More than just an ocean separates American and European approaches to cybersecurity

The recent revision of the National Standards and Technology Institute’s (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework and the publication of European Network and Security Agency’s (ENISA) proposals on implementation of the Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive have made me pause and ponder the progress made (or indeed not) in securing our critical infrastructures since they were both introduced. I was also struck by how much the differences in political culture affect policy outcomes, even when these are largely supported by the broad ecosystems they seek to regulate and/or influence.

The starting point was strikingly similar for both economic powers: the Directive and the Framework seek to improve cybersecurity of critical infrastructures. They came out at around the same time in early 2013, when the European Commission first introduced the Directive and when Obama signed the Executive Order that set out the process that ultimately resulted in the Cybersecurity Framework.

Given the considerable differences in the US and the EU political, legislative and executive “machines” it is no surprise that, even with these common starting points, the two have followed very different paths. The Framework is undergoing its first major revision in 3 years based on changes in threat and experiences of global adopters. The Directive is now only beginning the implementation phase in the  EU member states.

The NIST’s creation of the Framework has been rightly held up as a successful example of public-private partnership. It used an open, collaborative and iterative development process to harness the expertise and experience of cyber and non-cyber stakeholders, hosting numerous open workshops and consulting widely, and not just within the US itself. The result was a Framework that is now being referenced around the world, by businesses and governments and it is being considered as a starting point for ISO 27103.

On the other hand, the processes of aligning 28 different sets of national cybersecurity agendas, and of securing a common view from a European Parliament that has somewhere between four and six major party groups, took considerably longer than the gestation of the Framework. It was a monumental effort and investment on the part of Europe. There were working groups and workshops too, but perhaps because of the efforts to coordinate the necessary agreements at the “top” the resulting Directive lacked some of the obvious “bottom-up” characteristics of the Framework. But the benefit of the Directive, creates durable institutions in EU member states, coordination processes, and security baselines. As a result, the it is likely to result in a very different return on investment than the Framework.

But this should not just be a story of different approaches to cybersecurity policy. The EU approach to building institutions and setting capabilities requirements, if implemented and evolved, will help provide a layer of coordination and security that did not exist. The Framework’s voluntary nature and global adoption is better at preparing enterprises – public and private – for improving risk management measures.

These are substantial differences, from the perspective of both businesses and regulators in these two approaches. However, in the end they may complement each other more than we see today. For example, several EU member states already reference the Framework within their approaches to cybersecurity as they seek to leverage implementing terminology and standards. Looking forward, therefore, it is possible that the two approaches could converge in practical ways. Parts of the Framework might evolve into an international standard, as referenced above, one that can be utilized by a great number of countries. Equally, the implementation of the Directive at EU member state level, and the identification of reference standards, could establish a model that other regions might follow.

Cybercriminals and cyberattacks will inevitably be encouraged and enabled by serious divergence in approaches to cybersecurity, wherever in the world these occur. As such, it seems essential that steps are taken on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure closer harmonization, both to improve the situation of the US and the EU and to set an example to the rest of the world.

About the Author
Paul Nicholas

Senior Director, Trustworthy Computing

Paul Nicholas leads Microsoft’s Global Security Strategy and Diplomacy Team, which focuses on driving strategic change, both within Microsoft and externally, to advance infrastructure security and resiliency. His team addresses global challenges related to risk management, incident response, emergency communications, Read more »