must be continually improved. 

Recover and improve

Last, but not least, you must recover when your organization is disrupted by a breach.  While no organization wants to go through this, it is a way to look at where improvements can be made.  You can restore business and IT operations, but not until you take the time to investigate what went wrong and where security controls can be improved.  It allows for real-life lessons learned and reflection on how to improve the overall process.  Not only have you had the opportunity to mature - but next time, the response and recovery  process hopefully will be more efficient.

NIST also has a framework for incident response, in case recovery is necessary.

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