The voluntary framework, developed in response to a presidential executive order, provides both private and public-sector organizations with a common language for understanding and managing cybersecurity risk internally and externally. It can be used as a tool to prioritize actions and to align policy, business and technology to manage risk.
The document lists five core functions -- identify, protect, detect, respond and recover -- all of which offer a high-level, strategic view of how an organization deals with cybersecurity risk. NIST said the framework was created to complement, and not replace, an organization's existing business or cybersecurity risk management process. The agency also said its approach focuses on outcomes, rather than any particular technology.
The framework is being watched closely as a vehicle for bringing closer cooperation between the public and private sectors on cybersecurity practices, in part because of the continued difficulty in Congress of crafting legislation that would allow the government and industry to share cyber intelligence. The preliminary framework released by NIST incorporates recommendations from a series of meetings with industry groups to address concerns over cybersecurity monitoring and reporting, as well as privacy protection practices. However, because the framework is voluntary, its adoption remains uncertain.
[ Learn more about why a cybersecurity framework is important. See Dept. Of Energy Breach: Bigger Than We Realized. ]
The final framework is due to be released in February 2014, following a 45-day public comment period on the preliminary framework. "We encourage organizations to begin reviewing and testing the preliminary framework to better inform the version we plan to release in February," NIST director Patrick Gallagher said in a written statement. "The framework will be a living document that allows for continuous improvement as technologies and threats evolve. Industry now has the opportunity to create a more secure world by taking ownership of the framework and including cyber risks in overall risk management strategies."
The cybersecurity framework was prompted by President Obama's executive order, issued in February of this year. The executive order -- and a related presidential policy directive -- called for a number of improvements in public-private information sharing, and created a process for building a framework of voluntary cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructure companies. The order instructed NIST to work with other agencies and private industry in creating a risk framework and best practices.
The need for industry-wide guidance on managing cybersecurity risk is growing, as cyber threats become more dangerous and sophisticated. Examples include emerging threats that want to damage systems, and new groups of attackers that are driven by a wide range of motives, according to industry experts.
Although the framework is voluntary, organizations are encouraged to adopt it when finalized because it's an opportunity to agree on basic security principles and practices, said Tom Conway, director of McAfee Federal, a participant in the development process. Conway added: "The framework will be a very important tool in raising the cyber resiliency of individual companies, each of the critical infrastructure industry segments, and thus the nation as a whole."