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NIST vs ISO Compliance: What’s the Difference?


nist vs iso

There are hundreds of complex laws and regulations worldwide that organizations find themselves required to follow to keep their data safe. Two of the most common in North America are NIST CSF and ISO 27001. 

While both frameworks aim to protect data and contribute to a stronger security posture, they go about it uniquely. Let’s look at the similarities and differences between NIST CSF and ISO 27001, so you can decide what’s best for your business.



The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) publishes a voluntary set of guidelines for organizations to manage and reduce cybersecurity risks. 

The Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) is for organizations of all sizes, sectors and it’s customizable. 

Basically, NIST CSF was created to acknowledge and standardize specific controls and processes. Most have already been covered and duplicated in existing frameworks. It builds on but does not replace security standards like NIST 800-53 or ISO 27001. NIST CSF is a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your cybersecurity on a budget.


The Five Functions of NIST

According to NIST, it’s designed to cover five functions and is defined as follows: 

  1. Identity
    • Develop an organizational understanding of how to manage cybersecurity risks to systems, people, assets, data, and capabilities. Understanding the business context, the resources that support critical functions, and the related cybersecurity risks enables an organization to focus and prioritize its efforts, consistent with its risk management strategy and business needs.
  2. Protect
    • This function outlines appropriate safeguards to ensure the delivery of critical infrastructure services and supports the ability to limit or contain the impact of a potential cybersecurity event.
  3. Detect
    • Step three defines the appropriate activities to identify the occurrence of a cybersecurity event. The Detect Function enables the timely discovery of cybersecurity events.
  4. Respond
    • This includes appropriate activities to take action regarding a detected cybersecurity incident. The Respond Function supports the ability to contain the impact of a potential cybersecurity incident.
  5. Recover
    • The Recover Function identifies appropriate activities to maintain plans for resilience and to restore any capabilities or services that were impaired due to a cybersecurity incident. It supports timely recovery to normal operations to reduce the impact of a cybersecurity incident.

What Is ISO 27001 

Published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in partnership with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), ISO 27001 is recognized worldwide. It details requirements for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and continually improving an information security management system (ISMS). Any organization that collects sensitive information, small or large, government or private, profit or non-profit, can advance their business with an ISO implementation. Some vendors may require some companies to attain certification before starting a working relationship. Still, many companies pursue ISO 27001 by choice.


ISO 27001 Basics

  • ISO 27001:2013 is the international standard that provides a framework for Information Security Management Systems (ISMS) to provide continued confidentiality, integrity, availability of information and information systems
  • The scope can be limited to some of the business units and not the whole organization 
  • The audit consists of two stages:
    1. The Stage 1 audit, often called a ‘documentation review’ audit because the auditor will review your processes, policies and procedure documents to establish whether they’re in line with the requirements of ISO 27001 and ISMS has been implemented. 
    2. The Stage 2 audit is often referred to as the ‘Certification Audit’. During a Stage 2 audit, the auditor will conduct a thorough on-site assessment to establish whether the organization’s ISMS complies with ISO 27001. 
  • ISO certification is valid for 3 years after the initial issue but companies are required to do surveillance audits for 2 years and year 3 followed by a re-certification audit

NIST CSF and ISO 27001 Similarities

NIST CSF and ISO 27001 and complementary frameworks and both require senior management support, a continual improvement process, and a risk-based approach. 

The risk management framework for both NIST and ISO are alike as well. The three steps for risk management are:

  1. Identify risks to the organization’s information 
  2. Implement controls appropriate to the risk
  3. Monitor their performance

NIST CSF and ISO 27001 Overlap

Most people don’t realize that most security frameworks have plenty of controls in common. As a result, businesses spend a needless amount of time and money on compliance. When you’ve completed your ISO 27001, you’ve achieved 60% of your NIST CSF! What’s really cool is if you’ve implemented NIST CSF then you’re 78% of the way to the ISO 27001 finish line.

An important overlap area is related to maintaining an asset register as recognized by Annex A.8.1 of ISO27001 for asset responsibility and ID.AM of NIST CSF for asset management.


NIST CSF and ISO 27001 Differences

There are some notable variations between NIST CSF and ISO 27001. NIST was created to help US federal agencies and organizations better manage their risk. At the same time, ISO 27001 is an internationally recognized approach for establishing and maintaining an ISMS. ISO 27001 involves auditors and certifying bodies, while NIST CSF is voluntary. That’s right. NIST is a self-certification mechanism but is widely recognized.

NIST frameworks have various control catalogs and five functions to customize cybersecurity controls, while ISO 27001 Annex A provides 14 control categories with 114 controls, and has 10 management clauses to guide organizations through their ISMS. 

ISO 27001 is less technical, with more emphasis on risk-based management that provides best practice recommendations to secure all information.

The ISO 27001 offers a good certification choice for organizations that have operational maturity while the NIST CSF may be best suited for organizations that are in the initial stages of developing a cybersecurity risk program or attempting to mitigate breaches.


The Costs of NIST CSF and ISO 27001

NIST CSF is available free of charge as it’s voluntary. Implementation can be done at your own pace and cost. However, because ISO 27001 involves audits and certification, there’s often a higher expense. ISO certification is valid for three years, and companies are required to do surveillance audits for two years and in year three, they’ll complete a recertification audit. 

So startups will usually kick start their InfoSec program with NIST and work their way up to ISO 27001 as they scale.


NIST CSF and ISO 27001 Can Work Together

Both frameworks tackle information security and risk management from different angles and involve different scopes. Consider the inherent risks in your information systems, available resources, and whether or not you have an existing InfoSec plan. 

Conducting a NIST audit on your own gives you an idea of where your cybersecurity program stands. Then you can make an informed decision before developing and implementing a more recognized framework like ISO 27001.


ISO 27001, NIST CSF and Tugboat Logic

Significant overlap between NIST and ISO 27001 makes them easy to implement together for a more robust security posture. 

Our ISO 27001 framework has all 138 Annex A controls along with the statement of applicability (SoA) to help you determine which controls are relevant and provide justification. It also has extra features specifically for ISO 27001, such as the ISMS checklist and Procedures. 

With the use of NIST CSF on the rise, more small and medium businesses will likely inquire about compliance. We’ve made that easy by offering the NIST CSF framework in Tugboat Logic. And ensuring you can benefit from its ISO 27001 overlap (and other frameworks), we’ve connected the dots through shared evidence tasks. 

So it’s not really a choice between ISO 27001 and NIST CSF. It’s more a question of how your organization will use the certifications. 

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