Keeping hackers, cybercriminals, and malicious actors out of your critical systems is a constant battle. But just like any king might defend his castle, you need some kind of overall plan to seal off all the entry points that hackers might look to exploit. Which is exactly why having an Information Technology (IT) security framework is so important.
The concept of IT security frameworks is a rather broad one, with many different companies, entities, and governmental organizations producing frameworks tailored towards specific industries, scenarios, and technologies. Depending on your situation, adopting an IT security framework might even be a legal regulatory compliance requirement. These requirements may come from organizations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Defense (DoD), and others.
If you’re like many companies and businesses, implementing an IT security management framework might seem like a foreign (and complicated) ordeal. That’s why we’re providing this “Need to Know” guide about the basics of cybersecurity standards and frameworks, an overview of the most common and applicable frameworks, as well as how to decide which one to adopt for your organization.
So, if you don’t know which IT security framework is best for your company, read on for our comprehensive guide detailing which cybersecurity solutions are the best fit.
IT Security Framework Basics
Any information security framework, when implemented properly, allows businesses and organizations to more effectively manage overall cyber risk. Frameworks typically contain a number of documents that clearly define certain policies, procedures, and processes that will apply to your cybersecurity practices. Your IT security management framework will effectively explain to all parties (internal and external) how information, systems, and services are managed within your organization to ward off hackers.
The main point of having an IT security framework in place is to reduce risk levels and the organization’s exposure to vulnerabilities. Your framework is your go-to document in an emergency (i.e., a security breach or malware attack). It also outlines daily procedures designed to reduce your exposure to cyber risk, as well as ongoing employee cybersecurity awareness training to ensure that your organization is constantly up to date on your framework.
Adopting a rock-solid IT security framework provides a plethora of advantages, especially if you are trying to instill confidence in clients, customers, sales prospects, and business partners in your industry. Being able to show that you have a well thought out security framework in place will make customers more likely to do business with you, partners more willing to share data with you, and so forth. And most importantly, implementing a framework will help your entire organization stay on the same page as it relates to daily routines and practices that will keep both critical data and systems out of the hands of malicious internet actors.
1. NIST Cybersecurity Framework
The NIST framework is a voluntary, risk-based approach that is often simply referred to as “The Framework.” NIST provides both policy and security guidance for how private sector organizations in the U.S. can assess and improve their capabilities of detecting, preventing, and responding to cyber incidents. The NIST framework has also been translated into multiple languages and is used by some foreign governments like Japan. The framework was first aimed at helping organizations protect their critical IT infrastructure but has now expanded to cover areas like proactive risk management and threat hunting. NIST provides guidance on how organizations can perform self-assessments and how to protect critical data when sharing with both public and private sector partners.
Broadly speaking, NIST is divided into five areas of consideration:
- Identification – Developing organizational capabilities for managing cybersecurity risks to critical systems, assets, data, and capabilities.
- Protection – Implementing the appropriate safeguards to ensure maintenance of critical IT infrastructure and protection of sensitive data.
- Detection – Taking the appropriate actions to identify cybersecurity breaches and events in real-time.
- Response – Having an action plan for all employees and stakeholders to respond to, and limit the damage of, a cyber attack.
- Recovery – Laying out the appropriate activities to restore any capabilities, data, or services that were impaired or affected due to a cybersecurity event.
In general, NIST is one of the most effective and widely used, cybersecurity frameworks today. The downside is that NIST is so comprehensive, that it takes a substantial amount of time and resources to fully implement. For this reason, many businesses that choose NIST as a framework often work with a cybersecurity and/or compliance partner to help them adopt the NIST as efficiently as possible.
2. International Standards Organization Framework
The International Standards Organization (ISO), is another one of the most widely known IT security frameworks. Having been first developed in 2005, and revised again in 2013, ISO is an extremely broad, comprehensive framework that can be applied across a broad range of industries and business types. The ISO is a wide-ranging organization also known for its quality standard framework for manufacturing and operational excellence and brings that same process-improvement approach to cybersecurity.
Because the ISO framework has been tried and tested over the years, organizations (and governments) often use ISO as a basis for creating cyber security manuals, plans, and policies for personnel across the board. As such, ISO is accepted in most countries as an acceptable, primary framework for managing systems and data security. And in a slight variation from NIST, ISO places a bit more emphasis on how cybersecurity fits into the overall context of an organization’s management, practices, culture, and processes.
More specifically, the ISO framework is divided into the following sections:
- Organizational Context – What are the overall organizational goals and challenges, and how does the ISO framework serve to address those?
- Leadership – What is the leadership’s commitment to adopting a framework, and how will organizational roles and responsibilities be defined?
- Planning – What actions will be taken to address risks and operational vulnerabilities, and what IT security objectives will those actions help achieve?
- Support – What resources will be diverted to ensure the successful implementation of ISO? How will ongoing training and competence be undertaken?
- Operations – How will organizations assess risk per the ISO framework? How will all planned activities be operationalized on a consistent basis?
- Performance Evaluation – How will the performance of the ISO framework be monitored? How often will internal audits take place?
- Improvement – What steps are you taking to ensure continuity year over year, as well as measures being taken for continuous improvement of IT security?
Much like NIST, the ISO framework often takes substantial time and financial resources to fully implement. However, ISO is one of the most effective and widely used frameworks and is especially good for organizations with a process-improvement mindset and culture.
3. COBIT Framework
Short for “Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies,” the COBIT framework defines a set of more generic, high-level practices and process for the management of IT systems and data. This includes frameworks for processes and procedures related to cybersecurity and risk management. In short, COBIT is a framework that focuses on larger strategies that organizations can use to both identify and mitigate cyber risks.
The COBIT framework was first developed by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISAAC), an independent, nonprofit, global association engaged in the development, adoption and use standards and practices for information systems. When ISAAC’s IT governance professionals first came up with COBIT, it was focused mainly on reducing technical risks associated with cybersecurity, as well as other key areas of IT management.
Today, COBIT has evolved into a framework of standards that helps organizations better align their cybersecurity posture with their overall business goals. However, as compared to NIST and ISO, COBIT lacks specific, granular, practical advice on how to best protect critical data and infrastructure. Over time COBIT has been mostly adopted by the finance and financial services industry for both broad cybersecurity guidance, as well as aiding in compliance with regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley.
If you’re not in the financial services industry, COBIT is best used as providing a high-level direction and framework for risk management and IT systems management. Another benefit is that if you become COBIT certified, you’ll gain access to resources, training, and other benefits from ISAAC on an ongoing basis.
4. PCI-DSS Framework
The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) is an IT security framework specifically designed to protect the security and privacy of cardholder data. Any company, business, government, or organization that handles credit or debit card payment data is legally required to adopt the PCI DSS framework.
The controls spelled out by PCI-DSS are made up of multiple levels, and to what extent companies are forced to comply depends on the nature of the business, customers, and information systems. Needless to say, the PCI-DSS framework applies only to organizations that handle payment information, of which there are millions of businesses, vendors, and government agencies.
Aside from enforcing certain procedures and controls (based on your PCI-DSS level), you may also be required to complete activities like self-assessment questionnaires, quarterly network scans, and independent on-site security audits. Specific types of organizations that leverage PCI-DSS include banks, merchants, and payment processors.
The PCI-DSS framework is divided into six broadly defined categories as follows:
- Building and Maintaining Secure Networks and Systems – Ensuring that your critical networks and systems are secured based on compliance level.
- Protecting Cardholder Data – Guarding cardholder payment data in all phases of the payment processing chain.
- Maintaining a Vulnerability Management Program – Implementing a continuous program that evolves with new threats to cardholder data.
- Implementing Strong Access Control Measures – Taking proper precautions, both digitally and physically, that only authorized personnel have access to sensitive cardholder data.
- Regularly Monitoring and Testing Networks – Conducting regular activities such as network penetration testing to uncover vulnerabilities before they’re exploited by hackers.
- Maintaining an Information Security Policy – Being able to show PCI-DSS compliance regulators that your IT security policy has been documented and disseminated to all relevant executives, staff, and employees.
The PCI-DSS framework is a must if your company processes or handles credit card information on a regular basis. And although it may sound daunting, the level at which you handle cardholder data may determine that you don’t need to invest too much time or money on compliance and adoption. That being said, if PCI-DSS does apply to your business, it’s best to work with a compliance partner to make sure you’re taking all the right steps.
NIST, PCI-DSS, COBIT, and ISO are just four of the many IT security frameworks that have been developed over the years. However, they are four of the most important in today’s cybersecurity climate. NIST and ISO are the most detailed and comprehensive, and for many organizations are well worth the investment in adopting, even if not legally required to do so. If you’re just starting out and seeking some high-level guidance, along with informational support and resources, then COBIT may be the right framework to being with. And if handling credit card information or processing payments is at the core of your business, adopting the PCI-DSS framework simply isn’t a choice.
Effectively implementing an IT security framework doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly takes a team effort. You’ll need organizational buy-in from the executive C-Suite all the way down to your rank and file employees, who all need to recognize the importance of cybersecurity awareness to both your business and clients or customers. This is true whether you’re a government contractor working with the DoD, a bank issuing credit cards, or any type of business that stores data that might prove valuable to hackers. Most importantly, make sure to find the right cybersecurity compliance and training partner to ensure that no matter which framework you choose to adopt, the right practices and processes are implemented top-to-bottom and that your policies and cybersecurity solutions are evolving along with tomorrow’s cyber threats.