Security compliance standards and frameworks are sets of recommendations that allow organizations to achieve compliance. They include step-by-step processes and simplify complex compliance tasks.
Standards and frameworks guide organizations when implementing security controls and policies. They advise companies about how to meet industry-specific regulations and reduce the risk of compliance violations.
An organization that chooses the right security compliance standards and puts them into practice will protect itself against regulatory fines. But how can you choose the right standards to implement?
This article will introduce the most important security compliance standards and frameworks. We will explore frameworks for different industries. And we will learn how to select the ideal compliance guidelines for any situation.
What is a security framework?
Security compliance frameworks are collections of processes and policies that allow organizations to implement security controls and protect data. A well-implemented security framework enables ongoing compliance and risk management.
Frameworks are created and updated by widely respected expert bodies or regulatory agencies. They provide up-to-date and practical advice about how to comply with legal requirements. And they can often go further than legal regulations, providing additional guidance about issues like threat detection or information security management.
Importance of security compliance standards
Security compliance frameworks play a critical role in managing digital businesses. Well-chosen frameworks enable security teams to:
Prepare for audits. Security frameworks offer simple, accessible information about how to prepare for regulatory assessments. Checklists and step-by-step guides make implementing required controls or changing internal security processes easier.
Achieve compliance. Companies can cross-reference their existing controls with recommendations in compliance security frameworks. Security officers can detect any gaps in their compliance strategy. And they can take action before compliance violations result.
Manage risk. Security standards provide a baseline to measure critical risks. Compliance officers can prioritize the most important regulatory risks. They can focus mitigation efforts and use resources more efficiently.
Improve data security. Companies may lack the knowledge to put in place functional information security measures. Security compliance standards provide expert guidance to implement information security controls such as access management and encryption.
List of the key security standards and frameworks
Compliance challenges vary between industries. As a result, there are many different compliance frameworks. And companies may need to refer to a range of relevant frameworks. Let's introduce a few of the most common standards and their main areas of focus.
Created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ISO 27001 provides information about designing an information security management system (ISMS).
The 27001 framework is part of the ISO 27000 family of standards. The 27000 series includes individual frameworks for cloud computing, data storage, and other critical security requirements.
ISO 27001 is a comprehensive data security framework. The 14 core domains include:
Security policy development
Incident response and threat detection
Business continuity strategies
Assessing third parties
Employee training and human resource security
Auditing and improvement
System acquisition and maintenance
Companies can use ISO 27001 in a variety of ways. The framework can act as a reference point for ongoing information security management. Or organizations can integrate every aspect of the framework into their operations. In this case, it makes sense to obtain certification to prove that the organization is ISO-compliant.
Organizations usually deploy the framework alongside ISO 27002. The 27002 framework provides information about how to design controls within an ISMS. This supplements guidance in 27001 about creating information security policies and ensuring compliance.
NIST Cybersecurity Framework
The Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a subdivision of the United States Department of Commerce. It aims to provide a framework of cybersecurity best practices to reduce risks and protect data.
Despite being created by a federal agency, the CSF is a voluntary code of standards. However, companies working with the federal government may need to comply as part of their obligations under the 2017 "Strengthening the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure" Executive Order 13800. And CSF-compliance is mandatory for all government bodies.
The NIST Cybersecurity Framework focuses on cybersecurity policies and controls. Areas covered include:
How to identify and classify cybersecurity risks
Implementing information security measures
Detecting emerging threats
The CSF is relevant for all organizations that face cybersecurity risks. It helps security teams create enterprise-wide strategies. And it also makes it easier to communicate cybersecurity concerns to executive-level officers.
The Payment Card Industry Digital Security Standard is maintained by the five largest credit card processing companies. Members of the PCI Council include Visa, Mastercard, JCB, American Express, and Discover. And all organizations that process credit card information must comply with PCI standards.
PCI operates separate standards for merchants and service providers. There are also standards for developers and financial institutions. Most compliant organizations fall under the merchant category. In this case, elements of PCI-DSS standards include:
Network security measures. Implementing firewalls, segmentation, and managing apps securely.
Data security. Encrypting all credit card data at rest and in transit. Tracking systems to locate and secure critical data.
Access management. Ensuring that users can only access cardholder data on a need-to-know basis.
Vulnerability management. Managing updates of core apps, including antivirus software. Quarterly network testing by approved scanning vendors.
Network testing. Regular penetration testing of the cardholder data environment.
Policies and processes. Maintaining robust information security management policies.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards apply to companies that handle private healthcare data. Covered entities include health providers and insurance companies. But the law covers any companies that process patient information. So health app developers must be compliant.
The most important security-related HIPAA framework is the Security Rule. Under the Security Rule, covered entities must:
Risk management to assess threats to the integrity and security of private health information (PHI).
Put in place physical safeguards to protect data
Secure electronic data with threat detection systems, encryption, and access controls
Assign a HIPAA security officer and provide staff with compliance training. Training should include a strong focus on preventing the disclosure of PHI.
Create and maintain information security policies.
Evaluate security systems to ensure continuing compliance.
The Security Rule is flexible. It allows covered entities to innovate and introduce new ways to serve customers. Healthcare organizations can simplify compliance via external frameworks.
For example, NIST has also created a set of standards based on the Security Rule. This guidance simplifies the task for all covered entities. And the Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST) publishes a framework that enables streamlined compliance assessments.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protects the digital privacy of European Union citizens. It applies to all businesses that operate within the EU area, including e-commerce merchants. And fines for non-compliance are severe.
The GDPR security framework focuses on transparency and privacy. Key components of the framework include:
Technical measures to ensure privacy and secure data
Privacy training for all employees
Allowing users to opt out of all data collection operations
Access for users to personal data held by organizations
Privacy-centered risk management
The EU does not operate a compliance framework to assist companies. However, GDPR compliance standards are available from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). Organizations can also use the NIST CSF and NIST SP 800-53 to create GDPR-compliant systems.
Maintained by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, System and Organization Controls 2 (SOC 2) guides organizations that handle customer data. SOC 2 is an audit process based on five core principles:
SOC audits use these principles as guidelines. They make company-specific recommendations about how to secure customer data. For example, SOC audits may reveal that companies require strengthened access controls or updated firewall protection. They may expose problems with disaster recovery or weak authentication systems.
Companies that put these reports into practice can build trust and prevent data breaches. They can also achieve SOC certification. Certification provides robust evidence that customers can trust the organization with confidential data.
CIS Controls are managed by the non-profit Center for Internet Security (CIS). Unlike NIST, the CIS Controls do not include detailed risk assessment recommendations. CIS offers practical controls to reduce risk and neutralize cybersecurity threats. For example, areas covered include:
How to inventory hardware and software assets
Monitoring privileged accounts
Continuous vulnerability management
Secure configurations of critical apps
Security controls for email and web applications
Malware detection and neutralization
Secure network architecture
Application development and testing
CIS describes the controls as an "on-ramp" to achieve compliance with GDPR or HIPAA. Companies can use CIS controls to improve weaknesses in their information security. Or they can map CIS advice onto regulations to create simple compliance strategies.
They are globally-recognized benchmarks for cybersecurity professionals. And the standards are constantly updated to reflect novel cybersecurity concerns.
The Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies were created in the 1980s by the independent IT body ISACA. COBIT objectives focus on information security. Financial institutions commonly use COBIT to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX).
The COBIT framework helps companies create IT security environments that meet SOX standards. Elements of these control environments include:
Reporting financial risks
Establishing security controls for financial data
Policies to segregate duties
Access controls for sensitive data
Documentation of SOX-compliant processes
The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a set of security compliance standards for organizations working with federal institutions. FedRAMP targets cloud-hosted businesses. It seeks to enforce risk-based security practices while keeping compliance costs low.
Security controls within the FedRAMP framework are derived from NIST SP 800-53 and 800-37. NIST 800-53 advises companies about creating risk-based security approaches. FedRAMP extends these guidelines to include risk assessments of Cloud Service Providers.
Virtually all federal contracts require FedRAMP compliance. But NIST-compliant organizations may require minimal changes to their security strategies.
The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a compliance framework that seeks to manage security across IT lifecycles. ITIL provides a collection of best practices regarding IT management. These practices include recommendations about embedding security compliance at every lifecycle stage.
There are five stages in the ITIL lifecycle. Each stage of the process has a security component:
Continual service improvement
Companies rarely use ITIL standards as a stand-alone security compliance framework. Instead, they are used to streamline IT management while meeting compliance needs under NIST frameworks or industry regulations.
For example, the transition phase could include recommendations for the secure expansion of IT systems or testing new app deployments. The service strategy phase includes risk assessment requirements. It aligns IT security measures with business needs.
How to choose a security framework?
Security compliance frameworks should meet the business needs of users and ensure compliance with relevant regulations.
Some frameworks are designed for individual industries. For example, COBIT is tailored to the needs of financial institutions that fall under SOX regulations. HITRUST is a set of standards that suits covered entities dealing with HIPAA.
Companies with complex IT compliance challenges will benefit from ISO frameworks. Standards like ISO 27001 and 27002 document the organization's commitment to information security. And the NIST CSF reinforces this commitment by strengthening cybersecurity controls.
Companies working with Federal bodies should also consider FedRAMP standards. And businesses active in the EU must take GDPR compliance frameworks into account.
Which of these security frameworks is focused on cloud computing security?
All of the compliance frameworks mentioned in this article are relevant to cloud computing to some extent. However, some have a strong focus on the cloud.
FedRAMP seeks to ensure that federal contractors use secure cloud partners. NIST 800/53 provides in-depth guidance about cloud security. CIS controls also include specific recommendations for protecting cloud-hosted data.
What is the purpose of security frameworks and standards?
Frameworks and standards provide guidance for organizations about complying with information security regulations. Compliance is complex. Frameworks simplify the task by matching compliance requirements with practical steps.
Are there any certifications available for security frameworks or standards?
Most security compliance frameworks function alongside certification programs to prove that organizations are compliant. For example:
NIST operates the Certified NIST CSF LI certification for IT security practices.
The ISO offers certifications to the 27001 standards, with additional qualifications in specialist areas.
Companies can achieve PCI-DSS certification following external audits.
ISACA runs a "Certified in COBIT Foundation" system to prove compliance.
Which security framework is used the most?
The most commonly used security compliance standards are ISO 27001 and 27002, alongside NIST's Cybersecurity Framework. These frameworks operate as global standards and are used in almost all jurisdictions. PCI-DSS standards are routinely used by global e-commerce companies. And GDPR privacy frameworks are widely used to secure private data.