A Complete Guide to NIST Compliance

Many readers come to the IT Security Central blog seeking information on compliance. Today we share a new guest blog from the team at Reciprocity on the topic of NSIT compliance for companies working with government organizations:

NIST compliance is mandatory for federal contractors, but there is a lot of confusion around it. Without it, chances of getting those big projects in the government are significantly skewed. So what is NIST compliance exactly?

What is NIST?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is a government agency responsible for developing standards, metrics, and technology to drive innovation. This non-regulatory agency also aims to stimulate the economic competitiveness of U.S.-based organizations in the science and technology industry. NIST creates guidelines and standards meant to help federal agencies keep up with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). It also aids agencies in protecting their information systems by implementing cost-effective programs.

NIST further develops Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) in line with FISMA standards. Once the Secretary of Commerce approves FIPS, federal agencies must comply and are not at liberty to waive the use of the standards.

NIST also has a Special Publications (SP) 800- series through which it provides guidance documents and recommendations. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) specifies that agencies must fulfill NIST compliance unless they are national security systems and programs.

NIST’s overall mission is to see to it that any organization that handles government data complies with security regulations as mandated in FISMA. It also helps all organizations protect their data and information and critical infrastructure from internal and external threats.  However, for organizations that provide services to the federal government, NIST compliance is mandatory.

What is NIST Compliance?

Most government contractors are familiar with NIST SP 800-171 and NIST 800-53 compliance.  These two mandates are compulsory for companies that work within the national supply chain.

The NIST 800-171 publication was created in May 2015. Its mandate is to protect controlled unclassified information in nonfederal information systems and organizations. The original document served to guide organizations that want to protect sensitive information housed in their systems and environments. The mandate specifies the role in data breaches and provides guidance on the data to protect and the safety measures to apply.

Who is NIST Compliance for?

While you could say that anyone can benefit from NIST compliance, some organizations cannot do without it. These include:

  • Research institutions
  • Government staffing firms
  • Universities and colleges
  • Service providers
  • Consulting companies
  • Manufacturers that sell to the government and its suppliers

Contractors and subcontractors also need to be fully NIST compliant. Many companies outside the national supply chain also look to comply with NIST Cybersecurity Framework standards. The mandate is known to provide the most improved security practices for business data protection. Any company serious about its security must prioritize data security.

Implementing The NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST compliance framework details a robust but flexible cybersecurity scheme that companies can easily incorporate into an existing framework. It can also work as a roadmap for an organization to plan the future infrastructure. NIST positions the cybersecurity framework as a complementary factor to existing cybersecurity operations.

The NIST 800-171 implementation process is complex, especially for small businesses. Sometimes, even large corporations with robust IT budgets also undergo challenging times during implementation. Luckily, expert third-party companies usually help in easing the process.

In implementing NIST compliance, the five key areas that are of utmost importance are the following:

  1. Documentation for all controls- the requirement expects all nonfederal organizations to have processes, policies, and plan documentation covering all the security domains. These should be part of their overall security program.
  2. Multi-factor authentication for network and remote access by all users- authentication factors include a password, a mobile phone, and something like a fingerprint. For an organization to be successful with this level, it must use two or more different factors. For example, the use of two passwords for a single platform is not MFA.
  3. Incident response that mandates an organization to establish a capability to respond to incidents- This includes preparing, detecting, analyzing, containing, recovering, and user response. It also must have the capacity to track, document, and report incidents.
  4. FIPS- validate cryptography that helps to protect Controlled Unclassified Information. For this implementation level, a company must deploy FIPS-validated cryptography on its mobile platforms like tablets, cell phones, and laptop drives. All removable media must also be protected during transmission over communication channels that are not covered.
  5. Training and awareness controls that mandate on-boarding and periodic refresher training of all users. It’s crucial for everyone who has access to sensitive information to receive specific training for roles that touch on the company’s security.

Final Thoughts

NIST compliance is a complicated issue, but it is very crucial for federal contractors. It revolves around data security and protection, especially for sensitive government information. Any federal contractor working in the nationwide supply chain must adhere to NIST compliance. The NIST 800-series spells out various mandates that companies have to keep up with.


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Isaac Kohen