01.08.2018 17:21

"National CERT" vs. "National CSIRTs"

The NIS Directive built upon previous work in the space of network and information security and also tried to use the established language of the field. This worked - up to a point. I'm trying to summarize the differences and pitfalls regarding the term "national CSIRT".

"CERT" vs. "CSIRT"

Initially, a team that took care of computer and network security incidents was called a "CERT", a "Computer Emergency Response Team". That term got trademarked by Carnegie Mellon University and they give licenses to all legit teams who want to use that word.

To get around the trademark issue, the term "CSIRT - Computer Security Incident Response Team" was introduced. In the European academic and research network community, the task force dealing with this topic is thus called "TF-CSIRT".

Both terms used to mean the same thing.

CERT/CSIRT Designation/Accreditation

There is no one-fits-all answer to the question "What is the criteria according to which a security team can call itself a real CERT/CSIRT? ". Here are some indicators:

  1. The right to use the CERT trademark (granted by CMU/CERT-CC)
  2. Membership in FIRST (the global association of CSIRTs)
  3. Registration/Accreditation/Certification in the Trusted Introducer Directory
  4. Formal designation as CSIRT by a national authority according to the national implementation of the NIS-D (Article 9)
  5. Listed on the ENISA CSIRT map
  6. Membership in the CSIRTs Network
  7. Membership in regional CERT associations (e.g. German CERT-Verbund, EGC)
  8. Reputation as a valuable peer built over years of collaboration with other CSIRTs

There is, regrettably, a huge potential for misunderstanding here. Not every CSIRT fulfills point 4 from this list, but in some contexts it might be somehow implied. Perhaps it would be best if we introduce a term like "NIS-CSIRT" for such teams.

"CERT/CSIRT Taxonomy"

CERTs vary a lot: they range from small teams protecting a single company up to being a section of a large "NCSC - national cyber security center". There have been some steps to create a taxonomy of CERTs: a systematic way to describe teams. I have not seen a fully-fledged document about this, but one could start by answering the following questions:

  1. Protect what?
    • Computer Infrastructure: - CSIRT
    • Product Security: - PSIRT
  2. Relation to Constituency?
    • Part of same organization: e.g. siemens-cert
    • CSIRT services are part of some other contract: NREN-CERTs, ISP abuse teams, some GovCERTs, financed by chamber of commerce (or similar) ...
    • Outsourced/Contracted CSIRT service
    • No contractual relationship: national CERTs
    • (Maybe even CSIRT/Constituency relation defined by law)
  3. Definition of the Constituency?
    • Geographic boundary: city, state, country, region, global
    • Specific sector: government, military, academics, sectors of the critical infrastructure or operators of essential services, ...
    • Specific Company: e.g. Siemens AG
  4. Role of the CSIRT?
    • Advisory role only
    • Reporting requirements exist
    • CSIRT can order countermeasures

An overview of teams active in Europe can be found in

"National CERT"

One special type of CERT/CSIRT has always been the "national CERT". As I see it, the national CERT of a country is the team that has the broadest remit: it is supposed to take care of the whole country. That is, of course, not possible in the same way that a company CERT can take care of the infrastructure of the company. Thus, for a national CERT usually the following points apply:

  • Principle of Subsidiarity: If there is another CERT more closely associated with the affected system, then that team will take care of the incident. A national CERT is the "default" or "fallback" CERT.
  • The "national CERT" will act as information hub: both inside the country as well as a point of contact for the country for foreign CERTs.
  • Its role is usually rather hands-off: it will provide guidance, publish warnings, incident notification and will not generally provide on-site remediation help.

CERT-CC organizes a yearly meeting of such national CSIRTs (usually the weekend after the FIRST Conference). It defines a "National CSIRT" as:

A computer emergency response team (CSIRT) with National Responsibility (or "National CSIRT") is a CSIRT that is designated by a country or economy to have specific responsibilities in cyber protection for the country or economy. A National CSIRT can be inside or outside of government, but must be specifically recognized by the government as having responsibility in the country or economy.

The CERT-CC webpage also lists such teams.

ENISA wrote in the 2009 document "Baseline capabilities for national / governmental CERTs"

National CERT Informal definition: a CERT that acts as national point of contact (PoC) for information sharing (like incident reports, vulnerability information and other) with other national CERTs in the EU Member States and worldwide. National CERTs can be considered as "CERT of last resort", which is just another definition of a unique national PoC with a coordinating role. In a lot of cases a national CERT also acts as governmental CERT. Definitions may vary across the EU Member States!

There is usually just one CERT per country that claims the role of the "national CERT", but this is not set in stone. For example, SWITCH-CERT and GovCERT.ch share this role for Switzerland.

CSIRTs according to the NIS Directive

Early drafts of the directive used the term "CERT", the authors switched to "CSIRT" to avoid the trademark issue.

Here are some of the relevant quotes from the NIS-D:

Recital (34)

[...] In order for all types of operators of essential services and digital service providers to benefit from such capabilities and cooperation, Member States should ensure that all types are covered by a designated CSIRT. Given the importance of international cooperation on cybersecurity, CSIRTs should be able to participate in international cooperation networks in addition to the CSIRTs network established by this Directive.

Article 9

1.Each Member State shall designate one or more CSIRTs which shall comply with the requirements set out in point (1) of Annex I, covering at least the sectors referred to in Annex II and the services referred to in Annex III, responsible for risk and incident handling in accordance with a well-defined process. A CSIRT may be established within a competent authority.


4.Member States shall inform the Commission about the remit, as well as the main elements of the incident- handling process, of their CSIRTs.

5.Member States may request the assistance of ENISA in developing national CSIRTs.

To summarize: There are a number of relevant industries (Operators of Essential Services [OES] + Digital Service Providers [DSP]) that a group of CSIRTs in each Member State collectively need to cover. There can be a single CSIRTs covering all, or the responsibility can be split over multiple CSIRTs. The only requirement from the NIS-D is that every identified OES/DSP must have a CSIRT (which is qualified according to Annex I) assigned to it.

The term "national CSIRT" appears here for the first time in the whole directive. I've talked to the Austrian team that was involved in the negotiations of the directive, and I asked them if the text is referencing the concept of the "National CERT" as described above. The clear answer I got is "no, this is just shorthand for a designated (according to Art 9 1.) CSIRT in a Member States".

There are two clear indications that this is the correct interpretation:

  • There is no definition of a "national CSIRT" in the NIS-D, nor a reference to an external definition.
  • The NIS-D is exclusively concerned about the critical infrastructure (OES+DSP), it does not cover the security of the rest of a country: other industries, small and medium enterprises, or private citizens. Those are covered by the old definition of a "national CERT's constituency".

Another data-point here are the FAQs to the Connecting Europe Facilities Call "CEF TELECOM - 2018-3", when discussing the interpretation of "national CSIRTs". See e.g. the answer to question 17:

Yes, it is possible for CSIRTs that cover a specific sector or service to be funded under this call, if they have been designated by a Member State as a CSIRT pursuant to Article 9 of the NIS Directive.

Or the answer to question 18:

A CSIRT is considered eligible in the sense of the call if it has been designated by a Member State as a CSIRT pursuant to Article 9 of the NIS Directive.

The CSIRTs Network

The NIS Directive also establishes a network of CSIRTs:

Article 12:

1.In order to contribute to the development of confidence and trust between the Member States and to promote swift and effective operational cooperation, a network of the national CSIRTs is hereby established.

2.The CSIRTs network shall be composed of representatives of the Member States' CSIRTs and CERT-EU. The Commission shall participate in the CSIRTs network as an observer. ENISA shall provide the secretariat and shall actively support the cooperation among the CSIRTs.

If we take the definition "national CSIRTs" as "NIS CSIRTs in the Member States" then the two paragraphs fit together nicely:

  • Each Member State creates or appoints one or more CSIRTs that cover the NIS constituency (OES + DSP)
  • All of these CSIRTs are members of the CSIRTs Network

If we take the "national CSIRTs" in 1. to mean the special role of the "National CERT", then paragraph 2. is inconsistent, as it talks about the Member States' CSIRTs, and not just the one special national CSIRT.


The language of the NIS Directive regarding "national CSIRTs" does not reflect the meaning of the term as it was used in the years prior to the NIS Directive and how it is still being used outside the NIS context.

In the context of the NIS Directive, "national CSIRT" needs to read as shorthand for "CSIRT in a Member State that has been designated under the national transposition of the NIS-D's Article 9".

This blog post is part of a series of blog posts related to our CEF-Telcom-2016-3 project, which also supports our participation in the CSIRTs Network.

Author: Otmar Lendl