A Quick Guide to CIS Critical Security Controls

Publication date: Feb 16, 2024

Last Published: Feb 16, 2024

Table of Contents
Read Time : 9 minutes

Given the increasingly sophisticated and pervasive nature of cyber threats, it’s only natural for organizations to be searching for robust strategies to bolster their cybersecurity defenses. One comprehensive set of best practices that many organizations sooner or later stumble upon in their quest for improved security is the CIS Critical Security Controls (CIS Controls) guidelines. This article aims to demystify the CIS Controls to help you implement them in your organization. 

What Are the CIS Controls?

The CIS Controls represent a set of consensus-driven, rigorously tested strategies designed to thwart the most prevalent and dangerous threats to cybersecurity. 

Initiated in 2008 and periodically updated to keep pace with the evolving digital threat landscape and technological advancements, the freely available publication of best practice guidelines is the fruit of collaboration among commercial forensics experts, penetration testers, and contributors from various U.S. government agencies. Since 2008, eight versions of the CIS have been released, the latest one in 2021. 

At their core, the CIS Controls are designed to simplify the complex landscape of cybersecurity into manageable parts. These parts are then associated with clear, actionable guidance that any organization can implement in a step-by-step manner, starting with high-priority areas that, when secured, can significantly reduce the risk of a cyber attack. The CIS Controls align with various industry regulations, providing a pathway to compliance with standards such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, GDPRCMMC, and more. In fact, several government entities recognize the CIS Controls as a benchmark for demonstrating a reasonable level of security.

CIS Controls at a Glance

The 8th version of the guidelines includes a streamlined set of 18 controls (the previous version included 20). 

The CIS Controls outlines each control with a concise overview of its purpose, its critical role in combatting cyber threats, including how its absence could be exploited, alongside practical procedures and tools for implementation. Most importantly, it provides guidance on the implementation of specific safeguards associated with the control.

The safeguards are organized into Implementation Groups (IGs), which are self-assessed categories that identify a specific subset of the CIS Controls deemed widely suitable by the community for organizations sharing a similar risk profile:

  • IG1: Targets small to medium-sized businesses with limited IT and cybersecurity resources, focusing on safeguards that are easy to implement and designed to counter general, non-targeted attacks.
  • IG2: Builds on IG1 by adding safeguards for organizations with more complex IT infrastructures and higher sensitivity data, addressing increased operational complexity and regulatory compliance requirements.
  • IG3: Includes all safeguards from IG1 and IG2. This IG is aimed at organizations with specialized cybersecurity expertise that deal with sensitive information or functions under strict regulatory and compliance oversight.

Let’s break down the 18 controls into easily digestible summaries to illustrate how they collectively form a robust defense mechanism against cyber threats:

1. Inventory and Control of Enterprise Assets

Number of safeguards: 5

Since an organization can’t secure what it doesn’t know exists, the foundation of robust cybersecurity begins with a thorough understanding and management of all enterprise assets. Enterprise assets include everything from end-user devices, network devices, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, servers, to hardware assets in cloud environments. 

2. Inventory and Control of Software Assets

Number of safeguards: 7

Building on the premise of hardware asset management, the second control recognizes that it’s not enough to just account for physical devices; organizations must also achieve comprehensive oversight of all software—operating systems and applications. This control is essential for identifying authorized software and preventing unauthorized, outdated, and vulnerable software from being installed or run. 

3. Data Protection

Number of safeguards: 14

The third control is centered around the active management of data through its life cycle so that sensitive information is encrypted, properly stored, and accessible only to authorized individuals. It addresses the need to protect data from unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, and destruction, which are key to maintaining confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

4. Secure Configuration of Enterprise Assets and Software

Number of safeguards: 12

This control addresses the need to establish and maintain secure configurations for all enterprise assets and software applications. Default configurations from manufacturers often prioritize ease of use over security, leaving systems vulnerable to exploitation through open services, default passwords, and unnecessary software. 

5. Account Management

Number of safeguards: 6

Control 5 is all about the critical process of managing user credentials and authorizations for both user and administrator accounts, as well as service accounts, across enterprise assets and software. This control is vital because legitimate user credentials are often the weakest link in cybersecurity, offering a simpler path for attackers than traditional hacking methods. 

6. Access Control Management

Number of safeguards: 8

Access control management ensures that access privileges are strictly aligned with the user’s role by enforcing the principle of least privilege and need-to-know basis. As such, it helps protect sensitive information and enterprise assets by minimizing the risk of unauthorized access or data breaches.

7. Continuous Vulnerability Management

Number of safeguards: 7

The purpose of continuous vulnerability management is to proactively identify, assess, and address vulnerabilities across all assets an organization has within its infrastructure. This continuous process is paramount as it helps minimize the window of opportunity for attackers by staying ahead of potential threats through regular vulnerability scans, monitoring for new vulnerabilities, and promptly implementing patches or remediations. 

8. Audit Log Management

Number of safeguards: 12

The collection, review, and retention of audit logs is essential for detecting, understanding, or recovering from cyber attacks as they often contain the only traces of a successful attack, offering insights into the attackers’ actions, tools, and methods. To have a complete picture of all network activity, organizations should log both system- and user-level events. 

9. Email and Web Browser Protections

Number of safeguards: 7

Many threats originate from email and web browsing activities due to the direct interaction users have with potentially malicious external content when they engage in them. By implementing spam filtering, malware scanning, use of secure configurations, and educating users on the dangers of phishing and unsafe web browsing practices, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of compromise. 

10. Malware Defenses

Number of safeguards: 7

In an era where malicious software continuously evolves to breach organizations large and small, malware defenses are essential for detecting, preventing, and controlling this threat. Their implementation involves the deployment of automated, up-to-date protection mechanisms across all potential entry points to effectively counteract the sophisticated tactics employed by attackers. 

11. Data Recovery

Number of safeguards: 5

Data recovery deals with the establishment and maintenance of robust data recovery strategies in order for critical business data to be recoverable to a pre-incident, trusted state. Effective data recovery practices are essential not only for bouncing back from incidents caused externally by threats like ransomware attacks but also for incidents caused internally by human errors. 

12. Network Infrastructure Management

Number of safeguards: 8

The purpose of this control is to protect against attackers exploiting vulnerable network services and access points, which include but are not limited to routers, switches, firewalls, and wireless access points. The emphasis is on moving away from default configurations that often prioritize convenience over security, thereby closing potential security gaps such as open ports, default passwords, and outdated protocols. 

13. Network Monitoring and Defense

Number of safeguards: 11

Control 13 mandates the implementation of continuous monitoring across an organization’s network to detect and thwart security threats. By integrating technology with skilled human analysis, organizations can achieve a nuanced understanding of their security landscape, enabling rapid detection and response to incidents. 

14. Security Awareness and Skills Training

Number of safeguards: 9

This control acknowledges that the behaviors and actions of individuals are often the linchpins in the effectiveness of an enterprise’s security posture. By educating employees on the importance of security best practices, the risks of common threats such as phishing, and the proper handling of sensitive information, organizations can significantly mitigate the risk of security incidents. 

15. Service Provider Management

Number of safeguards: 7

With outsourcing being commonplace, it’s essential to establish a rigorous process for evaluating and managing the cybersecurity practices of third-party service providers that handle sensitive data or manage critical IT platforms. Through regular assessments, inventory management, and risk rating, organizations can mitigate risks posed by external partners. 

16. Application Software Security

Number of safeguards: 14

CIS Control 16 focuses on fortifying applications, whether developed in-house, hosted elsewhere, or acquired, against software vulnerabilities that attackers actively exploit. This means establishing secure development practices, diligently addressing weaknesses before they can be exploited, and continuously improving application security posture as threats and technologies evolve.

17. Incident Response Management

Number of safeguards: 9

Even the most robust cybersecurity defenses can occasionally be breached. That’s why this control emphasizes the importance of having a well-defined incident response plan that empowers an organization to quickly detect, contain, and investigate cyber attacks. This includes developing clear procedures, assigning roles and responsibilities, conducting regular exercises, and maintaining open communication channels—all essential for minimizing damage and preventing future security breaches.

18. Penetration Testing

Number of safeguards: 5

The last control is intended to put organizations’ cyber defenses to the ultimate test by employing skilled penetration testers to simulate real-world cyber attacks in order to reveal hidden vulnerabilities and demonstrate the potential impact of weaknesses. Penetration testing helps organizations prioritize fixes, validate their existing defenses, and discover areas for improvement. In other words, it provides a roadmap for improving the ability to withstand and recover from real attacks.

How OSIbeyond Can Help You Implement the CIS Controls

While the CIS Controls provide a valuable framework, it’s essential to recognize that their implementation must be customized to align with your organization’s specific assets, risk profile, and industry regulations. 

For small and medium-sized businesses grappling with limited resources and in-house expertise, attempting to handle CIS Control implementation alone can become overwhelming. That’s where OSIbeyond steps in. As a managed cybersecurity services provider, we understand what it takes to protect an organization against the latest threats in a way that supports its growth instead of suffocating it. 

Our team can guide you through:

  • Risk assessment: We start by assessing your unique risks and vulnerabilities to determine the most impactful starting point for your CIS Control implementation.
  • Prioritization and action plan: We collaborate with you to prioritize specific safeguards, mapping out an achievable roadmap tailored to your organization, with realistic milestones and expectations.
  • Implementation and ongoing support: Our professionals help you deploy the necessary safeguards. They will then provide ongoing monitoring, threat detection, and incident response, so that your organization stays ahead of evolving cybersecurity threats.

Take a decisive step towards enhancing your cybersecurity posture. Contact OSIbeyond today to schedule a consultation and find out how we can help you implement the CIS Controls effectively and efficiently. Let’s fortify your defenses together!

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