Processes and Benefits of Conducting a CIS Controls Assessment

In my last paper I went over the reasons why conducting a Center for Internet Security (CIS) controls assessment is a good way to build a roadmap for establishing a solid information security program at your organization. This week I’m going to discuss how a CIS controls assessment is conducted, the control categories that make up the current CIS Critical Security Controls (version 8) and the results that you can expect to get from the assessment.

The first step in conducting a CIS controls assessment is determining which CIS implementation group (IG1, IG2 or IG3) your organization should aspire to achieve. For simple organizations that do not have a complex network, and that do not hold sensitive private or regulated data, IG1 may be appropriate. However, for most commercial businesses, implementation groups IG2 and IG3 are recommended. These higher levels of controls offer higher safeguards for private/regulated data and help the organization resist focused cyber-attacks such as ransomware. At this time, the organization also determines the amount of time they wish to allow for reaching their aspirational security goals. This can vary from one organization to the next, but a typical time frame for full implementation is three years.

The next step in the process involves interviewing knowledgeable persons in the organization in order to compare the CIS V8 controls to your current information security measures. The interviewer will question your personnel about each security control and rate your organization’s compliance as:

  • Steady-state operational: these are controls that are already being used by the organization and that are included in written policies and procedures. To assure that these controls are in place, the assessor will ask for proofs such as screen shots or records.
  • Ad-hoc: these are controls that the organization does employ at least somewhat, but that are not documented or applied systematically.
  • Non-existent: these, obviously, are controls that the organization does not employ at all.
  • Non-applicable: these are controls that are recommended by the standard, but do not apply to the technology stack or processes that are in use in the organization.

This interview process will probably take 2 or more sessions to complete as there are currently 18 control categories in version 8 of the controls. These include:

  1. Inventory and control of enterprise assets
  2. Inventory and control of software assets
  3. Data protection
  4. Secure configuration of enterprise assets and software
  5. Account management
  6. Access control management
  7. Continuous vulnerability management
  8. Audit log management
  9. Email and web browser protections
  10. Malware defenses
  11. Data recovery
  12. Network infrastructure management
  13. Network monitoring and defense
  14. Security awareness and skills training
  15. Service provider management
  16. Application software security
  17. Incident response management
  18. Penetration testing

In the next step of the process, the assessors will perform written gap analyses of both the baseline security controls (IG1) and the aspirational security controls (IG2 & IG3). These gap analyses will detail percentages of controls that are compliant, ad-hoc, non-existent and NA, and detail the levels of risk that these gaps pose to the organization.

Finally, the assessors will document a detailed roadmap for closing the gaps found during the assessment and meeting the control goals of the organization. This roadmap is typically split into several phases. With a three-year overall timeframe for achieving aspirational goals, these phases will include immediate goals (3-6 months), short-term goals, (6-12 months), intermediate goals (13-24 months) and long-term goals (25-36 months).

These roadmaps are quite detailed. They list the recommended controls to be implemented during each time period. They also list the estimated technical complexity, political complexity and financial cost of implementing each control rated as high, medium or low. Other implementation guidance is also listed for each control as necessary.

As can be seen from this overview, conducting a CIS security controls assessment will provide your organization with a clear understanding of where you are now, where you need to be in the future and what you need to do to reach your security goals. This will bring an end to much of the confusion and frustration entailed in implementing an information security program. It will also give your organization the comfort of knowing that you are working with cutting edge information security controls that give you the most bang for your buck!