Why NIST 800-171 Is Essential to Your Business

Posted on November 23, 2021 - by Laird Wilton - in Building Your InfoSec Program

Why NIST 800-171 Is Essential to Your Business

NIST 800-171 is a publication that establishes comprehensive cybersecurity standards for defense contractors, private businesses with federal contracts, and public institutions that handle United States government information. That framework comes from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and its ultimate goal is to strengthen American cybersecurity infrastructure.

The NIST cybersecurity framework can be challenging to understand. It can be even more cumbersome when you consider it includes over 200 special publications that delve into specific aspects of cybersecurity. NIST 800-171 is one such publication.

If you run a business that handles sensitive government information, you need to understand what NIST 800-171 is and how it impacts your organization. It’s also helpful to know how NIST 800-171 fits into the overall NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) or maps to other frameworks your business might use, such as ISO 27001CMMC (the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification) is another set of standards that overlaps heavily with NIST 800-171.

This article will go over what this specific publication covers and discuss who needs to use NIST 800-171. We’ll explain the differences between NIST CSF and NIST 800-171. Finally, we’ll walk you through a comprehensive NIST 800-171 compliance checklist that you can reference to see if your business meets the necessary cybersecurity standards.

Let’s get to it.

What Is NIST 800-171? (And Why It Matters for Your Business)

NIST 800-171 is a publication outlining the requirements that defense contractors must follow to protect Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). By definition, CUI includes sensitive information that requires protection but isn’t classified under the Classified National Security Information Act (also known as the “Atomic Energy” Act).

The NIST 800-171 guidelines go over a series of cybersecurity requirements that your business needs to follow to qualify for specific Department of Defense (DoD) contracts. By definition, if a business doesn’t meet the NIST 800-171 security requirements, then it’s not considered secure enough to handle sensitive government information.

In general, if your business falls under one of the following categories, you’ll need to follow NIST 800-171 guidelines:

  • Defense contractors
  • Financial and health services organizations
  • Educational and/or research institutions that handle federal data
  • Telecommunication service providers

The purpose of NIST 800-171 is to ensure there’s a baseline of cybersecurity that applies across the board to government contractors and organizations that handle sensitive federal data. Meeting NIST 800-171 standards means that your business has a strong System Security Plan (SSP) in place as well as cybersecurity policies that govern how operators and systems handle critical government information.

2 Key Differences Between NIST CSF and NIST 800-171

NIST 800-171 is one of over 200 publications that make up the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF). Let’s break down what that means and the difference.

NIST 800-171 Focuses on Department of Defense Contractors 

The NIST 800-171 publication focuses on cybersecurity requirements that potential DoD contractors need to meet to enjoy access to government contracts. Failing to meet the minimum security standards outlined in the publication can lead to losing those contracts.

Specifically, the publication applies to non-federal information systems that store or transmit CUI. NIST CSF, in contrast, is a holistic cybersecurity framework. Meeting NIST CSF requirements means that your business will have an easier time remaining in compliance with other frameworks, such as PCI DSS and SOX. 

NIST CSF Security Compliance is Not Mandatory

Following NIST 800-171 is mandatory if you want your organization to be eligible for DoD contracts. However, NIST CSF compliance is entirely voluntary. Following NIST CSF guidelines will ensure that your business meets cybersecurity standards and best practices. There are several tiers of NIST CSF compliance, which determine how prepared your business is to face digital threats and protect sensitive information. 

Although there is some overlap between the cybersecurity framework and the publications’ guidelines, they include different requirements. If you classify as a DoD contractor, your main focus should be on NIST 800-171. After ensuring you meet those guidelines, you can focus on more broad requirements, such as those that NIST CSF outlines. 

NIST 800-171 Compliance Checklist 

Meeting NIST 800-171 guidelines requires your business to have a comprehensive SSP in place. However, simply following best practices isn’t enough. It includes 110 individual requirements that organizations must follow. Meeting those requirements can be daunting, but if you understand how to conduct an internal cybersecurity audit, your business will be ready to protect CUI.

A comprehensive cybersecurity self-assessment involves the following compliance checks:

  1. Having a cybersecurity team in place (with input from information security stakeholders).
  2. Creating a cybersecurity assessment plan that includes (a) timeframes and (b) clear goals.
  3. Spreading internal awareness of cybersecurity endeavors.
  4. Having an up-to-date contact list of all the personnel involved in cybersecurity tasks, including what their responsibilities are.
  5. Collecting all internal documentation relevant to cybersecurity and making it easily accessible.
  6. Outlining a plan to meet all missing requirements.
  7. Recording all the guidelines that you already meet, including records for each of them.
  8. Compiling all the relevant documents from your cybersecurity self-assessment into an SSP document.

Conducting internal cybersecurity assessments will make it easier to grasp weak areas in your company’s cybersecurity. Once you have a comprehensive overview of your company’s cybersecurity, you can compare your existing processes with a checklist to see what areas your team should focus on next.

Meeting the Guidelines

If you plan on competing for DoD contracts, the requirements aren’t circumventable; they’re a requirement. You need to prove that your organization can actively protect CUI and the only way to do that is with a strong security program.

Securicy can help your business understand and meet NIST 800-171 guidelines so you can compete for DoD contracts. Book a demo today and take the next step in improving your company’s cybersecurity standards.

About the author

Laird Wilton is a tech entrepreneur, Techstars alumni, board member, and the COO and Co-Founder of Securicy. Securicy’s SaaS offering guides businesses through creating, implementing, and managing their information security and privacy compliance program.

Laird lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia with his wife and young family. When not working, he spends his time traveling with his family, coaching minor football, playing hockey and volunteering at his community’s recreation center.