As a gold standard for cybersecurity in the United States and the foundation for many new standards and regulations starting to emerge today, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework is more crucial than ever. Developed as a public and private sector collaboration led by NIST under a presidential executive order to improve critical infrastructure cybersecurity, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework core functions soon scaled beyond high-level energy and critical infrastructure - its outcomes-based approach allowed it to apply to almost any sector and any business size. This framework profile comprises three main pillars: the Framework Core, Profiles, and Implementation Tiers. Here, we’ll be diving into the Framework Core and the five core functions: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover.
NIST defines the framework core on its official website as a set of cybersecurity activities, desired outcomes, and applicable informative references common across critical infrastructure sectors. The Core presents industry standards, guidelines, and practices in a manner that allows for communication of cybersecurity activities and mission objectives across the organization from the executive level to the implementation/operations at a high level. The NIST CSF categories, or core functions, contribute to the building of a strong business foundation and help identify cybersecurity legal and regulatory requirements.
What are the Five Elements of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework?
NIST CSF: Identify
The first function of the framework, NIST defines the Identify function as calling on the need to "develop the organizational understanding to manage cybersecurity risk to systems, assets, data, and capabilities.” The focus is on the business and how it relates to cybersecurity risk, especially taking into account the resources at hand. The outcome Categories associated with this function, for example, are:
- Asset Management
- Business Environment
- Risk Assessment
- Risk Management Strategy
The NIST Identify function lays the groundwork for cybersecurity-related actions that your organization will take moving forward. Determining what exists, what risks are associated with those environments, and how it relates in context with your business goals is crucial to success with the Framework.
Successful implementation of the Identify function leads organizations to have a firm grasp on all assets and environments apart of the enterprise, defining the current and desired states of controls to protect those assets, and a plan to go from current to desired states of security. The result is a clearly defined state of an organization’s cybersecurity posture articulated to both technical and business-side stakeholders.
NIST CSF: Protect
Overall, NIST states that the Framework key functions to aid an organization in expressing 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 Protect function of the Framework Core is essential because its purpose is to develop and implement appropriate safeguards to ensure critical infrastructure services delivery. The Protect 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 Protective Technology.
Where Identify focuses primarily on baselining and monitoring, Protect is when the Framework starts to become more proactive. The Protect function covers categories such as access control and awareness and training. The manifestation of these categories and the Protect 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 socially engineered breaches.
With breaches becoming increasingly common, employing proper protocols and policies to reduce a breach’s risk is becoming especially crucial. The framework’s Protect function acts as the guide and dictates the necessary outcomes to achieve that goal.
NIST CSF: Detect
The Detect function requires the development and implementation of the appropriate activities to recognize the occurrence of a cybersecurity event.
"The Detect function enables the timely discovery of cybersecurity events. Examples of outcome Categories within this Function include Anomalies and Events; Security Continuous Monitoring; and Detection Processes."
- Anomalies & Events: The program will detect unusual activity as soon as possible, and the impact of events is understood by everyone on your team and beyond.
- Security & Continuous Monitoring: The monitoring information systems and environments at specified intervals to identify cyber events.
- Detection Processes: Procedures and processes for detection are put in place and tested to ensure timely and broad awareness of cyber events.
The Detect function of the Framework Core is a critical step to a robust cyber program - the faster a cyber event is detected, the faster the repercussions can be mitigated.
Examples of how to accomplish steps towards a specific Detect function:
- Anomalies & Events: Prepare your team to have the knowledge to collect and analyze data from multiple points to detect a cybersecurity event.
- Security & Continuous Monitoring: Make your team able to monitor your assets 24/7 or consider involving an MSS to supplement.
- Detection Processes: Attempt to know about a breach as soon as possible and follow disclosure requirements as needed. Your program should be able to detect inappropriate access to your data as quickly as possible.
Detecting a breach or event can be life or death for your business, making the Detect function of the Cybersecurity Framework critical to both security and business success. Following these standards and best practices and implementing these solutions will help you scale your program and mitigate cybersecurity risk.
NIST CSF: Respond
NIST defines the Respond function as "Develop and implement appropriate activities to take action regarding a detected cybersecurity incident.”
"The Respond Function supports the ability to contain the impact of a potential cybersecurity incident. Examples of outcome Categories within this Function include Response Planning, Communications, Analysis, Mitigation, and Improvements.".
The Respond function employs response planning, analysis, and mitigation activities to ensure that the cybersecurity program is in a state of continuous improvement.
Starting with an incident response plan is a vital first step to adopting the Respond function - ensuring compliance with necessary reporting requirements encrypted and transmitted securely for a given location and industry. An excellent next step is a mitigation plan - what are the steps your team will take to remediate identified risks to your program and organization?
NIST CSF: Recover
The Framework Core then identifies underlying key Categories and Subcategories for each Function and matches them with example Informative References such as existing standards, guidelines, and practices for each Subcategory (NIST).
According to the NIST framework, Recover is defined as the need to "develop and implement the appropriate activities to maintain plans for resilience and restore any impaired capabilities or services due to a cybersecurity event.
The Recover Function supports timely recovery to normal operations to reduce the impact of a cybersecurity event. Examples of outcomes for this Framework Core function include Recovery Planning, Improvements, and Communications.
Recover includes these areas:
- Recovery Planning: Recovery procedures are tested, executed, and maintained so that your program can mitigate the effects of an event sooner rather than later
- Improvement: Recovery planning and processes are improved when events happen, and areas for improvement are identified and solutions put together
- Communication: Coordinate internally and externally for greater organization, thorough planning, and execution
The Recover function is essential not only in the eyes of the business and security team but also in that of customers and the market. Swift recovery with grace and tactfulness puts businesses in much better positions internally and externally than otherwise. Aligning a recovery plan will help ensure that, if a breach does occur, the company will be able to stay on track to achieve the necessary goals and objectives and distill important lessons learned.
Implementing the NIST Framework Core
Cybersecurity based on the NIST Cybersecurity Framework can be a challenge. Regardless of how challenging it could be, it will be worthwhile, though. Given that the Framework is based on outcomes rather than specific controls, it allows organizations to build from a strong foundation and supplement to achieve compliance with new regulations as they emerge. The core functions: identify, protect, detect, respond and recover, aid organizations in their effort to spot, manage and counter cybersecurity events in a timely manner. The NIST CSF cybersecurity approach will help empower continuous compliance and support communication between technical and business-side stakeholders.
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