Security & Risk Management

What is NIST and Why Is It Critical to Cybersecurity?

Organizations of all kinds are increasingly subject to data theft and loss, whether it’s customer information, intellectual property, or confidential files from the company. The U.S. federal government and its private contractors have long relied on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop standards and guidance for information protection.
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What is NIST and Why Is It Critical to Cybersecurity?

Organizations of all kinds are increasingly subject to data theft and loss, whether it’s customer information, intellectual property, or confidential files from the company. 

The U.S. federal government and its private contractors have long relied on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop standards and guidance for information protection.

One of the most important is the NIST CSF (Cybersecurity Framework), which helps provide structure and context to cybersecurity. Private sector organizations should be motivated to implement NIST CSF not only to improve their cybersecurity but also to reduce their potential risk of legal liability.

Although NIST has been active for some time, the CSF emerged from the 2014 Cybersecurity Enhancement Act, approved in December of that year. Since its inception, NIST CSF has helped all types of companies, regardless of size and industry, face cyber threats with a flexible and risk-based approach. 

Its benefits to a company’s cybersecurity efforts are becoming increasingly apparent. Now that you have been introduced to NIST CSF, learn about its core functions and how best to implement them in your organization.

What Does NIST Mean?

NIST stands for National Institute of Standards and Technology in English. It is a non-regulatory government agency created to drive innovation and promote industrial competitiveness in the areas of science, engineering, and technology.

The main function of NIST is to create best practices (also known as standards) for organizations and government agencies to follow. These security standards are developed to improve the security posture of government agencies and private companies dealing with government data.

They are also known for the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF), which is a set of guidelines and best practices designed to help organizations improve their cybersecurity strategies. 

First launched in 2014, the framework aims to standardize cybersecurity practices so that organizations can adopt a uniform approach to protecting against data breaches and other forms of cyberattacks. Gartner estimates that half of U.S. organizations have been NIST-compliant since 2020.

What is NIST Compliance?

NIST compliance is the process of complying with one or more NIST publications. These standards are set to ensure that cybersecurity efforts are uniform across government agencies or companies working with the federal government.

Companies that provide products and services to the U.S. federal government need to meet certain security mandates established by NIST. More specifically, Special Publication NIST 800-53 and Special Publication NIST 800-171 are two common mandates that companies working in the U.S. federal supply chain may need to comply with.

The first draft of Special Publication NIST 800-171 “Protecting Controlled Unclassified Information in Non-Federal Information Systems and Organizations” was created in May 2015.

This original document was intended to guide non-Federal organizations seeking to protect sensitive non-classified federal information stored in their own information systems and environments. It clarified its role in data breach incidents and guided the types of data to be protected and the types of protections to be applied.

The most recent version of this document is NIST SP 800-171 Rev2, which was last updated in February 2020.

NIST compliance facilitates compliance with other security frameworks, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOx) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

By complying with NIST best practices, you ensure that the systems, data, and networks of your organization and your customers are protected from cybersecurity attacks. This helps you save significant time and avoid expenses you may have in the future due to these attacks. 

To Whom is NIST Compliance Intended?

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF), designed for private sector companies, aims to ensure that critical IT infrastructure is secure. The NIST framework is intended to provide guidance but is not compliance-focused. The objective is to encourage organizations to prioritize the handling of cybersecurity risks, similar to financial, industrial, personal, and operational security risks.

Another purpose of the framework is to insert cybersecurity risk considerations into day-to-day discussions that take place in organizations across the country.

NIST CSF was developed to help a company that needs to protect the infrastructure it considers critical. The framework can be used to increase security in the following ways:

  • Determine the current levels of cybersecurity measures implemented by creating a profile (we will talk more about this below)
  • Identify potential new cybersecurity standards and policies
  • Communicate new requirements
  • Create a new program and cybersecurity requirements

Any company doing business with the United States government must comply with NIST. This includes U.S. government agencies, as well as companies and individuals that the government can hire to do project work. Moreover, anyone who may do business with the government in the future must also comply. 

Sometimes, NIST compliance can even be included in the contract you sign with a government agency. It is important to carefully read all agreements to see if NIST compliance is a requirement. In addition, a subcontractor hired by a company that performs work for the government must also make sure it complies with NIST. 

How Does the NIST CSF Framework Work?

NIST CSF is designed to be a risk-based approach to cybersecurity, making it extremely flexible. From energy and finance critical infrastructure companies to small and medium-sized enterprises, the NIST framework is easily adopted due to its voluntary nature, which makes it easily customizable to the unique needs of your business when it comes to cybersecurity. 

Core functions, implementation tiers, and profiles provide companies with the guidance they need to create a global standard cybersecurity posture. Find out a little more about these structures below.

  • Core Functions: It is a set of cybersecurity activities, desired outcomes, and applicable benchmarks that are common across critical infrastructure sectors. It consists of five simultaneous and continuous functions: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. Below we will see the details of each of these functions.
  • Implementation Tiers: They describe the degree to which an organization’s cybersecurity risk management practices feature the characteristics defined in the profile, in a range from Partial (Tier 1) to Adaptive (Tier 4).
  • Profile: A framework profile represents the categories and subcategories of core functions prioritized by an organization based on business needs and can be used to measure the organization’s progress toward the target profile.

NIST CSF is designed so that all stakeholders, whether technical or on the commercial side, can understand the benefits of the standard. 

Because the framework adopts a risk management approach that is well-aligned with your organization’s objectives, it is not only easy for technical personnel to see the benefits of improving company security, but also executives. 

Adopting NIST results in improved communication and easier decision-making across your organization, and easier justification and allocation of budgets for security efforts.

Find out more details about each part of the NIST CSF framework and the possibilities of implementation in your company below.

NIST CFC Pillars: The Core Functions

The framework relies on a set of cybersecurity activities, desired outcomes, and relevant, common benchmarks in critical infrastructure sectors. 

The framework’s core functions include industry standards, guidelines, and practices that enable communication of cybersecurity activities and outcomes across the company, from the executive level to the implementation/operations level. 

The NIST CSF framework consists of 5 simultaneous and continuous functions.

Identification

The first function of the framework defines the Identification function as a priority to the need to “develop organizational understanding to manage cybersecurity risk for systems, assets, data, and resources.” 

The focus is on the business and how it relates to cybersecurity risks, primarily taking the resources available into account. The main activities associated with this function, for example, are:

  • Asset Management
  • Business Environment
  • Governance
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Management Strategy

The Identification function lays the foundation for actions related to cybersecurity that your organization will take in the future. Establishing what exists, what risks are associated with these environments, and how this relates in context to your business goals is crucial to success.

Successful implementation of the Identification function leads organizations to have a firm understanding of all assets and environments beyond the company, defining current and desired states of control to protect these assets, and a plan to move from current to desired security states. 

The result is a clearly defined state of an organization’s cybersecurity posture articulated with technical and commercial stakeholders.

Protection

Overall, NIST states that the framework works to help an organization express its cybersecurity risk management by organizing information, sharing sensitive information, enabling cybersecurity risk management decisions, addressing threats, and improving by learning from previous activities.

The framework’s Protection function is essential because its purpose is to develop and implement appropriate protections to ensure the delivery of critical infrastructure services. The Protection function supports the ability to limit or contain the impact of a potential cybersecurity event. 

According to NIST, examples of outcome categories within this function include identity management and access control, awareness and training, data security, information security protection processes and procedures, maintenance, and protection technology.

Where Identification primarily focuses on baseline and monitoring, Protection is when the framework begins to become more proactive. The Protection function covers categories such as access control and awareness and training. 

The application of these categories and the Protection function as a whole is seen in two- and multi-factor authentication practices to control access to assets and environments and employee training to reduce the risk of accidents and social engineering violations.

With violations becoming increasingly common, the use of appropriate protocols and policies to reduce the risk of a violation is becoming especially crucial. The framework’s Protection function works as a guide and dictates the results necessary to achieve this goal.

Detection

The Detection function requires the development and implementation of appropriate activities to recognize the occurrence of a cybersecurity event

The Detection function enables the timely discovery of cybersecurity events. Examples of outcome categories within this function include:

  • Anomalies and Events: The program will detect unusual activities as soon as possible, and the impact of events is understood by everyone on your team and beyond. Prepare your team to have the knowledge to collect and analyze data from multiple points to detect a cybersecurity event.
  • Continuous Security Monitoring: Monitoring information systems and environments at specified intervals to identify cyber events. Make your team able to monitor your assets 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.
  • Detection Processes: Detection procedures and processes are implemented and tested to ensure broad and timely awareness of cyber events. Try to learn about a violation as soon as possible and follow disclosure requirements as needed. Your program should be able to detect inadequate access to your data as soon as possible.

The framework’s Detection function is a critical step for a robust cyber program. The faster a cyber event is detected, the faster the repercussions can be mitigated.

The detection of a violation or event can mean life or death for your company, making the framework’s Detection function essential for the security and success of the business. Following these best practices and implementing these solutions will help you scale your program and mitigate cybersecurity risk.

Response

NIST defines the Response function as “developing and implementing appropriate activities to act upon a detected cybersecurity incident.”

The Response function supports the ability to contain the impact of a possible cybersecurity incident. Examples of outcome categories within this function include response planning, communications, analysis, mitigation, and improvements.

The Response function employs response planning, analysis, and mitigation activities to ensure the cybersecurity program is in a state of continuous improvement.

Starting with an incident response plan is a vital first step in adopting the Response function. It ensures compliance with the required reporting requirements encrypted and securely transmitted to a given location and industry. 

An excellent next step is a mitigation plan. What steps will your team take to remedy the risks identified for your program and organization?

Recovery

The NIST CFC then identifies the main underlying categories and subcategories for each function and combines them with examples of informative benchmarks, such as existing standards, guidelines, and practices for each subcategory.

According to NIST, Recovery is defined as the need to “develop and implement appropriate activities to maintain resilience plans and restore any resources or services impaired due to a cybersecurity event.”

The Recovery function supports timely recovery from normal operations to reduce the impact of a cybersecurity event. Examples of results for this framework’s function include:

  • Recovery Planning: Recovery procedures are tested, performed, and maintained so that your program can mitigate the effects of an event sooner or later.
  • Improvements: Recovery planning and processes are improved when events happen, areas for improvement are identified and solutions are put together.
  • Communication: Coordinate internally and externally for greater organization, complete planning, and execution.

The Recovery function is essential not only in the eyes of the business and security team but also to customers and the market. Fast recovery puts companies in much better positions internally and externally than otherwise. 

Aligning a recovery plan will help ensure that if a breach occurs, the company can stay on track to achieve the necessary goals and objectives and draw important lessons learned.

These critical components of any successful cybersecurity program help organizations manage their digital space with appropriate security measures. 

NIST CFC pillars form the backbone of a strong cybersecurity framework and can provide businesses with actionable items to improve their cybersecurity maturity.

NIST CFC Pillars: Implementation Tiers

The NIST CFC framework implementation tiers provide context on how an organization views cybersecurity risk and the processes in place to manage that risk. The tiers reflect a progression of the informal reactive response to approaches that are agile and highly risky. 

During the tier selection process, an organization should consider its current risk management practices, threat environment, legal and regulatory requirements, business objectives and mission, and organizational constraints such as available budgets. The four implementation tiers are:

Tier 1: Partial

  • Risk Management Process: Not formalized and risk is managed in a non-procedural and sometimes reactive manner.
  • Integrated Risk Management Program: Limited awareness of cybersecurity risk at the organizational level.
  • External Participation: The organization does not understand its role in the larger ecosystem about its dependencies or dependents.

Tier 2: Risk Informed

  • Risk Management Process: Risk management practices are approved by management, but cannot be established as an organizational policy.
  • Integrated Risk Management Program: There is an awareness of cybersecurity risk at the organizational level, but a broad approach to managing this risk has not been established by the organization.
  • External Participation: Generally, the organization understands its role in the larger ecosystem about its dependencies or dependents, but not both.

Tier 3: Repeatable

  • Risk Management Process: The organization’s risk management practices are formally approved and expressed as a policy.
  • Integrated Risk Management Program: There is an organization-wide approach to managing cybersecurity risks.
  • External Participation: The organization understands its role, dependencies, and dependents in the larger ecosystem and can contribute to a broader understanding of community risks.

 

Tier 4: Adaptive

  • Risk Management Process: The organization adapts its cybersecurity practices based on past and current cybersecurity activities, including lessons learned and predictive indicators.
  • Integrated Risk Management Program: There is an organization-wide approach to managing cybersecurity risks that uses informed risk policies, processes, and procedures to address potential cybersecurity events.
  • External Participation: The organization understands its role, dependencies, and dependents in the larger ecosystem and contributes to a broader understanding of community risks.

NIST CFC Pillars: The Framework Profiles

The framework profiles describe the alignment of the framework core with the organization’s requirements, risk tolerance, and resources. This allows a roadmap to be established to reduce cybersecurity risk that reflects business goals and legal requirements, industry best practices, and risk management priorities. 

The framework profiles can be described in two main states: current profile and target profile.

Current profile

An organization’s current profile indicates the cybersecurity results that are currently being achieved. This describes the current situation of an organization from the risk management point of view. 

The reassessment should occur periodically as changes and improvements are implemented to verify that cybersecurity requirements are still being met. It is important to note when results are partially achieved, as this helps support subsequent steps in the effort to match the current profile with the target profile.

Target Profile

The target profile is an indication of the results needed to achieve the desired cybersecurity risk management goals. A comparison of the current profile with the target profile may reveal gaps to be addressed to meet cybersecurity risk management objectives. 

As mentioned, organizations can monitor progress in achieving these goals through iterative updates of the current profile. These goals outlined in the target profile should be incorporated when planning additional components and adding dependencies to projects within the organization; they can also work as a checklist to help verify that all cybersecurity features have been implemented. 

A target profile can serve as a powerful communication tool for transmitting cybersecurity risk management requirements to an external service provider, for example.

What Are the Benefits of NIST Compliance?

The basic premise of the framework is to help organizations better manage and reduce cybersecurity risk based on established industry standards and best practices. 

Here are some benefits that complying with NIST CSF can bring to your business.

Creates an iterative, long-term approach to your organization’s cybersecurity

Instead of a culture of one-off audits, NIST CSF defines a cybersecurity posture that is more adaptable and responsive to evolving threats. If you implement the globally accepted framework, the way your organization handles cybersecurity is transformed into a state of continuous compliance, which results in a stronger approach to protecting your company’s information and assets.

Helps your organization achieve a global standard of cybersecurity

NIST CSF is built on the experience of various information security professionals around the world. It is recognized worldwide as an industry best practice and the most detailed set of controls of any framework, allowing your organization to cover any blind spots you may have missed when addressing your cybersecurity.

Enables faster business growth and is a valuable selling point for suppliers and sellers

Whether or not your organization has adopted NIST SFC can be an immediate deciding factor when it comes to relationships with customers, suppliers, and providers. Cybersecurity is rapidly becoming an important selling point, so implementing a standard like NIST helps your organization grow faster through effective supply chain relationships.

Supports risk management activities

NIST SFC can help guide your organization through key decision points on risk management activities. The framework enables end-to-end risk management communications across your organization. Using the cybersecurity framework will help your organization identify and assess risks and determine which activities are most important to providing critical services and prioritize spending to maximize the impact of your investment.

Improves communication between the technical and financial leaders of your business

With NIST CSF, your technical and financial teams will now be speaking the same language. This NIST cybersecurity framework enables an integrated risk management approach to cybersecurity management aligned with business objectives. This forces many departments to work together to ensure that risk management goals are set and met. When all departments understand the risks and work together, you have an organization focused on achieving your goals.

The flexibility of the framework makes it a good path for any organization

Although NIST designed the framework with the critical infrastructure industry in mind, the cybersecurity framework is flexible enough to be used by companies of any size in any industry. Because the Framework is results-oriented and does not determine how an organization should achieve these results, it enables scalability. 

Either a small organization with a low cybersecurity budget or a large corporation with a large budget can easily approach the outcome. It is this flexibility that allows the framework to be used by organizations that are just beginning to establish a cybersecurity program while adding value to organizations with mature programs.

Privileged Access Management, Standards, and Frameworks

With digital transformation and increased competition, it is increasingly important for organizations to achieve progressive and better results using fewer resources. In this sense, business requirements have been changing over the past few years from a new panorama of new threats and regulations, as well as changes in relationships between companies, customers, and partners.

Given this background, several rules and frameworks involve everything from technical aspects to business issues. Some examples include developing corporate governance, ensuring the protection of customer payment data, improving attitude, and mitigating cybersecurity risks within an organization.

Cybersecurity standards and frameworks have proven to be powerful tools for organizations. These guidelines have been developed to offer a systematic approach to protecting employees’, clients’, and partners’ data. 

To summarize, these standards introduce models to allow organizations to understand their security approach and know how to improve it. And as they have been tested in different situations and industries, one can vouch for their confidence and effectiveness.

Some of the key cybersecurity risk management frameworks, regulations, and standards are the ISO 27000 standards, the NIST’s Cybersecurity Framework (and, more recently, the Privacy Framework), the PCI DSS standard, and the Center for Internet Security’s (CIS) Critical Security Controls. 

To ensure compliance with these rules and regulations, organizations can deploy security solutions, such as Privileged Access Management or PAM tools.

Although the controls of these frameworks address various aspects of Information Security, some of them are influenced by or effectively require the concepts associated with PAM.

Why Should You Implement a PAM Solution in Your Company?

Privileged Access Management (PAM) refers to a set of technologies and practices that monitor and manage privileged access (also called administrative access) to critical systems. 

Through a privileged credential, a user can, for example, modify system settings and user accounts, and access critical data. Thus, given their level of access and control over the systems that manage information or processes, a privileged user exposes the organization to potential business risks. 

Whether through an attack, privilege abuse, or human error, a privileged user can be an attack vector for a potential security incident.

Considering the NIST CSF’s critical security controls for effective cyber defense, one of the controls introduced by the framework directly addresses aspects of PAM. Thus, the sub-controls addressed by the core control are associated with the controlled use of administrative privileges, considering the management of access through privileged accounts.

Using any of these cybersecurity frameworks is not an easy task for any organization, regardless of its size, industry, or experience. In this context, a PAM solution can be considered an important tool for speeding up the implementation of cybersecurity infrastructure and enabling the implementation of functions related to identity and access control. 

Also, a PAM solution allows you to control privileged credentials, bringing compliance to the organization in terms of cybersecurity. Therefore, those who discover their added value and can implement the associated controls can reduce cybersecurity risks, as well as ensure business continuity.

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