NIST Cyber-Security Framework Means Little Without Adoption: Experts

The framework gives companies a way to establish a security program and compare with others in their industry, but without incentives, few may adopt the process.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology released a long-awaited framework on Feb. 12 that gives companies a standardized way to measure and compare their security, but does little to convince firms to take the necessary steps to secure their networks, industry experts said.

Published exactly a year after the Obama administration issued its executive order to promote cyber-security, the Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cyber-security creates a common set of core definitions and actions that can be taken by companies to protect their networks and data, and respond to attacks.

Created in response to Executive Order 13636, Improving Critical Infrastructure Cyber-security, the document sets out definitions and goals for companies to improve their security, breaking down five security functions into more than 20 categories and almost 100 subcategories.

Yet cyber-security experts had mixed reactions to the release. While the framework is a solid first step, it lacks incentives and without legislation will likely not be widely adopted, Dave Frymier, chief information security officer with Unisys, told eWEEK. If a minimum acceptable baseline could be set—either through legislation or public discourse—then companies may be convinced to spend the money necessary to improve security, he said.

"This framework addresses more of an economic problem more than a technical one," Frymier said. "They established a way to compare between different companies and different industries by establishing a minimum baseline of security; there is no new technology and no new techniques; it is just a way of keeping score."

Other security experts argued that the intent of the framework—as a voluntary process on which companies can build the cyber-security plan—makes a lot of sense. The framework can be a huge benefit as a way for security professionals to communicate with business executives, creating a standard approach to cyber-security and framing the current state of any program, Jeff Greene, senior policy counsel for Symantec, told eWEEK.

"It's is a great lexicon and a good set of terminology to discuss technical details," he said. "With Symantec, it has facilitated communication with non-technical people."

Several security-service providers are pushing the framework to their clients. IBM, for example, launched an industrial controls cyber-security consulting service to use the framework as way to build a security program.

"There is a growing need to apply advanced security to our increasingly interconnected critical infrastructure like power facilities, electrical grids, industrial manufacturing operations and others,” Kris Lovejoy, general manager of IBM Security Services, said in a statement on Feb. 13 announcing the service. “If organizations take the steps outlined in the Framework, they’ll be better positioned to protect themselves and their practices."

The framework was created as a starting point for critical-infrastructure industries and policymakers to discuss security goals. While the recent attacks on chain-store giant Target and other retailers have put that sector in the spotlight, other—more infrastructure-heavy industries—are just as vulnerable, according to IBM. According to the company's research, the five most attacked industries are manufacturing, finance and insurance, information and communication, health and social services, and retail and wholesale.

While policymakers have been unable to agree on a way to promote cyber-security in the industry, legislation may be necessary to set the bar, says Unisys's Frymier.

"The marketplace will punish any company that implements anything that could be considered excessive security, because it will increase their costs," said Frymier. "But if the government steps in and requires a minimum bar that everyone has to come up to, everyone incurs roughly the same costs and we get improved security as a result."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...