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Blog 4 min read

NIST vs ISO Compliance: What’s the Difference?

by Emily Heaslip Published Feb 16, 2022

As businesses and health organizations seek to strengthen cybersecurity, they’re turning frequently to compliance frameworks to help prioritize, guide, and improve decision-making and implementation. Two of the more popular compliance frameworks are the NIST CSF and the ISO 27001. 

For IT teams seeking to better understand the difference between these frameworks, as well as which is the ideal tool for their business, here’s what to know.

What’s the purpose of a cybersecurity framework?

Before discussing the difference between NIST and ISO, it makes sense to first evaluate what the purpose of a cybersecurity or compliance framework is. In many cases, security practitioners use frameworks like the NIST cybersecurity framework as a template of sorts to inform how their security program should be structured. Here’s cybersecurity industry veteran Ty Sbano talking about the role NIST has played for him.

What is NIST?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is part of the US Department of Commerce and was founded in 1901. NIST was originally established to help the U.S. industry become more competitive with economic rivals and peers, such as the UK and Germany. NIST prioritizes developing measurements, metrics, and standards for technology used in different industries. 

NIST is a non-regulatory agency, and as such, NIST compliance is not compulsory for any business. However, NIST works with many commercial sectors and government agencies to create policies and standards: The NIST cybersecurity framework is considered standard best practice for many security practitioners and experts . 

The NIST framework is designed to be used by businesses of all sizes in many industries. More than 30% of U.S. companies use the NIST Cybersecurity Framework as their standard for data protection. It is flexible, cost-effective, and iterative, providing layers of security through DLP tools and other scalable security protocols. 

Basics of NIST Compliance

​​There are three main components to the NIST framework: the Core, Implementation Tiers, and Profiles. 

  • Core: helps organizations manage and reduce security risks with emphasis on working with existing cybersecurity and risk management strategies and tools. 
  • Implementation Tiers: help organizations discern the right level of “rigor” needed for their cybersecurity program. For instance, organizations regulated by HIPAA will have different standards than those not. 
  • Profiles: help organizations identify and prioritize opportunities for improving cybersecurity.

The core is the most commonly used aspect of the NIST framework. The Core of the framework consists of five functions: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, Recover. These NIST security best practices make up the lifecycle for managing cybersecurity. 

The NIST functions encourage IT security teams to review each action step, thereby creating a plan to protect valuable information. 

[Read more: The NIST Cybersecurity Framework: Security Checklist And Best Practices

What is ISO? 

Like the NIST framework, the ISO is a nonregulatory compliance framework that provides a set of standards to help organizations keep corporate data — such as financial information, IP, and employee details — confidential. ISO certification is not legally required, however, it can be achieved by any business that seeks to improve its processes around securing its information assets

The ISO 27001 (officially known as ISO/IEC 27001:2013) helps organizations build a comprehensive infosec program, providing tools to assess risk, cover the security of transmissions within the organization’s network, and identify which industry regulations (such as HIPAA) are applicable. 

ISO 27001 certification can be achieved through a successful audit carried out by an accredited certification body. 

NIST vs ISO: Which is right for your business?

There are pros and cons to both security frameworks, depending on the needs of your business. 

The core NIST framework was designed to be flexible and easy to implement. As a result, many organizations use both the NIST and the ISO 27001 together, as there is some overlap in the principles and approaches. NIST has a voluntary, self-certification mechanism, which makes it logistically easier to achieve for many businesses in comparison with the ISO 27001. ISO certification is granted by independent audit and certification bodies. 

While the ISO can seem more complicated at first glance, some experts maintain that it’s simpler than it appears. The ISO 27001 is considered to be less technical, emphasizing risk-based management with best practice recommendations to secure all information. 

This leads to a key difference in the level of risk maturity each framework seeks to address. NIST is considered best for organizations that are in the early stages of developing a risk management plan. ISO 27001, comparatively, is better for operationally mature organizations. Partially, this has to do with cost — NIST is free, while ISO 27001 certification costs anywhere from $5,400 – $20,000+, depending on the size of your business. 

Lastly, there’s the key outcome of customer trust to consider. NIST is an easy way to check on the security of your systems, but ISO 27001 is more recognized throughout the industry. 

“ISO 27001 offers globally-recognized certification via third-party audit that can be costly, but can enhance your organization’s reputation as a business that stakeholders can trust,” noted Auditboard

Companies that are seeking investors, expanding into a new market, or launching a new product line may consider ISO27001 to engender greater confidence in their cybersecurity.  

Security starts with Cloud DLP

Whether you choose to use the NIST or ISO framework to guide your security, cloud DLP is an integral part of any approach. Cloud DLP can help security teams cover the “detect” portion of the NIST framework: Nightfall, for instance, discovers, classifies, and protects data in the cloud by integrating directly on the API level. We leverage machine learning to scan data and its surrounding context, covering both structured and unstructured data with high levels of accuracy. 

Nightfall can help cover industry-specific compliance regulations, too — including GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, and PCI-DSS. Nightfall’s detectors can be configured for sensitive customer data like PII, PHI, and PCI that must be protected by law. Quickly remediate security issues by taking actions to notify admins & quarantine/delete sensitive data. Your organization can better achieve or maintain compliance — avoiding fines, fees, or legal troubles associated with data loss.

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