NIST 800-171 Compliance For Small Businesses: Everything You Need to Know

NIST 800-171 Compliance For Small Businesses: Everything You Need to Know

06/13/2022

Cybersecurity is undoubtedly among the primary concerns for any organization. With rapidly increasing cyber threats and attacks in the recent past, the US government made it a (mandatory) requirement for both public and private organizations to put up necessary measures for curbing cyber threats. Furthermore, it established more strict policies effective at safeguarding government-related sensitive information. Such guidelines are found in the NIST 800-171 publication. Notably, NIST 800-171 is merely one of the many codified regulations that protect sensitive data that non-governmental contractors working with the government have access to.

Essentially, NIST 800-171 offers guidelines to safeguard controlled unclassified information (CUI) – it focuses primarily on the confidentiality of CUI. Private contractors must comply with all NIST 800-171 requirements to secure and work efficiently with government organizations such as NATO.

Read on to learn what you and your team need to know about NIST 800-171 compliance. What is it? Who needs to follow it, and how you can get your team on board.

What Is NIST 800-171?

NIST 800-171 is a security publication formulated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to promote information systems security. NIST 800-171 aims to safeguard controlled unclassified information (CUI) shared with non-governmental contractors. The plan was first officiated in June 2015. However, it has been revised – the second revision (NIST 800-171. Rev 2.), issued on Jan 28, 2021, is currently in play.

NIST 800-171 provides guidelines that non-governmental organizations with access to controlled unclassified information should comply with to ensure the utmost security of the shared data. In other words, NIST 800-171 is a publication that provides detailed security compliance requirements that private federal contractors’ IT systems and networks must meet to ensure the confidentiality of the government’s sensitive data.

The publication requires cybersecurity managers, analysts, and other staff responsible for the firm’s security to assess, create, and maintain a security plan compliant with NIST 800-171 requirements (NIST 800-171 System Security Plan (SSP)). The plan must prove that the firm addresses all security threats as per the NIST 800-171 requirements. 

Later in this guide, we will discuss the steps for building a NIST 800 171 compliance SSP. Also, you can refer to NIST’s Special Publication 800-18 Guide for Developing Security Plans for Federal Information Systems for recommendations and steps for creating a NIST 800 171 compliance for small businesses.

What Is the Purpose of NIST 800-171?

The core purpose of NIST 800-171 is to guide government contractors and subcontractors in ensuring the safety of CUI. It provides guidelines, procedures, and protocols that the contractors must employ when they process or store CUI. Primarily, it focuses on areas of contractors’ systems where government information is transmitted or stored.

NIST 800-171 is a part of the 800 NIST Special Publications (SP) series based on the Information Technology Laboratory’s (ITL) research and guidelines, which focuses on risk management through control compliance and security measures.

What Are the NIST 800-171 Requirements for CUI Protection?

While NIST 800-171 is based on CUI protection throughout the organization, it addresses various facets from technology to policies and operations. The publication contains 110 requirements grouped into 14 families. These requirements address management and protection controls and processes, authentication and monitoring, IT systems implementation, and end-user practices. It also provides requirements for physical security, cybersecurity, and incident response. That said, here are the categories of NIST 800-171 requirements.

  • Access Control
  • Awareness and Training
  • System and Communications Protection
  • Audit and Accountability
  • Configuration Management
  • Identification and Authentication
  • Personnel Security
  • Incident Response
  • Maintenance
  • Media Protection
  • Risk Assessment
  • Security Assessment
  • Physical Protection

Generally, the requirements explore vulnerabilities and seek to strengthen various security elements that interact with CUI, ensuring that the firm’s systems and staff can handle CUI cautiously and safely.

Who Needs to Comply with NIST 800-171?

Notably, the government relies on private contractors to complete various projects and enhance and enable smooth operations. During these interactions, sensitive government data is shared with the third parties – the contractors. As such, all contractors working with government agencies, who may have access to, transmit, or store shared government information must comply with NIST 800-171 requirements.

The most common contractors that require NIST 800-171 compliance when working with government agencies include;

  • Web and communication providers,
  • Financial institutions,
  • Defense contractors,
  • Researchers working on government-sponsored projects
  • Healthcare data processors, among others.

Who Oversees NIST SP 800-171 Compliance?

Since its first publication, NIST SP 800-171 Compliance has been a self-assessment practice. That is, no government agency has been auditing organizations’ compliance. Typically, NIST provides a NIST SP 800-171 Compliance checklist helpful in self-assessment. However, note that your company must adhere to the NIST SP 800-171 to secure or continue working on government projects. Also, all DoD contractors must self-assess and submit a Summary Level Score (SPRS Score) of compliance – according to DFARS Interim Rule.

Steps for NIST SP 800-171 Compliance Systems Security Plan (SSP)

Creating a NIST SP 800-171 Compliance SSP can be tricky, especially for newbies, small business owners, and contractors with small operations. Interestingly, numerous online and local resources (like local MEP centers) can effectively help you through the process. Additionally, there are many IT and cybersecurity service providers experienced in creating system security plans that are NIST 800 171 compliant for small businesses. You can therefore hire their services for an effective plan. Alternatively, follow the following steps to do it yourself.

  1. Form a Team: Incorporate a team of professionals, mainly knowledgeable about technology and information security, such as cybersecurity managers, analysts, CTO, CFO, and COO.
  2. Create an Assessment Plan: Create a plan for assessing different facets in your organization responsible for communication, transmission, and information storage.
  3. Assessment and Data Collection: Assess your organization, collecting all relevant data. Be sure to review security policies and practices, evaluate network technologies available, and interview involved specialists.
  4. Organize your data and assess it per the NIST 800-171 checklist.
  5. Create an action plan: Have in place an action plan addressing all vulnerabilities and how unmet requirements will be attained. Also, ensure to include evidence of the met requirements.

Key Takeaway

A security breach can significantly affect any organization and probably the entire national security, and ensuring your organization is NIST SP 800-171 compliance is crucial. NIST SP 800-171 compliance is no longer merely a necessity but a mandatory requirement by the government. You can access your business’s using various NIST guides or work with firms offering NIST compliance auditing services and tools effective at streamlining NIST SP 800-171 compliance for small businesses.