NIST CSF vs ISO 27001

Ben Pournader
3 min readJun 17, 2024

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The NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) and ISO/IEC 27001 are both widely recognized frameworks for managing and improving cybersecurity, but they have different focuses and characteristics.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF)

Origin: Developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the United States.

Purpose: Provides a voluntary, risk-based approach to managing cybersecurity risk.

Components:

  • Core: Consists of six functions: Govern, Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover.
  • Profiles: A CSF Organizational Profile outlines an organization’s current and/or desired cybersecurity posture based on the Core’s outcomes. It helps tailor, assess, prioritize, and communicate cybersecurity efforts considering mission objectives, stakeholder expectations, threat landscape, and requirements. This ensures prioritized actions and effective communication with stakeholders. Each profile includes Current Profile: Describes the outcomes an organization is currently achieving and the extent of these achievements. Target Profile: Defines desired outcomes prioritized for future cybersecurity risk management, considering anticipated changes such as new requirements, technology, and threat trends. You can download a very good profile template from https://www.nist.gov/profiles-0 and start your NIST CSF journey.
  • Implementation Tiers: Helps organizations understand the degree to which their cybersecurity practices are robust and implemented. We also call it “Maturity Level” in the cybersecurity world. An organization can use the Tiers to inform its Current and Target Profiles. Tiers characterize the rigor of an organization’s cybersecurity risk governance and management practices, providing context for its approach to cybersecurity risks. The Tiers range from Partial (Tier 1), Risk Informed (Tier 2), Repeatable (Tier 3), to Adaptive (Tier 4), describing a progression from informal, ad hoc responses to agile, risk-informed, and continuously improving approaches. Selecting Tiers helps set the overall tone for managing cybersecurity risks.

Flexibility: Although it was originally designed for use in US federal sectors, it is flexible and adaptable to different industries and sectors, allowing organizations to prioritize activities and allocate resources effectively.

Guidance: Offers guidelines and best practices without prescribing specific controls or processes.

ISO/IEC 27001

Origin: Published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

Purpose: Specifies requirements for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and continually improving an Information Security Management System (ISMS) for any type of organization.

Components:

  • ISMS Requirements: Details requirements for the management system, including risk assessment, treatment, and management review processes.
  • Annex A: Contains a set of controls (93 in the latest version) organized into 4 themes/domains, including People (8 controls), Organizational (37 controls), Technological (34 controls), and Physical (14 controls)

Certification: Organizations can be audited and certified for compliance with ISO/IEC 27001, demonstrating their commitment to information security to stakeholders.

Structure: Follows a systematic approach with a strong emphasis on continuous improvement that the implementor may use the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle.

Key Differences

  • Flexibility vs. Structure: NIST CSF offers more flexibility, allowing organizations to customize their approach to cybersecurity, while ISO/IEC 27001 provides a more structured framework with specific mandatory requirements.
  • Certification: ISO/IEC 27001 allows organizations to achieve certification, which can be a significant factor for businesses seeking to demonstrate compliance and commitment to information security. NIST CSF does not offer certification but focuses on providing a set of best practices.
  • Focus Areas: NIST CSF is more focused on cybersecurity risk management and response, whereas ISO/IEC 27001 covers a broader scope of information security management by building a robust information security program called ISMS in ISO 27001 language.

Complementary Use

Many organizations use both frameworks together. They may use the NIST CSF to guide their cybersecurity risk management practices and the ISO/IEC 27001 framework to implement and certify their ISMS. This combination can provide a comprehensive approach to managing both cybersecurity and overall information security.

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Ben Pournader

Information Security Expert, Cyber Security Engineer, Blogger, Mentor, PCI SME, CISM, CGEIT, CISA, CRISC, RHCSA, MCSE, CCNA, MBA, PMP, CLSSGB