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Navigating NIST Compliance: A Guide for Security Leaders and CISOs

BY eSentire

March 4, 2024 | 12 MINS READ

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As IT environments change and evolve, managing organizational risk and compliance across multiple platforms, third-party vendors, and remote workforces becomes more challenging.

By mapping your business risk to a standard security framework like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, you can better manage and mitigate cyber risks. Although NIST compliance is only mandatory for U.S. federal agencies and other government entities, its adoption is considered a best practice for all organizations to improve their cybersecurity posture.

In this blog, we break down the 5 core functions of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, discuss how implementing the controls within the framework can help you reduce cyber risk, and provide practical advice on how to comply with it.

What is the NIST Cybersecurity Framework?

Developed in 2014 to standardize cybersecurity practices, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework offers comprehensive guidelines for managing and reducing cyber risk. Since then, the framework has evolved into a globally recognized set of best practices for cyber risk management.

Initially focused on energy, banking, and healthcare sectors, the NIST framework now provides a flexible blueprint for organizations of all sizes and sectors to manage, reduce, and mitigate their cyber risks.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is part of a broader suite of NIST Special Publications, including:

What is NIST 800-53?

NIST 800-53, also known as the Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations, is a comprehensive set of security controls and guidelines for federal information systems in the United States. It provides a detailed catalog of security measures federal agencies must follow to protect their information and information systems.

While primarily designed for U.S. federal agencies, NIST 800-53 is also a critical resource for non-federal entities looking to implement solid security controls.

What is NIST 800-171?

The cybersecurity requirements within NIST 800-171 are designed to protect Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) in non-federal information systems of government contractors and subcontractors.

Key requirements of NIST 800-171 include implementing access control, incident response, and awareness training to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and security of CUI.

What is NIST Cybersecurity Framework 2.0?

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework 2.0 (CSF 2.0) is an updated version of the original NIST Cybersecurity Framework, designed to provide organizations with a comprehensive set of guidelines for managing and reducing cybersecurity risk. The new version of the framework includes expanded guidance around governance and provides additional resources to help organizations use the framework to its full potential.

The guidance in the NIST Cybersecurity Framework 2.0 helps organizations integrate cybersecurity risk management into their overall enterprise risk management and governance processes. This update aims to reframe cybersecurity as a necessary business investment, rather than a cost to manage.

The Main Components of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The core structure of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework is to have a layered approach to managing and mitigating cybersecurity risks. This structure is divided into three levels, each providing a progressively detailed view of the cybersecurity activities and outcomes:

The Five Core Functions Within the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

1. Identify

Develop an organizational understanding to manage cybersecurity risk to systems, assets, data, and capabilities.

Key Categories Include: Asset Management, Business Environment, Governance, Risk Assessment, and Risk Management Strategy.

2. Protect

Develop and implement appropriate defenses to ensure the delivery of critical infrastructure services.

Key Categories Include: Access Control, Awareness and Training, Data Security, Information Protection Processes and Procedures, Maintenance, and Protective Technology.

3. Detect

Develop and implement the appropriate controls to identify malicious activity.

Key Categories Include: Anomalies and Events, Security Continuous Monitoring, and Detection Processes.

4. Respond

Develop appropriate actions to take once a cybersecurity event is detected.

Key Categories Include: Response Planning, Communications, Analysis, Mitigation, and Improvements.

5. Recover

Focus on maintaining resilience and restoring capabilities or services impaired due to a cybersecurity incident.

Key Categories Include: Recovery Planning, Improvements, and Communications.

6. Govern

Establish and maintain a governance structure that ensures accountability and oversight for cybersecurity risk management. This function, added in the 2.0 version of the framework, aims to embed cybersecurity into the organizational culture and strategic decision-making process.

Key Categories Include: Policies and Standards, Risk Management Strategy, Governance Structure, Legal and Regulatory Compliance

Each level of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework's core structure works in tandem to provide a comprehensive, scalable, and flexible approach to managing cybersecurity risks tailored to your organization's specific needs and capabilities.

Is NIST Compliance Mandatory?

While designed for voluntary implementation, NIST Compliance is mandatory for U.S. federal government agencies and some federal, state, and foreign governments. NIST compliance is also often required of policyholders as an insurability requirement. In addition, some organizations may also require compliance with the NIST Framework within their supply chain.

For many organizations, NIST compliance demonstrates your robust security posture and commitment to cyber risk reduction. Therefore, even though you may not be required to comply with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, you should consider implementing it as a best practice standard for cybersecurity and data protection.

Benefits of NIST Compliance: Reducing Cyber Risk

Cyberattacks are no longer just a concern for large corporations or government entities – they impact organizations of all sizes across various sectors.

The ever-evolving threat landscape makes it essential that your organization has a comprehensive set of cybersecurity controls capable of providing proactive protection from cyber threats.

Aligning your cybersecurity strategy with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework can help you gain several distinct advantages, such as:

Improved Cybersecurity Measures

By following the structured approach of the NIST Framework, you can comprehensively assess, improve, and monitor your cybersecurity posture. This can help you not only reduce your cyber risks but also build a more resilient infrastructure capable of preventing breaches and effectively mitigating any incidents.

Meeting Regulatory Requirements

Demonstrating NIST compliance may be mandatory if your organization operates in a regulated industry or frequently works with government agencies. By aligning your security posture with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, you can meet essential regulatory requirements, avoiding potential legal and financial repercussions.

Gaining a Competitive Advantage

NIST compliance demonstrates a commitment to building a resilient security posture. Given the increasing cost and repercussions of data breaches and cyberattacks, strong cybersecurity measures can be a significant differentiator for your customers and partners.

Unlocking New Contracts

Many government contracts require suppliers to adhere to specific NIST standards, such as NIST 800-171, for handling controlled unclassified information. Achieving NIST compliance can open new business opportunities with the public sector.

How to Implement the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Step 1: Identifying and Categorizing Assets and Risks

The first step in aligning with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework is identifying what needs to be protected – including your physical and digital assets, data, and systems. Complement this assessment with insights from the latest threat intelligence to learn how the evolving threats may relate to your assets.

Once identified, categorize these assets based on their importance and the risks they face and establish cybersecurity policies that include roles and responsibilities. This categorization sets a clear framework for prioritizing and addressing risks based on their potential impact and likelihood, enabling you to allocate your resources more effectively.

Step 2: Developing Protective Measures and Controls

Based on the identified risks, develop and implement appropriate safeguards. This includes technical controls like encryption and endpoint security protection, as well as the policies and procedures directed at driving behavioral change among your users.

Therefore, implementing a comprehensive vulnerability management program is key. Regularly scan for, and address vulnerabilities, to ensure you stay ahead of potential attack vectors. It’s also essential to protect your sensitive data through encryption and robust access control measures, protecting against unauthorized access.

Step 3: Implementing Detection Strategies

With protective measures in place, focus on building your threat detection capabilities. To stay ahead of the ever-evolving attacker tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), your organization needs to run proactive threat hunts based on the latest intelligence.

By actively hunting for threats, you can detect and respond to cyber attacks before they cause significant damage or proactively implement detections for emerging or unknown threats.

To operationalize threat hunting, implement log and advanced log management solutions so you can correlate telemetry from endpoint, network, cloud, identity, asset and vulnerability data. By achieving complete 24/7 visibility and monitoring across your attack surface, you can drive context-rich proactive threat hunts and deep investigations.

Step 4: Establishing Response Protocols

Despite the best preventive measures, incidents can still occur. Develop a comprehensive incident response plan detailing how to respond to different types of cyber incidents. This plan should include roles and responsibilities, communication strategies, and containment, eradication, and recovery steps.

The effectiveness of these plans relies heavily on routine testing, ensuring each team member understands their role in an actual crisis. Regular updates are also essential to ensure your incident response plan remains relevant and effective against evolving threats.

Step 5: Recovery Planning and Improvements

Post-incident, focus on recovery and improvement. Conduct a thorough post-incident analysis using digital forensic tools to identify the root cause and determine the impact of the incident. Develop a recovery plan to restore any impaired services or capabilities.

Your recovery plans should include detailed communication strategies outlining what information should be shared and how it will be shared with various internal and external stakeholders. Consider how you will manage public relations so that the information you share doesn’t impact your company’s reputation.

So, continuous improvement should be an integral part of your cybersecurity program, with regular updates to policies, procedures, and technologies based on lessons learned from incidents and ongoing threat analysis.

Tailoring the NIST Framework to Your Organization’s Needs

Finally, adapt the NIST framework to fit your organization's unique operational environment. Consider factors like organizational size, complexity, industry, and your specific risk profile. Tailoring the framework ensures that it aligns with your specific cybersecurity needs and business objectives.

Implementing the NIST Cybersecurity Framework is a continuous process that involves ongoing assessment, improvement, and adaptation. It’s not a one-time task but an ongoing process of ensuring your cybersecurity measures are effective and enable you to remain resilient to new threats.

Common Challenges in Implementing the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Implementing the NIST Framework may require a significant investment of time, personnel, and budget. Small internal teams may face challenges implementing the NIST Framework due to limited resources and a lack of specialized expertise:

Limited In-House Security Expertise and Support

NIST compliance requires not only an understanding of a complex set of guidelines but also continuous monitoring and regular updates to stay ahead of evolving cyber threats. Given the shrinking IT budgets and the widening cybersecurity skills gap, implementing the security controls necessary for NIST compliance may be challenging for small in-house teams.

For many in-house teams, balancing day-to-day IT operations while fulfilling requirements of NIST compliance, such as proactive threat hunting, 24/7 monitoring, and multi-signal data correlation, can be challenging to take on internally.

Investment in Security Tools for Comprehensive Visibility

In addition to the expertise and staffing, NIST compliance requires a significant investment in security tools to achieve complete visibility into your environment. Modern IT infrastructure is often a complex mix of legacy, cloud services, and modern solutions.

Ensuring comprehensive coverage and consistent application of the NIST framework within such complex IT environments is challenging as it requires you to navigate varying configurations, integrate disparate security tools, and effectively manage data protection and access control across multiple platforms.

Continuous Commitment to Maintain NIST Compliance

NIST compliance is not a one-time undertaking but an ongoing commitment. You must regularly update your defenses, incident response plans and improve user resilience to remain compliant. This means constantly assessing and improving your security posture – a process that demands specialized expertise and strategic planning.

How eSentire Can Help You Achieve NIST Compliance

Aligning your cybersecurity strategy with the NIST Framework allows you to benefit from a strengthened security posture, meet your compliance requirements, and open new business opportunities as a result of compliance.

Outsourcing your security operations to an MDR provider specializing in NIST compliance can help you meet compliance requirements and build a comprehensive cyber risk management program, allowing your internal team to focus on their core business functions.

At eSentire, we are mission-driven to ensure you have the cybersecurity systems, processes, and controls to effectively mitigate your cyber risks:

To learn more about how eSentire can help you mitigate cyber risk and achieve cybersecurity regulatory compliance with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, connect with an eSentire cybersecurity specialist.


eSentire, Inc., the Authority in Managed Detection and Response (MDR), protects the critical data and applications of 2000+ organizations in 80+ countries, across 35 industries from known and unknown cyber threats by providing Exposure Management, Managed Detection and Response and Incident Response services designed to build an organization’s cyber resilience & prevent business disruption. Founded in 2001, eSentire protects the world’s most targeted organizations with 65% of its global base recognized as critical infrastructure, vital to economic health and stability. By combining open XDR platform technology, 24/7 threat hunting, and proven security operations leadership, eSentire's award-winning MDR services and team of experts help organizations anticipate, withstand and recover from cyberattacks. For more information, visit: www.esentire.com and follow @eSentire.

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