US NIST recommends ways businesses can improve cybersecurity

A new version of NIST's cybersecurity framework aims to help businesses assess their readiness

Businesses that want to improve their cybersecurity posture can take a number of steps, including conducting a risk assessment and prioritizing ways to address gaps in their security, a U.S. agency said in recommendations released Tuesday.

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Preliminary Cybersecurity Framework calls on businesses to assess their current cybersecurity practices and aim for a higher level of sophistication in defending against cyberattacks.

Compliance with the framework is voluntary for U.S. businesses, and many of the ideas in the document are drawn from existing best practices. But most businesses should be able to improve their cybersecurity efforts by adopting some of the recommendations, said NIST Director Patrick Gallagher.

"There is absolutely no question that cyberthreats are increasing to critical infrastructure businesses and, indeed, the entire business community clearly needs strong, tested ways to officially protect their data and their assets," Gallagher said during a press briefing. "We believe cybersecurity is good business."

The framework can help businesses that work together to hold each other accountable, help businesses "gauge the maturity" of their cybersecurity efforts and help them set security goals, he said. The framework should help businesses improve both their security and their "bottom line," Gallagher said.

"What the framework does not do is provide threat-proofing," Gallagher said. "There is not a magic bullet here. This is not about eliminating cyber-risk. The framework is about managing [risks] effectively."

Many of the recommendations may seem nonspecific in nature in an effort to keep them flexible enough for adoption by a variety of businesses, but the document references a number of standards from NIST, the International Society of Automation, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other organizations, Gallagher noted. Those standards cover "almost every aspect of information security management," he said.

"The real objective here was not to add something brand new, but it was designed to provide something that was useable, adaptable and scalable," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama directed NIST to create the set of voluntary cybersecurity standards in the framework in an executive order released in February. The NIST guidelines released Tuesday are an update to a document released last August, and the agency is scheduled to release an official version of the framework next February.

The framework includes recommendations for the steps businesses should take to implement a cybersecurity program or improve an existing one. The document also defines four tiers of cybersecurity readiness, with the lowest tier defined as a business with risk management practices that are "not formalized."

In the lowest tier, "risk is managed in an ad hoc and sometimes reactive manner," the framework said. "Prioritization of cybersecurity activities may not be directly informed by organizational risk objectives, the threat environment, or business/mission requirements."

At the other end of the cybersecurity spectrum, businesses with adaptive cybersecurity practices base their efforts on "lessons learned and predictive indicators derived from previous cybersecurity activities," the framework said. "Through a process of continuous improvement, the organization actively adapts to a changing cybersecurity landscape."

More than 3,000 people have engaged with NIST during the creation of the framework, Gallagher said. NIST will host a workshop on the framework Nov. 14 and 15 at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and Gallagher expects the framework to evolve even after the official release next February.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityregulationBarack ObamaU.S. National Institute of Standards and TechnologyPatrick Gallagher

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