What is the Essential 8 Cyber Security Framework? A Comprehensive Guide

Australian organisations must adhere to robust cyber security frameworks to protect sensitive data and ensure business continuity. The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) developed the Essential 8 as a set of baseline strategies to mitigate cyber threats and safeguard business operations.

The Essential 8 offers a comprehensive approach to cyber security, focusing on proactive measures that can significantly reduce the risk of cyber incidents. By implementing these strategies, businesses can enhance their security posture, comply with industry regulations, and protect their reputation.

What is the Essential 8?

The ACSC Essential 8 is a set of recommended strategies developed by the Australian Cyber Security Centre to help organisations bolster their cyber security defences. These strategies are designed to address common cyber threats and vulnerabilities, providing a practical framework that organisations can implement to protect their systems and data.

The primary objectives of the Essential 8 security controls are to:

  • Prevent Cyber-Attacks: Implement measures that reduce the likelihood of cyber threats compromising your systems.
  • Limit the Impact of Incidents: Ensure that, if a breach does occur, its impact is minimised and recovery is swift.
  • Promote Best Practices: Encourage organisations to adopt industry best practices in cyber security, fostering a culture of security awareness and resilience.

Overview of the Essential 8 Security Controls

1. Application Control

Application control involves blocking the execution of unauthorised applications to prevent malware and other unwanted software from running on your systems. Only approved applications are allowed to execute, ensuring that potentially harmful programs are kept at bay.

Implementation Tips:

  • Develop a whitelist of approved applications.
  • Regularly review and update the list to include necessary applications.
  • Use application control software to enforce these rules.
2. Patch Applications

Patching applications involves updating software with the latest security patches to fix vulnerabilities. Unpatched software is a common entry point for attackers, making timely updates crucial.

Best Practices:

  • Establish a regular patching schedule.
  • Prioritise patches based on the severity of the vulnerabilities they address.
  • Test patches in a controlled environment before deploying them to production systems.
3. Patch Operating Systems

Similar to application patching, keeping operating systems updated is vital for closing security gaps. This includes not only applying patches but also upgrading to newer versions when older ones reach end-of-life.

OS Management Strategies:

  • Use automated patch management tools to streamline the process.
  • Monitor for new patches released by operating system vendors.
  • Create a rollback plan in case a patch causes issues.
4. Microsoft Office Macro Settings Configuration

Macros can be exploited to deliver malware. Configuring macro settings helps prevent unauthorised macros from executing, thus protecting your systems.

Configuring Macro Settings:

  • Disable macros by default and only enable them for trusted documents.
  • Use group policies to enforce macro settings across the organisation.
  • Educate users about the risks associated with macros and encourage them to be cautious when enabling them.
5. User Application Hardening

User application hardening involves securing applications that frequently interact with the internet, such as web browsers, email clients, and office suites. This reduces the attack surface and mitigates the risk of exploitation.

Key Practices:

  • Disable unnecessary features and services.
  • Apply security configurations recommended by vendors.
  • Regularly update and patch user applications.
6. Restrict Administrative Privileges

Limiting administrative access reduces security risks of malicious activities and accidental changes that could compromise security.

Admin Access Controls:

  • Implement the principle of least privilege, granting users only the access they need.
  • Use role-based access control (RBAC) to manage permissions.
  • Regularly review and audit admin accounts to ensure compliance.
7. Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide multiple forms of identification before gaining access to systems and data.

How to Implement MFA:

  • Enforce MFA for all remote access and critical systems.
  • Choose MFA solutions that are user-friendly and integrate seamlessly with your existing infrastructure.
  • Educate users on the importance of MFA and provide support for its use.
8. Regular Backups

Regular backups ensure that critical data can be restored in the event of a cyber incident, such as ransomware attacks or data corruption.

Best practices:

  • Schedule automatic backups and ensure they cover all essential data.
  • Store backups in multiple locations, including offsite or cloud storage.
  • Regularly test backup restoration processes to verify their reliability.

Importance of Essential 8 Compliance

Compliance with the Essential 8 helps organisations meet certain regulatory obligations, ensuring that they avoid hefty fines and legal consequences associated with non-compliance. For example, businesses dealing with personal data must comply with the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs) under the Privacy Act. The Essential 8 provides a structured approach to meet these requirements.

Cyber security regulations are continually evolving to address emerging cyber risks and threats. Organisations that adhere to the Essential 8 are better positioned to adapt to these changes, as the framework is designed to be flexible and comprehensive. Staying compliant helps businesses avoid the rush to implement last-minute changes when new regulations come into effect.

Finally, customers, partners, and stakeholders expect businesses to take cyber security seriously. Demonstrating Essential 8 compliance shows a commitment to protecting sensitive information, which helps build trust and confidence. A strong security posture can be a significant differentiator in the marketplace, attracting customers who prioritise data security.

Essential 8 Maturity Model: Which Level is Your Business?

The ACSC Essential 8 provides a maturity model to help organisations assess and enhance their implementation of these strategies. These maturity levels guide organisations in understanding the depth and effectiveness of their cyber security measures, and where they need to improve.

The maturity model ranges from Level 0 to Level 3, with each level indicating a higher degree of implementation and effectiveness.

Maturity Level 0: Incomplete

At this level, the organisation has not implemented any of the Essential 8 strategies, or has done so in an ad-hoc and inconsistent manner. There is no formal plan or documentation.

Organisations at this level are highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks as their defences are minimal or non-existent. Immediate action needs to be taken at this level.

Maturity Level 1: Partially Aligned

Some of the Essential 8 security controls are implemented, but they are not fully effective. Implementation at this level may be inconsistent across the organisation, with no comprehensive approach.

While there are some cyber security measures in place, they may not provide adequate protection against sophisticated threats. The organisation is still at significant risk of cyber incidents, and needs to take action to strengthen its cyber security framework.

Maturity Level 2: Mostly Aligned

Most of the Essential 8 strategies are implemented and there is a consistent approach across the organisation. However, some gaps may still exist, and not all measures are fully effective.

The organisation has a reasonable level of protection and can defend against many common cyber threats. Continuous improvement is necessary to address remaining vulnerabilities and achieve full alignment.

Maturity Level 3: Fully Aligned

All of the Essential 8 strategies are fully implemented and integrated into the organisation’s operations. There is a high level of consistency and effectiveness in their application.

The organisation has a robust cyber security posture, capable of defending against a wide range of threats. Regular reviews and updates ensure that security measures remain effective and aligned with the latest best practices.

Ensure Essential 8 Compliance with Expert Guidance

The ACSC Essential 8 provides a comprehensive framework for enhancing your organisation’s cyber security posture. However, it is important to note that organisations at Maturity Level 3 are not infallible, and should build on the Essential 8 framework with additional cyber security solutions and strategies, rather than solely relying on those eight controls.

National IT Solutions specialises in aligning businesses with the ACSC Essential 8. Our experts will assess your current cyber security posture, develop a tailored implementation plan for the Essential 8, and provide ongoing support and additional cyber security solutions to keep your systems and data secure.