The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released its Cybersecurity Framework (Framework) almost 15 months ago and charged critical infrastructure companies within the United States to improve their cybersecurity posture. Without question, the Framework has sparked a national conversation about cybersecurity and the controls necessary to improve it. In the past year, we have seen U.S. federal agencies and departments—as well as state governments and associations—engage and embrace the Framework for the various industries that they regulate. We discuss a few examples below.

Federal Agencies’ Endorsement and Implementation of the Framework

Since the Framework was released, critical industry sectors have taken steps to align their own security guidance to the framework.

  • Department of the Treasury. Soon after the release of the Framework, U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury Department) released a statement articulating its belief that the NIST Framework is an important and useful blueprint to evaluate, maintain, and improve the resiliency of their computer systems. Through its statement, the Treasury Department encouraged every financial services firm to use the Framework to reduce cybersecurity threats; promoted similar use of the Framework by outside vendors and counterparties; and committed to grow and enhance the Framework.
  • Department of Energy. At the beginning of 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy released guidance to help the energy sector establish or align existing cybersecurity risk management programs with the objectives of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. 
  • Department of Commerce. In March 2015, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force (IPTF) announced that it would seek public input on potential topics addressing key cybersecurity issues. This initiative is said to complement other federal initiatives aimed at improving cybersecurity including the Framework.
  • Federal Communications Commission. Also in March of this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Counsel (CSRIC) issued its final report on cybersecurity risk management best practices. The report recommends voluntary mechanisms that give the FCC and the public assurance about necessary measures being taken by the communications sector to manage cybersecurity risk. It also provides implementation guidance to help communications providers use and adapt the Framework.

State Governments Taking the Lead

State governments have also modified their current cybersecurity practices to be more closely aligned with the Framework. In an effort to raise awareness of the Framework, the National Governors Association (NGA) circulated a resource guide containing the Framework and encouraged states to use it as a high-level reference document to enhance their cybersecurity posture. Here is what some states have done:

  • Virginia. Shortly after the Framework was released, Virginia announced it would be the first state to use the Framework as part of its efforts to reduce cybersecurity risks to critical infrastructure. 
  • Pennsylvania. In an article published by Government Technology, Pennsylvania’s chief information security officer tells the author how his team mapped and implemented the Framework into the state’s enterprise governance and risk and compliance solution. 
  • Mississippi and Idaho. In a recent article by the Brookings Institution, Mississippi and Idaho were considered “truly outstanding” in their focus on cybersecurity. The article reports that these states rely heavily on the standards established by NIST and align their cybersecurity programs to the Framework and other security controls defined in the 800 series of the NIST publications.
  • New York. In late-February 2015, the New York State Senate passed a suite of four cybersecurity-related bills focused on protecting critical-infrastructure entities, including a bill that establishes a “baseline framework” and information-sharing protocols around cybersecurity risks. Senate Bill 3407 is similar to the NIST Framework in that it developed a “set of standards, methodologies, procedures and processes” that aim to address cyber risks affecting critical infrastructure in the public and private sectors.
  • NAIC. In April 2015, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) warned that state regulators plan to scrutinize closely insurers’ data security practices. The NAIC lays out 12 guiding principles for effective cybersecurity, and advises that cybersecurity regulatory guidance from the states should be consistent with nationally recognized efforts such as those embodied in the NIST Framework.

Takeaways for the Private Sector

The Framework provides organizations with a number of benefits which lead to a stronger cybersecurity posture. These benefits include a common language, collaboration opportunities, the ability to demonstrate due care in adopting the Framework, the ability to promote better security within the vendor supply chain, and cost efficiency in cybersecurity spending.

The clear direction of regulator interest in the Framework is added to these benefits. As more U.S. federal agencies and state governments adopt the Framework, and strongly encourage private sector organizations to implement its approach, there can be little doubt that the Framework has or will soon evolve into the de facto standard for cybersecurity—still voluntary, but nonetheless, the standard.

If and when an NIST-compliant organization suffers a significant cyber breach, it may be able to raise its use of the Framework (or some equivalent methodology) as the basis for a meritorious defense in any post-breach investigation by regulators or in litigation. By implementing the Framework proactively and documenting its use internally, organizations may potentially avoid conclusions of negligence in implementing cybersecurity best practices. Boards of directors can point to their request for the organization to implement the Framework in defense of a claim that they breached their fiduciary duties by failing to oversee the cybersecurity risk inherent in the organization. Organizations using the Framework will have the ability to demonstrate that they used prudent practices and due care, in line with nationally recognized industry standards.

This may mean a higher bar for cybersecurity controls, which will yield a consistent expectation (from regulators and consumers) as to what cybersecurity means within each industry sector. Customers may come to expect the same security protections for their sensitive information from their electric company, and from their cell phone carrier, as they do from their bank. It is important, therefore, for organizations to keep close watch on the recommendations from their federal and/or state regulators about adopting the Framework. At some point, “voluntary” no longer means voluntary, but instead comes to mean mandatory.