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A security configuration checklist (sometimes referred to as a lockdown guide, hardening guide, or benchmark configuration) is essentially a document that contains instructions or procedures for configuring an IT product to a baseline level of security. Checklists can be developed not only by IT vendors, but also by consortia, academia, and industry, Federal agencies and other governmental organizations, and others in the public and private sectors. A checklist might include any of the following:
Not all instructions in a security configuration checklist need to be for security settings. Checklists can also include administrative practices for an IT product that go hand-in-hand with improvements to the product's security. Often, successful attacks on systems are the direct result of poor administrative practices such as not changing default passwords or failure to apply new patches.
There are many threats to users' computers, ranging from remotely launched network service exploits to malicious code spread through e-mails, malicious web sites, and file downloads. Vulnerabilities in IT products are discovered on an almost daily basis, and many ready-to-use exploits are widely available on the Internet. Because IT products are often intended for a wide variety of audiences, restrictive security controls are usually not enabled by default, so many IT products are immediately vulnerable out-of-the-box. It is a complicated, arduous, and time-consuming task for even experienced system administrators to identify a reasonable set of security settings for many IT products.
While the solutions to IT security are complex, one basic yet effective tool is the security configuration checklist. To facilitate the development of security configuration checklists and to meet the requirements of the Cyber Security Act, NIST has developed a program to (a) provide vendors and other groups with guidance for developing standardized, high-quality checklists to secure IT products, (b) establish a formal framework for the submission of checklists to NIST, and (c) assist users by making available a checklist repository.
Some of the benefits that organizations and individuals can achieve by using checklists are as follows:
While the use of security configuration checklists can greatly improve overall levels of security in organizations, no checklist can permit a system or a product to become 100% secure. However, use of checklists that emphasize hardening of systems against flaws or bugs inherent in software will typically result in greater levels of product security and protection from future threats.
NIST, with sponsorship from the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), has produced Special Publication 800-70 Rev 4: National Checklist Program for IT Products – Guidelines for Checklist Users and Developers to facilitate the development and dissemination of security configuration checklists so that organizations and individual users can better secure their IT products.
This publication is intended for users and developers of IT product security configuration checklists. For checklist users, this document gives an overview of the NIST Checklist Program, explains how to retrieve checklists from NIST's repository, and provides general information about threat models and baseline technical security policies for associated operational environments. For checklist developers, the document sets forth the policies, procedures, and general requirements for participation in the NIST Checklist Program.
Many organizations have created various checklists; however, these checklists may vary widely in terms of quality and usability and may have become outdated as software updates and upgrades have been released. Because there is no central checklist repository, they can be difficult to find. They may not be well documented with the result being that one checklist may differ significantly from another in terms of the level of security provided. It may be difficult to determine if the checklist is current, or how the checklist should be implemented. While many existing checklists are of high quality and quite usable , the majority of checklists aren't accessible or directly usable by most audiences. Consequently, the goals of the NIST program are:
NIST's program also serves to assist vendors in the process of making their checklists available to users out-of-the-box. In such cases, it will still be advisable for product users to consult the NIST checklist repository for updates to pre-installed checklists.
The NIST program identifies several broad and specialized operational environments, any one of which should be common to most audiences. By identifying and describing these environments, developers can better target their checklists to the general security baselines associated with the environments. End-users can better select the checklists that are most appropriate for their operating environments. The operational environments are as follows:
For specific information on creating and submitting a new or existing checklist, see the FAQ for vendors and checklist developers.
The NIST Checklist Program provides a lifecycle process and guidance for developing checklists in a consistent fashion. For checklist developers, steps include the initial development of the checklist, checklist testing, documenting the checklist according to the guidelines of the program, and submitting a checklist package to NIST. NIST then screens the checklist according to program requirements prior to a public review of the checklist, which typically lasts 30 to 60 days. After the public review period and any subsequent issue resolution, it will be listed on the NIST checklist repository with a detailed description. NIST will periodically ask checklist developers to review their checklists and provide updates as necessary. NIST will retire or archive checklists as they become outdated or incorrect.