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If you ever considered working with a government agency, you’ve probably heard about NIST guidelines before. These are a series of set guidelines and regulations that government agencies, government contractors, and subcontractors are expected to follow to minimize cybersecurity risks and safeguard sensitive data.

But following NIST standards can help your organization –– even if you don’t work with government agencies. In this article, we’re going to look at NIST compliance and how it can benefit your business.

But first, let’s take a brief look at NIST.

What Does NIST Stand For?

NIST stands for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It’s a non-regulatory government agency that was created to drive innovation and promote industrial competitiveness in fields of science, engineering, and technology.

The primary role of NIST is to create best practices (also known as standards) for organizations and government agencies to follow. These security standards are developed with the purpose of improving the security posture of government agencies and private businesses that handle government data.

They’re also known for the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF), which is a set of guidelines and best practices designed to help organizations improve their cybersecurity strategies. First launched in 2014, the framework aims to standardize cybersecurity practices so organizations could adopt a uniform approach for protection against data breaches and other forms of cyberattacks.

NIST compliance is when an organization adopts and adheres to one or more NIST publications –– including the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF). Gartner estimates that half of American organizations have been NIST compliant since 2020.

Is NIST compliance mandatory?

While it’s recommended for organizations to follow the NIST compliance, most aren’t required to.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to this. Federal agencies have been required to follow NIST standards since 2017 –– which isn’t too surprising since NIST itself is part of the government.

Contractors and subcontractors working with the federal government are also required to follow NIST security standards. And contractors with a history of NIST non-compliance run the risk of being excluded from government contracts in the future.

What about everyone else?

Compliance isn’t mandatory for other businesses in the private sector, but you are encouraged to adopt some aspects of NIST’s standards and framework. Following NIST publications will help keep your systems protected from breaches caused by malicious attacks and human error –– and it will help you meet compliance with mandatory regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

With that said, NIST compliance tends to be the industry standard. All private organizations are strongly advised to reach NIST compliance to minimize cybersecurity risk and promote a better culture of data handling.

Understanding the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST CSF outlines the security measures organizations need to put in place to protect their digital assets from unauthorized access. It doesn’t introduce new standards or security solutions that businesses are required to implement.

Instead, the framework gives organizations a set of best cybersecurity practices to follow. Those practices are the following five core functions:

  1. Identify: Create awareness around the need to manage cybersecurity risk within your organization. Then identify the systems and data within your organization that need to be protected.
  2. Protect: Implement security measures to ensure your systems and data are protected against threats. These measures may include cybersecurity solutions, company-wide security policies, and training employees on how to safely handle data.
  3. Detect: Good cybersecurity requires enhanced visibility into company networks, systems, and devices used within the organization. You also need a well-planned cybersecurity strategy with procedures and tools for detecting cybersecurity incidents.
  4. Respond: Develop incident response plans to quickly eliminate threats and mitigate damage.
  5. Recover: Implement a disaster recovery policy to restore data and services impacted by your cyberattack, learn and improve from every cybersecurity event, and share your insights throughout your organization.

The framework also includes four tiers that organizations can use to assess their cybersecurity posture.

  • Tier 1 – Partial: Organization doesn’t follow a minimum cybersecurity standard with a formalized security plan. Cybersecurity measures in place are often ad hoc and implemented as a reaction to a previous incident.
  • Tier 2 – Risk-informed: There may not be organizational-wide cybersecurity measures in place, but there is an awareness of cyber supply chain risks throughout the company. Some cybersecurity initiatives are in place, but they aren’t applied through all levels of the organization.
  • Tier 3 – Repeatable: The organization formally implements a company-wide cybersecurity policy which is reviewed and updated to accommodate the dynamic technology landscape.
  • Tier 4 – Adaptable: Organization continuously adapts cybersecurity policy to align with industry practices and emerging technology. Tier 4 companies learn how to strengthen their system from security incidents and share those insights within their internal network and with external collaborators.

You can learn more about the NIST Cybersecurity Framework by visiting the official NIST website. It’s pretty comprehensive, so don’t expect to implement it and go from Tier 1 to Tier 4 overnight.

With that said, the framework is flexible and easy to integrate into your organization. It doesn’t require you to make sweeping changes at once. You can decide which categories and subcategories are important and implement them first, then gradually introduce the rest of the framework.

The NIST CSF will help you develop good organizational security practices to build upon. But there’s more to NIST compliance than the framework.

Below are some important NIST standards you should become familiar with.

NIST 800-171 Compliance

All organizations that work with the federal government are required to follow the NIST 800-171 requirements in order to be considered for government contracts –– even academic institutions supported by federal grants.

The standard is designed to protect controlled unclassified information (CUI) from being accessed by unauthorized parties. It consists of 110 requirements across 14 different areas of cybersecurity, including:

  • Implementing access controls to restrict unauthorized users from obtaining sensitive information.
  • Extensive cybersecurity training for all personnel involved.
  • An audit log system to ensure actions are accounted for.
  • Incident response system for detecting and mitigating cybersecurity attacks.
  • Protocol for performing routine and special event maintenance.

These are only a few of the NIST 800-171 controls. You can see a full breakdown of the security standard by visiting the NIST website.

Contractors that work with the Department of Defense (DoD) are required to undergo NIST 800-171 assessments to evaluate their security posture. There are three levels of assessment, depending on how the evaluation was conducted. They are:

  • Basic: The organization performs a self-assessment to see if they’re following the NIST 800-171 requirements. Because this is a self-generated score, the results of this assessment have a low confidence level.
  • Medium: Assessments conducted by trained DoD personnel who determines whether plan descriptions meet the NIST 800-171 requirements. The results of this assessment have a medium confidence level.
  • High: This is the preferred methodology of a NIST 800-171 assessment. DoD personnel perform a high-level assessment by thoroughly examining the contractor’s security system to see whether they’re adhering to the NIST standard’s guidelines. Because this is a comprehensive examination, its results have a high confidence level.

You can receive a maximum of 110 points on a NIST 800-171 assessment.

Generally, a score over 75 demonstrates you have a well-structured security plan and make an effort to achieve DFARS compliance. A score lower than 75 means you have weak policy enforcement and/or you’re ignoring compliance regulations.

NIST 800-53 Compliance

The NIST 800-53 publication looks at how data on federal information systems should be handled and protected. Not only does it standardize information security protocol for the federal government, it also extends to contractors and subcontractors with access to federal information.

The most recent version of the NIST 800-53 is the 5th revision. It was published in September 2020 and includes:

  • Extensive privacy controls
  • Updated security measures based on newer cyberattack data
  • Integration with other cybersecurity approaches, including the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Revision 5 of the 800-53 was also the first to de-emphasize the federal government. This was done to promote greater adoption within the public sector and among international organizations –– even with companies that don’t work with the federal government.  These updates go into effect in September 2021.

The NIST 800-53 compliance measures are comprehensive. The standard covers 18 security control families, including:

  • Access control
  • Contingency planning
  • Risk assessment
  • Personnel security
  • Media protection

Organizations preparing for NIST 800-53 compliance should follow the steps below:

  • Locate all sensitive data within your network and cloud applications.
  • Map out your data, making note of who all can access that data.
  • Implement access control measures like permissions and multi-factor authentication to keep your data protected from unauthorized access.
  • Deploy systems for monitoring activity across your network so you can see who’s accessing and modifying your data.

Consider adopting the NIST 800-53 guidelines even if you don’t collaborate with the federal government. They’re good security practices to follow and they will help you reach compliance with other important regulations like GDPR, PCI DSS, and the CCPA.

What Are the Benefits of NIST Compliance?

Now that we covered the basics, one question remains: why should you comply with NIST standards?

If your organization works with government agencies, you must maintain NIST compliance to continue collaborating with those agencies. Becoming compliant now is also useful if you plan on working with government agencies in the future, because you’ll already have the required security measures in place before you begin your collaboration.

But the benefits of NIST compliance aren’t limited to just government contractors. Below are some advantages of adopting NIST standards:

Improved data handling

Many of the organizations working with the federal government work with Controlled Unclassified Information. NIST standards aim to keep this type of sensitive data protected from unauthorized access.

Following NIST standards will ensure your systems have the security controls in place to protect your data from being breached –– regardless of whether that breach is caused by malicious actors or careless employees.

Get an advantage over your competitors

Following NIST data security guidelines puts you at a strategic advantage over some of your competitors.

For starters, being compliant means your organization already meets the security requirements needed to work with government agencies. If you’re competing for contracts with organizations that can’t guarantee 100% CUI protection and NIST compliance, you’ve got a better chance of winning the contract.

NIST compliance is a great selling point outside of the public sector, as well. When customers see that you meet the government requirements to handle and process sensitive data, you’re telling them they can trust your organization with their data.

Protection from the fallout of a data breach

Falling victim to a data breach has devastating consequences. Your reputation takes a hit because customers no longer trust you with their data, and this can cause you to lose business. On top of that, you have to deal with regulatory fines, lawsuits, and even criminal charges in cases of extreme negligence.

Following the NIST standards offers you more protection against cyberattacks. Not only can NIST compliance reduce your chances of being attacked, it can also mitigate some of the damage caused by a data breach.

Meeting NIST Guidelines

Becoming NIST compliant can be a challenge for any organization.

The implementation process for the 800-171 and 800-53 is extensive and involves a lot of complexities, especially for smaller organizations without robust IT budgets to rely on.

Following the NIST Cybersecurity Framework will help set your organization up for success if you’re trying to adopt one or more NIST standards. It’s easy to integrate into your existing security strategy and acts as a roadmap for achieving compliance in the future.

If your organization doesn’t have the security expertise of a large enterprise, consider implementing a NIST compliance solution to help you fill in the gaps.

Alert Logic provides Managed Detection and Response (MDR) solutions and services that will help align your IT systems with NIST guidelines. These services include:

  • Continuous vulnerability scanning on your cloud, hybrid, and on-premises environments
  • Rapid response times against attacks to mitigate the damage as quickly as possible
  • NIST compliance with logging and auditing data

Alert Logic’s MDR solution gives you advanced protection while helping your organization achieve compliance with NIST standards and other regulations.

Schedule a demo today and see for yourself why so many companies trust Alert Logic with their security needs.

Onkar Birk
About the Author
Onkar Birk

As Chief Operating Officer and CTO, Onkar Birk oversees Product, Release and Threat Management as well as R&D for Alert Logic. Birk has built his reputation as a leader focused on delivering products to market with customer success, swift execution, and the development of talent on his teams. Previously, he led technology transformation for global clients, driving revenue generation through customer success. Prior to his seven years in consulting, Birk was General Manager and CTO for the Avaya Services & Contact Center Solutions Division, where he helped achieve the leader position from Gartner.

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