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How to Use the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Version 1.0 of the NIST Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (CSF) celebrated its fourth birthday in February. The CSF is a “risk-based approach to managing cybersecurity risk… designed to complement existing business and cybersecurity operations.” I recently spoke with Matthew Barrett, NIST program manager for the CSF, and he provided me with a great deal of insight into using the framework.

NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and they have been involved in information security since the 1970s. On May 11, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13800 requiring all federal agencies to use the CSF, so if you conduct business with these entities, you are likely to hear a great deal more about it in the near future.

Current State of Cybersecurity

To begin the conversation, I asked Matthew what he thought about the current state of cybersecurity in business and government.

“I think there is a bit of an awakening going on to the true importance of just how foundational cybersecurity is,” he says. “It used to be that businesses were based on trust, and it is still the case. Increasingly, we’ve built out our technological infrastructure and more and more important over time is digital trust. I’m not sure whether all parties understood when they were implementing those technologies just how much that pendulum was going to swing from traditional trust models to the digital representations of those trust models. It’s not an overnight thing. There’s a cascade. I see a ripple that has started that hasn’t completed its way across the pond.”

The CSF in a Nutshell

If you have worked with other security standards or frameworks based on best practices or compliance approaches, the CSF provides a different viewpoint. It is not intended to be used as a standalone framework for developing an information security program. Rather, the CSF is designed to be paired with other frameworks or standards such as ISO/IEC 27000, COBIT 5, ANSI/ISA 62443, and NIST SP 800-53. It is also meant to be customized rather than being used as a process or activity checklist. The CSF has three components – the core, tiers and profiles.

Framework Core

The core of the framework has five functions – identify, protect, detect, respond and recover. These functions can be thought of as outcomes and aligned with them are 22 categories, 98 subcategories, 125 outcomes and 287 informative references (controls). The core, with all the informative references, is also available in Excel format which can make a handy template to add to your cybersecurity policy and control toolkit. According to Matthew, becoming comfortable with these five functions and the associated concepts at the leadership level tends to be the first stage of the adoption curve.

Tiers

Determining the organization’s tier is often the second step in adoption. The tiers are a useful tool and they “provide context on how an organization views cybersecurity risk and the processes in place to manage that risk.” There are four tiers: partial, risk-informed, repeatable and adaptive. Although the tiers don’t officially function as a maturity model, it is difficult for me not to see them as such.

However, Matthew explained the CSF’s position on maturity models: “We take exception to the way maturity models are applied where everyone has to get the highest mark on the maturity scale. That’s a great ambition. Rooted in the real world of things, we know that people have budgets, and those budgets are finite. More so than the way people tend to implement maturity models, we’re trying to highlight that you can pick and choose.”

“In my mind’s eye,” Matthew continued, “I picture a tier that isn’t even on the map. A tier zero. There’s a group of people who have managed to short-list high-impact items, and that’s about all they do relative to cybersecurity. For most people, that’s a temporary stopping point. Some people stop there and never get to dynamic, iterative cybersecurity risk management.”

Based on my own personal observations in the field, most SMBs, local governments and even many larger entities probably fall into Tier 1, and the only way to realistically get to Tier 2 is for management to become risk informed. However, getting executives and boards interested in information and cybersecurity is a formidable hurdle.

If an organization is truly a part of national critical infrastructure, remaining at Tier 2 would be troubling. Tier 3 is the first tier that defines organization-wide policy as a requirement, and I would personally see Tier 3 as the minimally acceptable target for most organizations, but this is my opinion rather than NIST’s or Matthew’s.

The tiers do provide a solid tool for organizational management to realistically evaluate their cybersecurity program and make rational, pragmatic, informed business decisions for program improvements going forward. Taking the leap from Tier 1 to Tier 2 is probably the most difficult step for most organizations. Once an organization gets to Tier 2, management has accountability and consequently more motivation to move forward.

Framework Profiles

NIST recommends that the framework be “customized in a way that maximizes business value,” and that customization is referred to as a “Profile.”

Matthew believes that all cybersecurity programs have three things to do and three things only:

  • Support mission/business objectives;
  • Fulfill cybersecurity requirements; and
  • Manage the vulnerability and threat associated with the technical environment.

The CSF provides a seven-step process for creating or improving a cybersecurity program using a continuous improvement loop:

  1. Prioritize and scope
  2. Orient
  3. Create a current profile
  4. Conduct a risk assessment
  5. Create a target profile
  6. Determine, analyze, and prioritize gaps
  7. Implement action plan

Profiles can be used as a tool to provide a basis for prioritization, budgeting and gap analysis.

Distributing Risk

One of my personal rants is on the disinterest so many executives show toward information security. I am always irritated when I see IT and security managers unilaterally commit an organization to cyber risk without obtaining informed consent from senior management. Often, these staff members make decisions that are far outside the scope of their roles and authority, and I think some executives prefer their own blissful state of ignorance. This leaves too much room for managers to claim “I never knew. Mistakes were made.” Like both ISO 27001 and COBIT 5, the CSF clearly defines management’s role in information security processes, so the CSF can be used as a powerful tool to engage boards and managers and hold them accountable for risk and budgeting decisions.

Matthew’s response to my rant was diplomatic. “I wonder whether the very nature of cybersecurity professionals makes us hold on to risk decisions rather than distribute them portfolio style. Smaller, less impactful risk decisions that are distributed. Distribute decisions, empower folks, and there is accountability around that empowerment, as well.” The CSF provides tools to distribute this risk.

Adoption and Implementation Trends

Results from a 2015 Gartner poll claim that about 30% of organizations have adopted the CSF and by 2020, 50% of organizations will have adopted it. I am skeptical of this assessment. Based on personal observation of the SMB and local government sectors, I would be astonished to find that even 25% of them have formal information security programs based on any framework or standard, let alone the CSF.

However, CSF has been used and customized by a diverse group of organizations such as the Italian government, the American Water Works Association, Intel, the Texas Department of Information Resources, and many others. Case studies can be found on the NIST CSF website.

Summary

It’s always good to look at information security programs from multiple viewpoints and the NIST CSF provides many excellent tools to do just that. NIST provides many additional materials on using the framework and they can be found on the CSF Homepage. The site also has an excellent 30-minute video presentation of Matthew providing an overview of the framework.