What You Should Know About NIST 800-171 Compliance

Akitra, Cybersecurity Compliance Automation Platform.

Government contracts can mean a huge deal to any privately owned and operated company. Securing data is essential, but with federal agencies involved, data protection measures must be very stringent. In most cases, data can be grouped into a secret, top-secret or classified categories—but all that does is signify the sensitive nature of the information and demand specific guidelines to be met for the company to be trusted to handle such confidential knowledge. 

Now, most compliance regulatory frameworks serve this purpose. Still, to provide a higher security adherence standard for classified information involving the U.S. government, the NIST 800-171 was introduced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The sole purpose of the NIST 800-171 codification of requirements is to ensure the protection of “Controlled Unclassified Information” or CUI by third parties, partners, and subcontractors. This contains confidential federal defense information, including personal information, intellectual property, equipment specifications, logistical plans, and many other things. NIST 800-171 essentially instructs contractors on handling sensitive data that isn’t formally “Classified.”

Contractors managing CUI on their networks are required under contract to comply with NIST 800-171, and these businesses are expected to perform self-assessments to establish and maintain compliance. Therefore, the requirements must be appropriately comprehended and evaluated. 

If you want to get started with NIST compliance or get certified for NIST 800-171, you might be overwhelmed with many questions. This is precisely why we at Akitra, curated this unique blog for you—where we discuss what the NIST 800-171 entails, which organizations it applies to, how it ties up with Department of Defense (DoD) Cybersecurity Maturity Model Compliance (CMMC) standard, and what ways it can be beneficial for your company. This article aims to enlighten you about the basics of this relatively new security standard and help you understand its importance concerning your organization.

Let’s get started!


What is NIST 800-171 Compliance?

NIST 800-171 describes the security requirements for non-federal companies that handle CUI on their networks. It was initially published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This U.S. federal government organization developed several standards and publications to increase cybersecurity resilience in both the public and private sectors in June 2015. Since then, it has undergone regular modifications in response to new cyber threats and developing technology. The most recent version (Revision 2) was made public on February 2020.‍

 What is its Purpose?

NIST 800-171’s cybersecurity standards are created to protect CUI, or “Controlled Unclassified Information”, in the I.T. networks of federal contractors and subcontractors. It outlines the standards and guidelines that government contractors must follow while processing or storing CUI on their networks. NIST 800-171 covers the areas of a contractor’s network where CUI is present.

NIST 800-171 improves the security of the entire federal supply chain by establishing cybersecurity standards for contractors who handle sensitive government information. It guarantees a common minimum level of cybersecurity for all contractors and individual subcontractors who have access to CUI.


Who Does NIST 800-171 Apply to?

Here are a few agencies and organizations that often need to be NIST compliant to help you determine whether NIST 800-171 applies to you or not:

  • Department of Defense’s contractors (DoD);
  • General Services Administration contractors (GSA);
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractors (NASA);
  • Federally funded universities and research institutions;
  • Advisory firms with federal contracts;
  • Service providers for government organizations; and,
  • Manufacturers that provide goods to government agencies.


NIST 800-171’s Control Requirements for Protecting CUI

The 110 requirements in NIST 800-171 are grouped into 14 families, each addressing a distinct aspect of an organization’s I.T. technology, policy, or procedures. Access control, system configuration, and authentication processes are all covered by requirements. They also lay out the specifications for incident response strategies and cybersecurity protocols.

Each requirement enhances a component of the network or reduces cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and it is accompanied by extensive “explanation” text that explains the requirement’s broader context. By putting each criterion into practice, organizations can ensure that their workers, network, and systems are ready to handle CUI safely.

The fourteen access control families with their corresponding compliance requirements are:

  • Access Controls: who has access to records and whether they are allowed;
  • Awareness and Training: Your staff should receive sufficient instruction on handling CUI;
  • Audit and Accountability: Be aware of who is using CUI and who is in charge of what;
  • Configuration Management: Maintain secure configurations by adhering to the rules;
  • Identification and Authentication: Control and track every CUI access instance;
  • Incident Response: CUI is protected by a preparedness and response plan for data breaches;
  • Maintenance: To protect CUI, maintain ongoing security and change management;
  • Media Protection: Careful treatment of external drives, backup devices, and backups;
  • Physical Protection: Authorized individuals solely allowed in the physical locations where CUI resides for physical protection;
  • Personnel Security: Teach your team how to recognize and stop insider threats;
  • Risk Assessment: Conduct pen testing and create a CUI risk profile as part of risk assessment;
  • Security Assessment: Verify that your security protocols are in place and functioning by conducting a security assessment;
  • System and Communications Protection: Secure your communication methods and channels; and,
  • System and Information Integrity: Identify and fix new vulnerabilities and system outages.

The essential thing to remember when it comes to the fundamental purpose of NIST 800-171 is the security of CUI anywhere in the orbit of government contractors, subcontractors, and business partners.


How Does NIST 800-171 Tie up with Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC)?

NIST 800-171 offers a set of guidelines for safeguarding and disseminating private information (CUI) and monitors the development of cybersecurity policies and procedures.

The next level of compliance standard for defence contractors and subcontractors is the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).

Its purpose is to raise the confidence that U.S. Defence Industrial Base (DIB) organizations are observing these regulations to protect CUI and government contract information (FCI). FCI is the information supplied to or produced for the U.S. Government under a contract that has not been released to the public or is not meant to be.

Government contractors and subcontractors must evaluate their compliance with CMMC’s regulations internally or externally. Your organization’s eligibility to compete for different government contracts will depend on its capacity to meet the foundational (Level 1), advanced (Level 2), or expert (Level 3) requirements connected with CMMC.

In early 2020, the Department of Defense (DoD) released CMMC 1.0 after introducing CMMC in 2019. It is anticipated that contracts will start referencing a new version known as CMMC 2.0 as early as May 2023.


Benefits of NIST 800-171 Compliance

Implementing NIST 800-171 controls, not just for CUI but also for other significant and sensitive data collected, processed, communicated, or kept by your firm, has many advantages. In addition to assuring your ability to compete for federal contracts, here are some additional benefits of this regulatory framework:

  • Create safeguards to safeguard CUI and other vital data;
  • Recognize any openings or flaws in your cybersecurity procedures;
  • Create effective risk management procedures;
  • Check your adherence to NIST 800-171 compliance requirements;
  • Safeguard resources and data;
  • Remedy security flaws and other problems;
  • Boost your current security procedures;
  • Develop and expand your cybersecurity procedures;
  • Apply access management and control to sensitive data;
  • Lower cyber security risks and reduce the perils of data theft;
  • Reduce the likelihood of reputational harm, regulatory fines and penalties for non-compliance with the law;
  • Obtain a competitive edge to win federal contracting opportunities;
  • Ties with and trust in federal agencies;
  • Show the public, your clients, partners, essential stakeholders, and yourself that you are dedicated to protecting sensitive data; and,
  • Respond to cyber events in an effective manner.


NIST 800-171 Compliance with Akitra!

Establishing trust is a crucial competitive differentiator when courting new SaaS businesses in today’s era of data breaches and compromised privacy. Customers and partners want assurances that the organizations they work with are doing everything possible to prevent disclosing sensitive data and putting them at risk. Compliance certification fills that need.

Akitra offers an industry-leading, AI-powered Compliance Automation platform for SaaS companies. Using automated evidence collection and continuous monitoring, together with a full suite of customizable policies and controls as a compliance foundation, our service helps customers become certified for NIST 800-171 along with other frameworks like SOC 1, SOC 2ISO 27001, ISO 27701, ISO 27017, ISO 27018, HIPPA, GDPR, PCI DSS, CMMC, FedRAMP, NIST 800-53, and other frameworks such as CIS AWS Foundations Benchmark, etc. Our compliance and security experts will also provide the customized guidance you need to navigate the end-to-end compliance process confidently. 

The benefits of our solution include enormous savings in time, human resources, and cost savings — including discounted audit fees with our audit firm partners. Customers achieve compliance certification fast and cost-effectively, stay continuously compliant as they grow, and can become certified under additional frameworks using a single compliance automation platform.

Build customer trust. Choose Akitra TODAY!‍

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