NIST framework leaves crucial question unanswered

Latest draft fills in details, but debate continues over voluntary standards versus regulatory mandates.

broken lock

The latest draft of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's cybersecurity framework is meatier than its August predecessor, but heated debate continues over the question of voluntary standards versus regulatory mandates.

With the final version of the cybersecurity framework due in February 2014, NIST is continuing to collaborate with industry, academia and the public sector to build the parameters. But some private-sector operators of critical infrastructure fear that the guidelines could form the blueprint for new laws or regulations that would require companies to comply with set standards.

"A great deal of uncertainty surrounds the content and structure of both the final framework and the voluntary program," executives at Washington law firm Wiley Rein wrote to stakeholders after the framework's release. "Industry groups are concerned that the standards recommended by NIST could become de facto obligations or be made mandatory by regulatory agencies that have been instructed in the executive order to evaluate the adequacy of existing regulations and consider new obligations to mitigate cyber risks to critical infrastructure. "

Others worry that a blanket approach would stymie implementation at diverse organizations with distinct threats and risks.

"If companies spent their time trying to demonstrate compliance, that's time not spent on focusing on the organization," said Phillip Smith, senior vice president of government solutions at IT security firm Trustwave. "If you look at it sector by sector, there are different threats against an energy utility as opposed to a water treatment facility."

Smith added that there are concerns about what is not in the framework. Some measures can be instituted only by legislation, something Congress so far has proved unable to agree on, including the removal of barriers to sharing critical cyber threat information.

"The framework is a risk-based approach. The real issue is that these companies are in critical infrastructure sectors, and if they don’t understand real threat, how effective can a risk-based approach be?" Smith said. "It's important to have threat information shared from the government to the private sector. My biggest concern with the framework is that companies don’t necessarily know what the true threats are from state-sponsored or government organizations. The government keeps those classified and doesn’t share."

With one final public workshop remaining for NIST to meet with stakeholders, there still is a sense of optimism that at least some of the concerns can be ironed out before the February deadline.

"There’s been a lot of talk about public/private partnership in cybersecurity, but this framework goes beyond rhetoric: It’s the real deal," said Tom Conway, director of federal business development at McAfee. "Rather than starting with a preconceived notion of what it should look like, [NIST has] been listening to, evaluating and incorporating what they learn from the workshops and comments. We have every reason to believe that process will continue until the final version is released in February."

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