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Explaining the Breakout Success of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

In the handful of years since the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) was developed, it’s been widely modeled in the US and by many other countries and organizations internationally. In fact, it’s been so successful in creating common standards around cybersecurity that people sometimes forget the CSF is a voluntary mechanism, not a regulation. 

In the absence of any regulatory or enforcement pressure, how did a voluntary, flexible “framework” around cybersecurity come to be embraced so fully across many different industries and organizational contexts? Let’s take a closer look at the CSF juggernaut, including the motivations and development that made the CSF a reality, and how that framework is working so well today in a constantly changing, ever-more connected and digitized world.

An Accessible and Powerful Framework
The NIST CSF is now the go-to playbook for countless organizations for building a robust data protection strategy. It’s structured along five core functions — Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond and Recover — each of which captures and curates the essential goals and actions that should be prioritized across the cybersecurity lifecycle. 

The CSF helps make sense of what to do before, during and after an incident: from shedding light on your data ecosystem and where the vulnerabilities lie; to locking down sensitive data and remediating known risks; to detecting malicious activity and meeting the threat with consistent and repeatable processes; to finally recovering through the quarantine of corrupted data, monitoring of ongoing threat activity, protocol adjustment and related steps. 

The beauty is that all this guidance and wisdom comes in the form of a few strategic guardrails that are intuitive and accessible to a wide range of practitioners. By contrast, consider something like the Trusted Computing Group’s TPM 2.0 standards; for one section on firmware to authenticate IoT devices, just the technical documentation runs more than 3,000 pages. 

Global Adoption, Ongoing Evolution
Hopefully, it’s becoming clear why NIST CSF, as a voluntary framework, is still so popular. Why wouldn’t you want to volunteer for an accessible, flexible, cost-effective approach to maximize protection and resilience across the enterprise? For these same reasons, it’s no surprise the CSF is popular far beyond just the US.

Nowhere was that more clear to me than at a NIST conference I attended in Baltimore last year; a sizable percentage of the presentations and use cases involved Japanese telecom giants, European utilities, the IMF and other international organizations that aren’t even governed by NIST.

Of course, not everything about NIST is voluntary (government contractors, for example, must demonstrate security compliance under NIST 800-171 or risk losing their contracts), and regulations are always changing. That’s why the CSF is still the roadmap — not the engine — to drive your organization toward the most secure data and architectures possible.

As technology, threats, and industry dynamics continue to evolve, NIST must continue to evolve to stay relevant. At RSA 2019, for instance, a lot of the NIST discussion centered on how the Institute’s approach to privacy needs to adapt to GDPR.

Thankfully, cybersecurity practitioners have resources to weather these changes and continue to implement the framework. NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) features practice guides and other tools to navigate challenges ranging from managing complexities and efficiencies, to simplifying compliance through automated reports and documentation.

I would argue the CSF and its implementation are actually helping define the very role of the modern cybersecurity professional. It’s not just a road map, in other words, it’s a job description — one that defines the skills and activities needed to sharpen visibility across the digital landscape and into your systems; identify malicious patterns and activity; meet any threat react quickly to ensure resilience and continuity of operations in the face of any breach. 

For all these reasons, the NIST CSF is a hit, the kind of success from which we all reap the benefits and can continue to build upon in the future.

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