Few adopt NIST cybersecurity guidelines, but that could change

High cost, no mandate keep numbers low, but small businesses and government contractors most likely to use framework

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A new sur­vey shows that most IT pro­fes­sion­als believe the fed­er­al government’s NIST Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty Frame­work is “an indus­try best prac­tice,” yet, to date, few­er than one-third have adopt­ed it.

The sur­vey of more than 300 IT and secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­als at orga­ni­za­tions in var­i­ous indus­tries was con­duct­ed by Mary­land-based cyber­se­cu­ri­ty com­pa­ny Ten­able Net­work Secu­ri­ty.

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Only 29 per­cent of respon­dents said their orga­ni­za­tions have adopt­ed the framework—guidance estab­lished two years ago by the Nation­al Insti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­nol­o­gy to strength­en cyber­se­cu­ri­ty at banks, ener­gy com­pa­nies and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions crit­i­cal to the nation’s infra­struc­ture. Sev­en­ty per­cent, how­ev­er, praised the frame­work of the Depart­ment of Com­merce agency as an indus­try best prac­tice.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, CISOs (chief infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty offi­cers) have been hes­i­tant to take full advan­tage of the NIST Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty Frame­work because of a high invest­ment require­ment and a lack of reg­u­la­to­ry man­date,” says Ron Gula, Ten­able Net­work Security’s CEO.

Ron Gula, Tenable Network Security CEO
Ron Gula, Ten­able Net­work Secu­ri­ty CEO

Such hes­i­tan­cy, though, is chang­ing, Gula says, “as orga­ni­za­tions begin to shift their mind-set from moment-in-time com­pli­ance with frame­works like PCI DSS (Pay­ment Card Indus­try Data Secu­ri­ty Stan­dard) to con­tin­u­ous con­for­mance with the NIST Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty Frame­work.”

Ten­able sup­plies tech­nol­o­gy that can auto­mate NIST secu­ri­ty con­trols.

Adop­tion num­bers small, but grow­ing

The survey’s find­ing of 29 per­cent adopt­ing the NIST frame­work is con­sis­tent with data cit­ed recent­ly by the NIST. In Feb­ru­ary, the agency said that, accord­ing to the infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy research com­pa­ny Gart­ner, the frame­work is now used by 30 per­cent of U.S. orga­ni­za­tions and that num­ber is expect­ed to be 50 per­cent by 2020.

Users include such “crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture giants” as Bank of Amer­i­ca, U.S. Bank, Pacif­ic Gas & Elec­tric, Intel, Apple and Walgreen’s, the NIST says. The Ital­ian gov­ern­ment, accord­ing to the NIST, also is using the frame­work “as the foun­da­tion” for its cyber­se­cu­ri­ty guide­lines.

Adam Sedgewick, NIST’s senior IT Pol­i­cy advis­er, believes that a 29 per­cent adop­tion rate—rising to 50 per­cent over the next few years, if Gartner’s pro­jec­tion plays out—is a “very good sign of progress.”

NIST antic­i­pates adop­tion will con­tin­ue to increase over time,” Sedgewick told Third­Cer­tain­ty. ”It is impor­tant to note that the NIST Frame­work is not com­pet­ing with oth­er approach­es; it was designed to lever­age and build off of exist­ing stan­dards and best prac­tices.”

The NIST frame­work can help com­pa­nies deter­mine “which activ­i­ties are most impor­tant to assure crit­i­cal oper­a­tions and ser­vice deliv­ery,” Sedgewick says. That, in turn, can help orga­ni­za­tions of all sizes “pri­or­i­tize invest­ments and max­i­mize the impact of each dol­lar spent on cyber­se­cu­ri­ty.”

Influ­ence spreads

There also can be a halo effect with sup­pli­ers and con­trac­tors. “Orga­ni­za­tions also can read­i­ly use the frame­work to com­mu­ni­cate a cur­rent or desired cyber­se­cu­ri­ty pos­ture between a buy­er or sup­pli­er, poten­tial­ly strength­en­ing the secu­ri­ty of their sup­ply chains,” Sedgewick points out.

For com­pa­nies con­sid­er­ing embrac­ing NIST guide­lines, it often comes down to a cost vs. ben­e­fit cal­cu­la­tion. Tenable’s sur­vey also found that more than half of respon­dents whose orga­ni­za­tion cur­rent­ly uses or plans to use the NIST frame­work said the lev­el of invest­ment need­ed to ful­ly con­form with the frame­work was high.

The high cost and the lack of reg­u­la­to­ry require­ment means many orga­ni­za­tions that have adopt­ed the frame­work do not imple­ment all of its rec­om­men­da­tions, Ten­able Net­work Secu­ri­ty says.

Six­ty-four per­cent of respon­dents at orga­ni­za­tions using the frame­work report­ed imple­ment­ing some, but not all, of the NIST-rec­om­mend­ed con­trols. Sim­i­lar­ly, 83 per­cent of orga­ni­za­tions that plan to adopt the frame­work in the next year said they would adopt just some of the con­trols.

An orga­ni­za­tion can use the frame­work, the NIST says, “to deter­mine activ­i­ties that are most impor­tant to crit­i­cal ser­vice deliv­ery and pri­or­i­tize expen­di­tures to max­i­mize the impact of the invest­ment.”

Edu­ca­tion, health care sec­tors drag feet

Orga­ni­za­tions in the bank­ing and finance indus­tries are the ones most reliant on secu­ri­ty frame­works, the Ten­able Net­work Secu­ri­ty sur­vey found. Only 77 per­cent of respon­dents in the edu­ca­tion indus­try and 61 per­cent in the health care indus­try said they had a secu­ri­ty frame­work in place.

Nine­ty per­cent of respon­dents at com­pa­nies with more than 10,000 employ­ees said their com­pa­nies have adopt­ed a secu­ri­ty frame­work, com­pared with 77 per­cent of respon­dents at com­pa­nies with few­er than 1,000 employ­ees.

John Pesca­tore, direc­tor of emerg­ing secu­ri­ty trends at SANS, which pro­vides secu­ri­ty train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, says the NIST frame­work acknowl­edges that most busi­ness­es and all gov­ern­ment agen­cies are sub­ject to, or using, a long-exist­ing secu­ri­ty frame­work such as PCI, NERC or HIPAA.

So, the only com­pa­nies who will gain from the NIST frame­work,” he says, “are busi­ness­es that didn’t already have a framework—mostly small busi­ness­es or small num­bers of large, non-pub­licly trad­ed companies—or com­pa­nies required to do so by terms in gov­ern­ment con­tracts.”

Pesca­tore says the gov­ern­ment “can and should use its buy­ing pow­er” to increase over­all cyber­se­cu­ri­ty.

Rather than cre­ate anoth­er frame­work, the gov­ern­ment should focus on ele­ments of exist­ing frame­works “proven to reduce the risk of real-world attacks,” he says.

The Aus­tralian Sig­nals Directorate—the country’s equiv­a­lent to the U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency—has tak­en such an approach and “pro­duces quan­ti­ta­tive and huge reduc­tions in attack suc­cess,” accord­ing to Pesca­tore.

Sto­ries relat­ed to cyber­se­cu­ri­ty and NIST frame­work :
Steps for using Uncle Sam’s frame­work for cyber­se­cu­ri­ty
Indus­try experts weigh in on Obama’s cyber­se­cu­ri­ty blue­print
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