Towards a Cyber Security Label for SMEs: A European Perspective
Christophe Ponsard, Jeremy Grandclaudon and Gautier Dallons
CETIC Research Centre, Charleroi, Belgium
Cyber Security, SME, Security Controls, Information Security Management System.
Most SMEs underestimate or minimize the cyber security risks they have to face. Moreover, they are not
aware that the security context is changing rapidly at different levels. At legislative level, new reference
frameworks are created such as the GDPR. At normative level, security standards are evolving and increasingly
required. At technical level, threats and technologies are progressing in parallel making security control and
management a complex task. This position paper presents our approach and current progress in developing a
cyber security label for SMEs supported by accredited third party companies expert in this field. The pursued
goal is to raise the awareness of SMEs w.r.t. cyber security and to help them achieving and maintaining
an adequate level of protection. We position our work in the landscape of existing frameworks and similar
labelling initiatives developed in other European countries.
Our world is now hyper-connected with new tech-
nologies like Cloud, Internet of Things, Big Data de-
veloping at a fast pace. Many companies are eager to
adopt them given the high potential of value creation
through new business models (e.g. SaaS) or simpli-
fied IT management (e.g. Cloud hosted IT infrastruc-
ture). In this evolution, cyber security is often over-
looked while at the same time it involves new security
threats and ever increasing exposure to attacks. The
2016 report of the US-CERT to congress shows that
over the past ten years, reported incidents have been
multiplied by 14 with a double digit annual grow of
roughly 30% (Slye, 2016) (Donovan, 2016).
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are
known to play a key role in the worldwide economy.
In European countries they employ 2/3 of the work-
force and generate about 60% of the total added value
(Muller et al., 2015). SMEs are characterised by a
high degree of flexibility, a multitasking staff, a fo-
cus on the innovative development of a limited num-
ber of products or services and a low adherence to
procedures and standards. Regarding cyber security,
SMEs might just not be aware of the threats on their
business or think they are not worth being tackled.
Many also just have a false sense of security. This was
true to some extend in the past but the situation has
completely changed over the past few years (Smith,
2016). Different sources report that about half of cy-
ber attacks actually target SMEs (Symantec, 2017).
The main reasons is that SMEs are easy targets with
a good value vs risk ratio: most of the time, they un-
derestimate their data value (e.g. high-tech start-up)
(Hayes and Bodhani, 2013). SMEs can also be used
as relays towards bigger targets (Osborn et al., 2015).
Unfortunately most don’t get a second chance, as an
estimated 60% of companies go out of business within
a semester after being attacked (Leclair, 2015).
To face this evolution the market has already re-
acted and it becomes more and more frequent for
SMEs to be questioned about their cyber security pre-
caution in a call for tender process or to have spe-
cific clauses added to their contracts (CybSafe, 2017).
Public authorities are also reacting and have identi-
fied the need to help but also to force SMEs to adopt
a mature approach to face cyber security threats. At
European level, the main on-going initiatives are:
The European Union Agency for Network and In-
formation Security (ENISA) is conducting sur-
veys and publishing specific guides addressing
SMEs cyber security needs. ENISA also issued a
number of recommendations to increase the level
of adoption of security standards by SMEs. In ad-
dition to easing the access to knowledge and in-
cluding SMEs in the standard development and
review process, it also proposes the definition of
certification schemes and the creation of standards
specifically tailored for SMEs. It stresses the need
of low cost and lightweight approaches that can fit
Ponsard, C., Grandclaudon, J. and Dallons, G.
Towards a Cyber Security Label for SMEs: A European Perspective.
DOI: 10.5220/0006657604260431
In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy (ICISSP 2018), pages 426-431
ISBN: 978-989-758-282-0
Copyright © 2018 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
SMEs capabilities (ENISA, 2015).
The European Digital SME Alliance fosters the
SME ecosystem by developing a “EU trusted so-
lution” label that would stress European qualities
like data protection and high security standards.
It would also accelerate the development process
across the ecosystem and act as a differentiator es-
pecially to increase the international visibility of
European SMEs (Digital SME Alliance, 2017).
The European Commission is investigating the
possibility of creating a framework for certifi-
cation of relevant ICT products and services.
It would be complemented by a voluntary and
lightweight labelling scheme for the security of
ICT products (EU, 2016).
To improve the protection of personal data, the EU
has issued a new General Data Protection Regula-
tion (GDPR). (EU, 2016). It will be enforced in
May 2018 and comes at the price of a strict data
protection compliance regime with severe penal-
ties. Demonstrating cybersecurity maturity will
thus be part of measures to avoid data breaches.
While the idea of some form of labelling is clearly in
the air, the following caveats should be avoided, as
stressed by Digital Europe (Alex Whalen, 2017):
As cyber security has no border, EU should take
into account the existing international ecosystem.
A new EU certification scheme cannot be the
unique answer in a complex cyberspace.
False sense of security possibly induced by la-
belling should be complemented e.g. by bench-
marking of security practices
Avoid rigid and costly schemes: the approach
should be affordable by SMEs and allow some
form of voluntary and agile self-certification.
As many other countries, the need to better sup-
port SMEs has also triggered an initiative to define
and deploy a cyber security labelling scheme oper-
ated by a network of third party expert companies,
supported by specific public funding (e.g. cyber se-
curity vouchers). As highlighted above, such a work
should not be done in isolation but as much as pos-
sible aligned with strategic directions. It should also
rely on similar existing or on-going work carried out
in other countries having progressed on this topic.
The aim of this position paper is therefore to out-
line the main directions to build a realistic cyber secu-
rity labelling approach addressing the needs of SMEs.
Its overall goals should include raising awareness and
helping them reach a first level of assurance and matu-
rity. The process followed was to perform an in-depth
review of existing frameworks and emerging national
labels. Those were ranked against a number of re-
quired criteria for their adoption by SMEs. We also
collected existing feedback, especially about specific
barriers reported to deploy a specific approach.
This paper is structured as follows. Section 2 iden-
tifies relevant constraints and needs SMEs have to
face when dealing with cyber security. Section 3 gives
an overview of the existing approaches in the light of
those needs. In this light, Section 4 highlights a pro-
posed realistic approach. Finally, Section 5 describes
our roadmap to implement such a label in Belgium.
A survey made in 2014 among UK SMEs shows
some interesting findings about their perception and
approach of cyber security (Osborn et al., 2015):
1. Only 21% of the respondents have shown a low
awareness about basic security guidelines.
2. One of the main reported barriers is the lack of
trust and quality regarding available information,
amongst others such as the lack of resources or
3. 39% have done an in-depth risk analysis including
cyber security and 48% keep the company’s risk
analysis, policies and backups up to date.
4. Most SMEs are aware of the reasons why cyber
security measures are necessary.
5. The cost is still the main barrier for implementing
cyber security solutions and standards, as those
are designed for bigger companies.
The bottom line is that most SMEs already have
a good level of awareness and are ready to devote re-
sources to cyber security. However they lack “simple
effective measures that are not too time-consuming
and require a great in depth knowledge of IT sys-
tems”. This lack of reliable sources of truth and guid-
ance is a huge hindrance for them and the perceived
incentives are not sufficient to break that barrier.
Given the limited space, we just give an overview
of the main requirements gathered from different
surveys (Boateng and Osei, 2013)(Osborn et al.,
2015)(Padfield, 2015) and our own interactions with
local SMEs. They are structured according to the
FFIEC Cybersecurity Domains:
Management and oversight: the whole organisa-
tion should be committed with management sup-
port. A dedicated person should be identified and
given resources. Roles could be aligned with risk
management process to make the link with the
Towards a Cyber Security Label for SMEs: A European Perspective
company assets. Some internal training/aware-
ness should be organised. A plan-do-check-act
type of governance should be set up.
Intelligence and collaboration: guidelines should
be available for classical SME network architec-
ture (e.g. with/without central office).
Controls: easy to implement controls should be
available. They must be easy to operate internally
with limited amount of outside expertise (e.g. to
help select and install adequate controls).
External Dependency Management: external in-
terfaces should be clearly identified and related to
the assets to help identifying the protection level.
Incident management and resilience: basic busi-
ness continuity actions should be available (in-
cluding backup strategy, alternative processes,...)
This section reviews a few emerging labels focusing
on SMEs and bigger frameworks that can be adapted
to the needs identified in the previous section. In the
process, we eliminated some approaches too domain-
specific (e.g.IEC-62443 for industrial automation) or
without any track records with SMEs.
3.1 CyberEssentials (UK)
Cyber Essentials is a UK government scheme
launched in 2014 to encourage organisations to adopt
good practices in information security (UK Govern-
ment, 2016). It includes an assurance framework and
a simple set of security controls to protect informa-
tion from threats coming from the internet. It was de-
veloped in collaboration with industry organisations
combining expertise in Information Security (ISF),
SMEs (IASME) and standardisation (BSI).
Figure 1: Self-assessment proposed by Cyber essentials.
There are two level of certification: a basic level
which is based on a self-assessment that can be in-
dependently verified and a ”plus” level featuring a
higher level of assurance through the external testing
of the organisation’s cyber security. Certifying Bodies
are licensed by 5 Accreditation Bodies which are cur-
rently appointed by UK government. Figure 1 shows
part of the proposed self-assessment questionnaire.
In order to support SMEs in adhering to the ap-
proach, the UK government has deployed a specific
voucher scheme including coaching, documentation
and certification. It was quite successful: more than
2000 Cyber Essentials and Cyber Essentials Plus cer-
tifications have been issued since the launch. Once
certified, the SME can also advertise about the fact it
takes cyber security seriously boosting its reputation
and providing a competitive selling point.
3.2 BSI and VDS (Germany)
A German cyber security act has been issued in 2010
to face the rise of cyber crime. A concern is the im-
pact of certification on companies. Compliance mea-
sures have to reflect the “current state of the technol-
ogy” and this work has to be carried out by the Federal
Office for Information Security (BSI) for each sector.
To our knowledge, initiatives for SMEs are origi-
nating from the private sector, e.g. by VdS which has
developed certifications targeting manufacturers, ser-
vice providers and end consumers. Their scheme has
four levels, starting from self-assessment (see Figure
2 to the full ISO27001. The certification body ap-
proves service providers for the consultancy of infor-
mation security/cyber security for a limited time.
Figure 2: Self-assessment proposed by VDS.
3.3 ANSSI Certification (France)
The French government announced in 2015 their
new digital security strategy, led by the ANSSI (The
French Network and Information Security Agency)
and designed to support the digital transition of
French society. The ANSSI certification process is
based on the Common Criteria.
ICISSP 2018 - 4th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
A French cyber security label was also created in
the wake of this new strategy and aimed only French
products and companies (ANSSI, 2014).
3.4 Italian Cyber Security Framework
The Italian government has published their Frame-
work in 2015, largely inspired from the framework
for improving critical infrastructure cyber security
(NIST), targeted to critical infrastructures. Their main
modifications can be found in a strong focus on the
Italian economic context (large numbers of SMEs)
and a dedicated part on the contextualization. A com-
pany willing to use the document should first establish
its context before selecting the right subcategory and
Framework Core, as in the ”vanilla” NIST. This a not
a standard but a common reference.
3.5 ISO27001 for SMEs
The ISO standard sets out more than 130 individual
security controls grouped into 11 key areas. Not all
controls have to be implemented, as they can be se-
lected on the basis of a professional risk assessment.
A SME will find that such a standard contains many
controls that are not relevant or appropriate to their
circumstances, but might occasionally be required by
a large customer or business partner to demonstrate
their level of compliance.
ISO previously produced a guide which is now ob-
solete w.r.t. the last version of the standard. Criticism
have also been raised on the lack of value-driven ap-
proach of this standard (Lieberman, 2011).
3.6 NIST Cyber Security Framework
The NIST Cyber Security Framework (NIST CSF) is
a US policy framework providing computer security
guidance for helping organizations to assess and im-
prove their ability to prevent, detect, and respond to
cyber attacks (NIST, 2014). It is not a prescriptive
standard but aims at defining a common language and
systematic methodology for managing cyber risk. It
is supposed to give a broad and stable base in cyber
security and the users have to adapt it to their needs.
It will not give to the board the acceptable amount of
cyber risks the company can tolerate or not, neither a
mythical ”all in one” formula to banish cyber attacks.
But it sure will enable best practices to become stan-
dard practices for everyone, via a common lexicon to
enable actions across diverse stakeholders.
The framework is organised around a sound set
of ve concurrent and continuous functions address-
ing different steps to process cyber threats: Identify,
Protect, Detect, Respond, Recover. It also provides
progressive implementation tiers depicted in Figure
3. The framework can realistically be used by SMEs
(Sage, 2015) and is actually used by the Italian frame-
work described in Section 3.4.
Figure 3: NIST cyber security Framework Tiers.
3.7 ISSA5173 (UK)
The ISSA 5173 aims is to encourage SMEs to take
steps to secure their customers and employees data,
and raise awareness of the relevant legislation that ap-
plies to them regarding data security. Although the
standard does not seem to be actively developed, it
defines an interesting prioritization scheme depicted
in Figure 4 (ISSA, 2011).
Figure 4: Prioritization of security measures in ISSA5173.
3.8 Top 20 Critical Security Controls
In 2008, a consensus of defensive and offensive secu-
rity practitioners developed guidelines consisting of
20 key actions, called critical security controls that
organizations should take to block or mitigate known
attacks. Those controls support automated means to
implement, enforce and monitor them. They are also
expressed in terms easily understood by IT staff. Spe-
cific guides are also available to help SMEs imple-
ment them with low budget (Eubanks, 2011).
Initially developed by the SANS Institute, those
controls are now maintained by the Center for Internet
Security to keep addressing the highest threats. They
are organised in two progressive sets: the first 5 con-
trols focus on inventory and configuration manage-
ment and help eliminating most of the vulnerabilities
while the additional 15 controls help securing against
today’s most pervasive threats (CIS, 2016).
Towards a Cyber Security Label for SMEs: A European Perspective
Table 1: Possible prioritization of security measures.
3.9 Comparison Summary
Table 1 summarises previous approaches. It eases
comparing and combining them to help with build-
ing our own approach without reinventing the wheel
and staying aligned with existing works.
Our label is aimed at any SME wishing to demon-
strate a level of maturity in information security. Its
purpose is to define the level of cyber security matu-
rity for an enterprise on a relevant scale. It would re-
flect a level reached by the company in terms of cyber
security and could be used by actors outside the com-
pany such as customers, suppliers, subcontractors, in-
surers or even computer crime investigators.
The envisioned approach is based on a framework
both strong and adaptable to SME needs like the NIST
CSF, similarly to the Italian approach. It would rely
on the five NIST categories and for each category use
the Tier approach as detailed in Section 3.6 which en-
ables a maturity scale. The global organisation is de-
picted in Figure 5, it includes both the certification
of provider that will be allowed to deliver the label.
To encourage SME to better protect themselves and
Figure 5: Proposed Labelling Scheme.
engage in the label, the public authorities have also
launched cyber security vouchers that can be used for
consultancy and labelling by certified companies.
The combination of these categories and tiers in
the label will give a clear overview for the SMEs situ-
ation and its context. This is the real challenge in the
galaxy of existing frameworks, recommendations and
ICISSP 2018 - 4th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
controls. The label has to be smart and flexible, de-
signed and/or adapted for tight resources and budget.
A small bakery and a sensible data processing com-
pany do not have the same budget and are not con-
fronted to the same threats, the approach obviously
has to be tailored without sacrificing the security.
The problematic surrounding cyber security in the
context of SMEs is real and not new. The standards
and frameworks were first designed with large com-
panies in mind as they were the biggest targets. As
these actors are now becoming tougher, the attacks
have shifted to smaller and more vulnerable targets:
SMEs. Current effort by governments to help them
is currently more driven by best effort than concrete
solutions. SMEs are by definition very heterogeneous
and a single solution can’t fit all, while classic stan-
dards and frameworks are not tailored for them. The
need for a comprehensive, flexible and cost-minded
framework is clear hence main actors such as Euro-
pean union and major standards are beginning to work
on it. There is space for a more local and close-to-the-
market approach to start the process with SMEs and
prepare them when the classic behemoths will begin
to issue recommendations and regulations.
After having outlined our approach and engaged
with the relevant IT cluster and our public authorities,
our work is now to collaboratively refine the practical
label organisation and conduct first labelling pilots.
This research was partly funded by the DIGITRANS
and IDEES research projects of the Walloon Region.
We thanks Infopole and companies of the cyber secu-
rity cluster for their support.
Alex Whalen (2017). Digital europe’s views on
cybersecurity certification and labelling schemes.
ANSSI (2014). France Cybersecurity Label.
Boateng, Y. and Osei, E. (2013). Cyber-Security Challenges
with SMEs. Developing Economies: Issues of Confi-
dentiality, Integrity & Availability, Aalborg Univ.
CIS (2016). CIS Controls V6.1. https://www.cisecurity.
CybSafe (2017). Enterprise IT leaders demanding more
stringent cyber security from suppliers.
Digital SME Alliance (2017). European Cyberse-
curity Strategy: Fostering the SME Ecosystem.
Donovan, S. (2016). Annual Report to Congress, Fed-
eral Information Security Modernization Act. Office
of Management and Budget
ENISA (2015). Information security and privacy standards
for SMEs.
EU (2016). General data protection regulation. http://eur-
EU (2016). Strengthening Europe’s Cyber Resilience Sys-
tem and Fostering a Competitive and Innovative Cy-
bersecurity Industry.
Eubanks, R. (2011). A Small Business No Budget Imple-
mentation of the SANS 20 Security Controls. SANS
Institute InfoSec Reading Room.
Hayes, J. and Bodhani, A. (2013). Cyber security: small
firms under fire [information technology professional-
ism]. Engineering Technology, 8(6):80–83.
ISSA (2011). 5173 Security Standard for SMEs.
Leclair, J. (2015). Testimony of Dr. Jane Leclair before the
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small
Lieberman, D. (2011). Practical advice for smbs to use iso
Muller, P. et al. (2015). Annual Report on European SMEs
2014/2015. European Commission.
NIST (2014). Cybersecurity Framework. https://www.nist.
Osborn, E., Creese, S., and Upton, D. (2015). Business vs
Technology: Sources of the Perceived Lack of Cyber
Security in SMEs. In Proc. of the 1st Int. Conf. on
Cyber Security for Sustainable Society.
Padfield, C. (2015). Issues of IT Governance and Informa-
tion Security from an SME & Social Enterprise Per-
spective. MSc Edinburgh Napier University.
Sage, O. (2015). Every Small Business Should Use the
Slye, J. (2016). Federal cybersecurity incidents contin-
ued double-digit growth.
Smith, M. (2016). Huge rise in hack attacks as cyber-
criminals target small businesses.
Symantec (2017). 2017 Internet Security Threat Report.
UK Government (2016). Cyber essentials. https://www.
Towards a Cyber Security Label for SMEs: A European Perspective