How cybersecurity frameworks apply to web application security

Cybersecurity frameworks are formalized sets of guidelines for defining cybersecurity policies. This post explains why they are so useful and how you can use the most popular NIST framework when building your application security program.

How cybersecurity frameworks apply to web application security

A cybersecurity framework provides a formal and comprehensive set of guidelines to help organizations define their security policies, assess cybersecurity posture, and improve resilience. Cybersecurity frameworks specify security controls, risk assessment methods, and suitable safeguards to protect information systems and data from cyberthreats. Though originally developed for government agencies and other large organizations, cybersecurity frameworks can also be a useful source of security best practices for medium and small businesses. Without getting too formal, let’s see what cybersecurity frameworks exist, why you may want to use one, and how to hand-pick the cybersecurity processes and actions that apply to your specific web application security program.

Why cybersecurity frameworks exist

Depending on the organization, a successful cyberattack can have serious social, economic, or even political consequences. Whether they result in a denial of service, a data breach, or a stealthy and persistent presence in targeted systems, cyberattacks are now a permanent concern not only for business and government but even for military operations. Well-defined cybersecurity programs are vital for organizations of all sizes, but simply saying “secure everything” isn’t good enough, especially given the complexity of today’s interconnected information systems and supply chains. And with data security and privacy high on the agenda, a systematic and formalized approach is necessary to identify specific security controls that keep sensitive information inaccessible to malicious actors.

With public and private organizations of all sizes facing similar cybersecurity events and challenges, it became clear that a common cybersecurity framework would benefit everyone. By working to a common set of best-practice policies and recommendations, everyone would be able to define their own cybersecurity practices and protective technologies while maintaining a common baseline for auditing and certification. And for organizations that may lack the resources or technical resources to design their own policies from scratch, having such a starter policy kit could be the only way to come up with a reasonably complete and effective cybersecurity policy.

Commonly used cybersecurity frameworks

You can think of a cybersecurity framework as a common box of parts for building cybersecurity policies. More formally, a cybersecurity framework can be any document that defines procedures and goals to guide more detailed policies. Existing documents that contain such cybersecurity guidelines include:

  • The NIST Cybersecurity Framework: The most widely used document for cybersecurity policy and planning, developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
  • ISO 27001 Information Security Management: Guidelines for information security management systems (ISMS) prepared by the International Organization for Standardization.
  • CIS Critical Security Controls for Effective Cyber Defense: A framework of actions to protect organizations from known cyberthreats, prepared by the Center for Internet Security.
  • Risk management frameworks: Documents such as NIST’s Risk Management Framework (NIST SP 800-37 Rev. 2) and the ISO 27005:2018 standard for Information Security Risk Management focus on risk management strategies, including cybersecurity risk management.
  • Industry-specific frameworks: Many industries have their own security standards for these sectors, such as PCI DSS for electronic payment processing, HIPAA rules for healthcare, or COBIT for IT management and governance.

A closer look at the NIST cybersecurity framework

In 2013, a US presidential executive order was issued calling for a standardized cybersecurity framework to describe and structure activities and methodologies related to cybersecurity. In response to this, NIST developed its Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, commonly called the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF). It is a detailed policy document created not only to help organizations manage and reduce their cybersecurity risk but also to create a common language for communicating about cybersecurity activities. While the framework was initially intended only for companies managing critical infrastructure services in the US private sector, it is now widely used by public and private organizations of all sizes.

The NIST CSF is divided into three main components:

  • Framework core: The main informational part of the document, defining common activities and outcomes related to cybersecurity. All the core information is organized into functions, categories, and subcategories.
  • Framework profile: A subset of core categories and subcategories that a specific organization has chosen to apply based on its needs and risk assessments.
  • Implementation tiers: A set of policy implementation levels, intended to help organizations in defining and communicating their approach and the identified level of risk for their specific business environment.

The framework core provides a unified structure of cybersecurity management processes, with the five main functions being Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. For each function, multiple categories and subcategories are then defined. This is where organizations can pick and mix to put together a set of items for each function that corresponds to their individual risks, requirements, and expected outcomes. For clarity and brevity, each function and category has a unique letter identifier, so for example Asset Management within the Identify function is denoted as ID.AM, while Response Planning within the Response function is RS.RP

Each category includes subcategories that correspond to specific activities, and these subcategories get numerical identifiers. To give another example, subcategory Detection processes are tested under the Detection Processes category and Detect function is identified as DE.DP-3. Subcategory definitions are accompanied by references to the relevant sections of standards documents for quick access to the normative guidelines for each action.

Applying the NIST framework to application security

By design, the NIST CSF has an extremely broad scope and covers far more activities than any specific organization is likely to need. To apply the framework to web application security, you start by analyzing each of the five functions as they relate to your existing and planned application security activities and risk management processes. Then, you select the categories and subcategories relevant to your specific needs and use them as the backbone of your own security policy to ensure you cover all the risks and activities you need. For general web application security, a skeleton cybersecurity policy would need to include at least the following subcategories for each function:

Identify:

  • ID.AM-2: Software platforms and applications within the organization are inventoried
  • ID.RA-1: Asset vulnerabilities are identified and documented

Protect:

  • PR.AC-4: Access permissions and authorizations are managed, incorporating the principles of least privilege and separation of duties
  • PR.DS-2: Data-in-transit is protected
  • PR.IP-10: Incident response and recovery plans are tested

Detect:

  • DE.AE-2: Detected events are analyzed to understand attack targets and methods
  • DE.CM-8: Vulnerability scans are performed

Respond:

  • RS.RP-1: Response plan is executed during or after an incident
  • RS.AN-1: Notifications from detection systems are investigated

Recover:

  • RC.RP-1: Recovery plan is executed during or after a cybersecurity incident
  • RC.CO-3: Recovery activities are communicated to internal and external stakeholders as well as executive and management teams

Summary

Cybersecurity frameworks provide a common structure for planning, implementation, response, and mitigation. By selecting the relevant actions (subcategories) for each fundamental function, you can build custom cybersecurity policies tailored to the business and compliance requirements of your organization. By combining standards-based policies with enterprise web security best practices and reliable web application security solutions, you can minimize risk and maintain a solid cybersecurity posture.

Zbigniew Banach

About the Author

Zbigniew Banach - Senior Technical Content Writer & Editor

Cybersecurity writer and editor at Invicti Security. Drawing on years of experience with security, software development, content creation, journalism, and technical translation, he does his best to bring web application security and cybersecurity in general to a wider audience.