Understanding the Purpose of NIST CSF Controls

Understanding the Purpose of NIST CSF Controls

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework was first released in 2014 with the purpose of promoting better risk management and innovation across the critical infrastructure sector in the US. Since then, it has been widely adopted around the world across a multitude of industries, including defense, healthcare, and legal.

The NIST CSF controls provide a consistent set of standards to help businesses address the widespread disparity across technology environments. To that end, it serves more as a set of rules and guidelines rather than a strict how-to guide. After all, every business in every industry has a unique set of needs and priorities, and no two IT environments look the same.

Here is what you need to know about the NIST CSF controls:

How many controls are there in the NIST CSF?

The core framework comprises five function areas intended to address the incident lifecycle from proactively preventing threats to recovering from an incident. These function areas are further divided into control categories, of which there are 23 in total. The categories are then divided into more specific control subcategories, of which there are 108.

For example, the Identify function area includes NIST CSF controls like Asset Management and Business Environment, among others. The five function areas are Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover.

Introducing the NIST security control categories

The NIST security control categories are intentionally broad. They explain the outcomes that organizations need to achieve, but precisely how they are achieved is open to interpretation. That being said, each control category has its own subcategories providing actionable advice and informative resources.

For example, the control category Identity Management and Asset Control under the Protect function area contains seven subcategories, along with their respective resources. Resources include references to other standards and frameworks, such as the NIST Special Publication 800-53.

Why should organizations use the NIST CSF?

Cyberattacks are becoming more complex and multifaceted, exploiting an ever-growing range of potential vulnerabilities. Primarily reactive measures, like conventional antivirus software, are no longer enough to protect organizations from determined hackers and social engineering scammers. Protecting against such attacks has become more difficult, hence the need for a more unified and standardized approach. This is what the NIST CSF sets out to achieve.

The NIST CSF is not a piece of legislation, nor is it a regulatory framework. However, because it sets the standards for information security, it often serves as the basis for government- and industry-mandated regulations. As such, achieving compliance with the framework is also a major step towards complying with regulations like HIPAA, CMMC, and DFARS.

One of the core tenets of the NIST CSF is risk-management. The most recent iteration of the framework also draws special attention to risk-management across supply chains. Because of this, it has been widely adopted as the gold standard for evaluating an organization’s ability to protect a client's assets. To that end, there is a strong business case for achieving compliance too. Companies that use the framework to serve as the foundations of their own cybersecurity strategy are more attractive to potential suppliers, investors, and clients alike. In other words, even if it can be costly and time-consuming to achieve full compliance, doing so can become a key part of an organization’s value proposition.

Adapting the NIST CSF to your business needs

Implementing the NIST CSF is a must, even if the process does seem cumbersome and costly. When adapting the framework to the unique needs of your organization, the first thing to do is build out your cybersecurity profile. This profile represents the unique alignment between the requirements and objectives of your organization and its existing resources and appetite for risk. It will serve as the foundation for your requirements and controls.

Most organizations start with a cybersecurity gap analysis that looks for potential weak spots in their environment before prioritizing remediation based on severity, available budget, and business priorities. A NIST CSF gap analysis should encompass all relevant subcategories and consist of a profile of their current state and the target profile. Moreover, the target profile should include a prioritized implementation plan complete with a list of responsible parties and timeframes.

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