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Senate Passes MAIN STREET Cybersecurity Act for Small Business

The U.S. Senate has passed the MAIN STREET Cybersecurity Act on Sept. 28, which will require NIST to "disseminate clear and concise resources to help small business concerns identify, assess, manage, and reduce their cybersecurity risks." 

Co-sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), James Risch (R-ID), John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and introduced in March 2017, MAIN STREET's full title is 'Making Available Information Now to Strengthen Trust and Resilience and Enhance Enterprise Technology Cybersecurity Act of 2017'.

The basic requirement is that NIST shall provide cybersecurity resources specifically geared for small businesses (SMEs). Those resources are to promote awareness of simple, basic controls; a workplace cybersecurity culture; and third-party stakeholder relationships, in order to assist SMEs in mitigating common cybersecurity risks. The resources are to be technology-neutral that can be implemented using commercial and off-the-shelf technologies.

They are to be consistent with the requirements of the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014, which gave more weight and support to the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. While widely used by large organizations, the NIST framework is usually ignored by SMEs. 

In a statement of support for MAIN STREET issued in March, Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, pointed out that SMEs provide more than half of all jobs in the U.S., but are unprepared for the effect of cyberattacks. According to figures from the National Cybersecurity Alliance, 60% of small businesses are forced to close following an attack.

"Cyberattacks can have catastrophic effects on small businesses and their customers," he said. "This legislation offers important resources, specifically meeting the unique needs of small businesses, to help them guard sensitive data and systems from thieves and hackers."

"In 2012, nearly 71 percent of cyberattacks occurred in businesses with fewer than 100 employees," said Senator Risch. "These attacks seriously compromise not only the businesses, but also their employees' and customers' personal information. As we work to reduce our nation's cyber vulnerabilities, we must be equally mindful of our responsibility to uniformly educate all small business owners on how to deter these threats."

The small business version of the NIST Framework will need to provide a cybersecurity framework that does not require the high level of investment needed for the full NIST Framework. However, like the full version, it will be voluntary for business. Whether SMBs actually derive practical benefit remains to be seen.

The Ponemon 2016 State of Cybersecurity in SMBs survey found that 50% of small businesses had suffered a data breach in the previous 12 months. SMEs are clearly a target for cybercriminal attacks, but are unprepared to stop them. The primary reasons are twofold: SMEs often think they are too small to be a target, and that effective security can only be achieved with the resources of a large organization.

The first is simply wrong: small businesses are increasingly targeted for extortion (such as ransomware) and credential theft (especially where that business might be part of the supply chain of larger organizations). It is hoped that the new small business Cybersecurity Act will change the second.

A survey of 1,420 small business owners published in March 2017 by Manta suggests that only 69% of small business owners currently have controls in place to prevent hacks -- meaning 1 in 3 small business owners have no safeguards in place. Where controls are used, they tend to be basic: such as antivirus software (17%), firewalls (16%), and spam filters (14%).

"Overall," concludes Manta, "with the growth in hackers targeting small businesses, owners should invest more heavily in cyber defense to prevent attacks, which can often be more crippling for a small business than a large corporation."

Andy Halataei, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs of the Information Technology Industry Council, said at the time the bill was introduced, "Small businesses often don't have the resources they need to guard against sophisticated cyber-attacks, and this legislation can be the helping hand small businesses need to help reduce their cybersecurity risks." He added, "By offering small businesses federal agencies' resources and coordinated support, they can better manage risks, protect customer privacy, and focus on growing their ventures."

The reality for small businesses today is that they face threats from both criminals and government legislation. Legal regulatory requirements, like common cybercriminals, do not differentiate hugely between large and small businesses. For example, any business of whatever size that does business with a member state of the European Union will be subject to the strict requirements of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by May 2018. 

The MAIN STREET Cybersecurity Act of 2017 will hopefully help SMEs protect themselves from both hackers and regulators. It is expected that this Act will rapidly pass through the final stages to become law.

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.