If you ever considered working with a government agency, you’ve probably heard about National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines. These are a series of suggestions and regulations government agencies, government contractors, and subcontractors are expected to follow to minimize cybersecurity risk and safeguard sensitive data.

Following NIST standards can help your organization — even if you don’t work with a federal agency. This blog reviews NIST compliance and how it can benefit your business.

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

What is NIST ?

Founded in 1901, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. A non-regulatory government agency, NIST drives innovation and promote industrial competitiveness in fields of science, engineering, and technology.

NIST’s mission is “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.” The standards, also known as best practices, are developed with the purpose of improving the security posture of government agencies and private businesses that handle government data.

One of the things it’s known for is the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF), a set of guidelines and best practices designed to help organizations begin or improve their cybersecurity strategies. First launched in 2014, CSF aims to standardize cybersecurity practices so organizations can adopt a uniform approach for threat detection and protection against data breaches, cyber risk, and other forms of security attacks.

Is NIST Compliance Mandatory?

While it’s recommended that organizations comply with NIST, most are not required to do so.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to this. U.S. federal agencies have been required to follow NIST standards since 2017.

Contractors and subcontractors working with the federal government also must follow NIST security standards. Contractors with a history of NIST non-compliance run the risk of being excluded from future government contracts.

What about everyone else?

NIST is not a regulatory agency and complying with CSF is a voluntary implementation for other businesses in the private sector. Following NIST publications can help protect your systems from malicious attacks and human error. Additionally, it may help you be in compliance with regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

Understanding the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST CSF outlines the security measures organizations should put in place to protect their digital assets from unauthorized access. The framework provides a set of cybersecurity and risk management best practices to follow. Those practices fall under five core functions:


Create awareness around the need to manage cybersecurity risk within your organization. Then, identify data within your organization that needs to be protected and build a system security plan.


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 handle data.


Good cybersecurity requires enhanced visibility into company networks, systems, and devices used within the organization. You also need a well-planned security strategy with procedures and tools for threat detection.


Develop incident response plans to quickly eliminate threats and mitigate damage.


Implement a disaster recovery policy to restore data and services that a cyberattack may impact, learn, and improve from every security event, and share insights throughout your organization.

[Related Reading: Create a Comprehensive Automated Incident Response Plan Before You Need It]

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

Tier 1 – Partial

The organization doesn’t follow a minimum cybersecurity standard with a formalized system security plan. Cybersecurity measures in place often are ad hoc and implemented as a reaction to a previous incident.

Tier 2 – Risk-informed

There may not be organizational-wide security measures in place, but there is an awareness of supply chain security risks throughout the company. Some security initiatives are in place but aren’t applied through all levels of the organization.

Tier 3 – Repeatable

The organization has a formal company-wide cybersecurity policy which is reviewed and updated to accommodate the dynamic technology landscape.

Tier 4 – Adaptive

The organization continuously adapts its cybersecurity policy to align with industry practices and emerging technology. Tier 4 organizations learn how to strengthen their system from security incidents and share those insights within their internal network and external collaborators.

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

With that said, CSF 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.

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

Following are some important NIST standards.

NIST Special Publication 800-171 Rev. 2 Compliance

All organizations that work with a federal agency must follow the NIST SP 800-171 requirements in order to be considered for government contracts. This includes academic institutions supported by federal grants.

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

  • Implementing access controls to restrict unauthorized users from obtaining sensitive information
  • 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. View the full breakdown of the security standard at 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:

  • Basic: The organization performs a self-assessment to see if they follow NIST 800-171 requirements. Since it’s a self-generated score, there’s often low confidence in the results.
  • Medium: An assessment is conducted by trained DoD personnel who determine whether plan descriptions meet the NIST 800-171 requirements. These results have a medium confidence level.
  • High: This is the preferred methodology. DoD personnel perform a high-level assessment by thoroughly examining the contractor’s security system to determine if they adhere to the NIST standard’s guidelines. Such comprehensiveness leads to the highest confidence.

Organizations 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 controls plan and make an effort to achieve Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) compliance. A score lower than 75 means you have weak policy enforcement and/or are ignoring compliance regulations.

NIST Special Publication 800-53 Compliance

NIST SP 800-53 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, but it also extends to contractors and subcontractors with access to federal information.

The most recent version of the NIST 800-53 is the fifth 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

In addition, Revision 5 of the 800-53 was 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 went 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:

  • Locate all sensitive data within your network and cloud applications.
  • Map out data, making note of who all can access that data.
  • Implement access control measures like permissions and multifactor authentication to keep 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 adhere to and 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’ve covered the basics, one question remains: Why should you comply with NIST standards?

If your organization works with a government agency, you must maintain NIST compliance to continue collaborating with those agencies. Becoming compliant is also useful if you plan on working with government agencies in the future.

But the benefits of NIST compliance aren’t limited to just government contractors. Additional advantages of adopting the NIST CSF standards include:

Improved data handling

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

Following NIST CSF can help ensure your systems have the security controls in place to protect your data from being breached, regardless of whether that breach is caused by threat actors or careless employees.

Gain 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 others that can’t guarantee 100% CUI protection and NIST compliance, you’ll have a leg up in the competition.

In addition, NIST compliance is a great selling point outside of the public sector. When customers see you meet government requirements to handle and process sensitive data, they’ll be more likely to 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 as customers no longer trust you with their data. On top of that, you have to deal with regulatory fines, lawsuits, and even criminal charges in cases of extreme negligence.

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

Meeting NIST Compliance 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 when 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 a large enterprise’s security expertise, consider implementing a NIST compliance solution to help you fill in the gaps.

Fortra’s Alert Logic Managed Detection and Response (MDR) solution can help align your IT systems with NIST guidelines. Our 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
  • Logging and auditing data

Alert Logic’s MDR gives you advanced protection while helping your organization achieve security compliance.

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

Fortra's Alert Logic Staff
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Fortra's Alert Logic Staff

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