The average data breach can cost millions of dollars – and it only takes one to bankrupt small companies most of the time. There are several standards and frameworks to prevent that from happening, including the ones provided by NIST. So, what do you need to know about NIST compliance in 2023?
NIST compliance is mandatory for government agencies and contractors handling sensitive information, though most businesses can benefit from following the NIST cybersecurity framework. Becoming NIST compliant also yields other benefits, such as improving your chances of being HIPAA compliant.
Are you working for a company doing business with the government? Are you planning to bid for similar contracts? You have to get to know NIST, why it exists, and how it can help you improve your cybersecurity. This agency offers many standards your company can follow, and we’ll talk about them below.
- What’s NIST?
- Is NIST Cybersecurity Related?
- The NIST Cybersecurity Framework
- How To Use the NIST Cybersecurity Framework
- Does NIST Offer Cybersecurity Certifications?
- What Is NIST Compliance?
- Who Needs To Follow NIST Compliance?
- Who Can Benefit From Following NIST Compliance?
- NIST Compliance Checklist
- How Many NIST Standards Are There?
- NIST 800 Examples
- NIST 800-171 Compliance Checklist
- NIST Compliance Benefits
- Does NIST compliance have any cons?
NIST (short for The National Institute of Standards and Technology) provides innovation and competition strategies for different areas of business. This agency has existed since the turn of the 20th century, meaning they have a long history of adapting to new technology – and implementing and improving cybersecurity protocols is no exception.
NIST offers standards and frameworks for different areas of business and organizations, though we’ll center this article around cybersecurity-related areas.
There are more than a thousand NIST standards. We’re interested in the 800 series, which talks about cybersecurity protocols for government agencies, government contractors, and similar.
Is NIST Cybersecurity Related?
NIST has a lot to do with cybersecurity. They provide companies and organizations with many standards to handle data.
Some companies have to comply with these standards if they want to continue doing business, though most (if not all) companies would benefit from following a few of NIST standards even if they’re not required to comply.
How can you know if you have to become NIST compliant? The easiest way to do so is to check if you’re doing business with federal agencies or have access to their data. That often is reason enough to comply with one (or more) of these standards.
One of the biggest things NIST has to offer companies is its cybersecurity framework. It’s an easy, 5-step guide to improve your security protocols. Read more about it below.
The NIST Cybersecurity Framework
The NIST cybersecurity framework is centered around five steps (Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recovery). The main gist behind this framework is to assess risk, protect your system, and have a plan for possible cyberattacks.
The active element in the NIST cybersecurity framework is monitoring. We encourage everyone to monitor for suspicious activity, which is the best way to deal with insider threats and cutting edge malware.
At the same time, this framework deals with contacting law enforcement, notifying customers and employees, and taking other actions in case of a breach. We’ll detail all five steps below.
The 5 Steps To Follow
- Identify. The first step asks you to identify the many moving parts your system has. In other words, you have to look for every device in your network, the data your company handles, and your resources, among anything else that may affect your defensive capabilities. You also have to create a cybersecurity policy based on that information.
- Protect. This is the fun part for cybersecurity enthusiasts. Once you assess your system and figure out your risk, it’s time to create a fortress around your network to prevent trouble from happening. In other words, you have to follow cybersecurity best practices: encrypt and back up data, install malware detection software, monitor activity, and more.
- Detect. You have to make sure you miss out on nothing after building up your defenses. That means checking for open ports, unauthorized access, and similar suspicious activity. Constant monitoring is a big part here. This step is the final one when it comes to preparation, and anything after this point has to do with a cyberattack taking place.
- Respond. You have to be ready for an attack before it happens. In this step, you need to create a policy regarding that critical scenario: contacting law enforcement, notifying customers and employees about data risk, and containing the attack. At the same time, NIST recommends having resources ready for the immediate aftermath, such as updating your cybersecurity policy and continuing to run your business after the threat is contained.
- Recovery. You also need a plan to deal with the long-term consequences of a cyberattack. Launching a full investigation, fixing any issues that lead to the attack, and keeping everyone informed about what’s going on regarding data security and privacy. Of course, you also have to repair and restore anything involved in the attack.
How To Use the NIST Cybersecurity Framework
Following the NIST cybersecurity framework is easy if you follow its five steps (Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recovery) stated above. You have to understand this framework and these five steps should be adapted to your company’s needs.
In other words, you have to figure out how this framework can help your company the most. For example, certain companies don’t handle sensitive data, so encryption should be enough to prevent any threats. In contrast, companies in the finance sector have to travel to great lengths to protect data, meaning they’ll spend a lot of money and time on each of the five steps.
We believe the most important part of this framework is monitoring. Active monitoring ensures you have everything under control and are one step ahead of suspicious activity. That’s why it’s such a big part of NIST protocols.
Does NIST Offer Cybersecurity Certifications?
NIST doesn’t offer certs in any shape or form. They offer no cybersecurity certs for people (similar to CEH or OSCP), nor do they offer certifications for companies or products. NIST provides standards and frameworks companies can follow to better protect their data.
Complying with NIST standards is a requirement for some companies and organizations – but nothing other than that. In other words, it’s a necessary step you have to take to do business with certain government areas (for example).
However, NIST offers validation programs where third parties test a company’s cybersecurity protocols. You’ll find cryptography-related and automation-related programs your company can take.
What Is NIST Compliance?
Being NIST compliant means adhering to one of the many NIST standards available. You don’t have to follow all of them to be compliant (as there are more than one thousand of them!), but you have to make sure you follow the ones the law requires.
We’ve talked about the cost of noncompliance before. It’s one of those things that cost millions of dollars – and drives the loss of customers like few other things. On top of that, you can probably imagine the government doesn’t take it lightly when a contractor fails or refuses to follow compliance.
Does that mean you need to scramble your entire company to figure out whether you’re following NIST standards? Not quite! You need to figure out if the government requires you to follow these standards before doing that.
Who Needs To Follow NIST Compliance?
That depends! There are more than one thousand NIST standards, and each one may apply to different companies, organizations, and sectors. These standards are often mandatory for government agencies and companies working for them.
So, let’s say your business has access to government information in one way or another. It’d be a good idea to check out if you have to comply with any of these standards we’re talking about. You probably have to comply if you’re a government contractor.
Does that mean there’s nothing to worry about if your area of business is not government-related? Not quite! NIST standards provide an effective foundation to handle sensitive data, so you may want to look them up. We’ll talk about a few of them below.
Who Can Benefit From Following NIST Compliance?
Every company doing business online or handling data will benefit from following NIST standards. In fact, you can read about success stories on NIST’s website if you have any doubts. Following cybersecurity best practices often mitigates many risks, which is why NIST compliance works.
Remember, your company doesn’t need to be NIST compliant unless you’re a government contractor or similar, though that doesn’t mean you don’t need a tight cybersecurity framework to protect your data.
That’s what NIST provides for you – for free! Before moving forward, you’ll need to take a look at your budget: NIST gives you the information for free, but making the changes costs a lot of money, as you’ll see below.
NIST Compliance Checklist
- Assess the Cost. We have explained above who must follow NIST regulations and who has the option to do so. It’s important to figure out your budget if your company doesn’t have to be NIST-compliant. As you’ll see at the bottom of this article, following these rules and standards is rather costly.
- Evaluate Your Cybersecurity. Similar to following the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, the fundamental step in being NIST compliant is to figure out where you’re standing security-wise. That means making a detailed list of devices, data, authorizations, and more. You have to know what your risk is before moving forward.
- Create a Plan. Once you know your budget fits the bill and are familiar with your company’s risk, you need to create a plan to follow the NIST standard you choose. Since there are more than 1300 NIST standards, it’ll be difficult to guide you through this process, though NIST provides enough help for each particular case. We’ll talk about being NIST 800-171 compliant below.
- Review Your Compliance. Becoming NIST compliant is not a one-and-done kind of deal. NIST constantly updates its framework, standards, and anything related to cybersecurity (and other areas) to ensure companies continue to be protected from the latest threats and cyberattacks.
How Many NIST Standards Are There?
There are over 1300 NIST standards companies can follow. Of course, it’s far from mandatory for one company or agency to follow them all, though at least one of them will be mandatory or recommended for a particular organization most of the time.
Let’s take NIST 800 series as an example. We’ll discuss a few of them below. For now, we’ll tell you the 800 series is about cybersecurity and how to handle data securely. Some of the standards under this series are mandatory for federal systems, though that doesn’t mean they’re not best practices all companies should follow.
Here’s another example: a big thing in most NIST cybersecurity-related standards is zero-trust. We have talked about that before – and can’t recommend it enough, no matter your business. Employing zero-trust architecture is a great way to mitigate risks.
NIST 800 Examples
- NIST SP 800-30. This standard applies to federal IT systems and similar areas. It exists to guide companies conducting risk assessments. That way, companies can examine their risks, threats, and vulnerabilities – as well as the aftermath of them actually taking place. In other words, it’s there to see what attacks may happen, and what may happen if they take place.
- NIST SP 800-37. It’s a risk management framework for IT. The goal here is to prepare companies and organizations to perform risk management to better structure and process security management, privacy processes, and risk-related issues.
- NIST SP 800-53. The data management standard for federal systems. It covers how data is handled within those systems. Contractors and other organizations who have access to said data also have to follow this standard. It involves access control, configuration management, and incident response plans.
- NIST SP 800-171. It’s the standard that provides a system to protect controlled unclassified information outside federal systems. In other words, it’s the standard government contractors and similar organizations have to follow. It involves a lot of things, including how to regulate access to physical systems. We’ll talk more about it below.
NIST 800-171 Compliance Checklist
- Locate and Categorize CUI. This cybersecurity standard is all about handling CUI properly. CUI stands for Controlled Unclassified Information, which means sensitive data that’s not classified. Separating CUI from other data will help you speed up the process. At this point, you have to find out where this type of data is located and how you transfer it when necessary.
- Implement Controls. That last part we’ve talked about above is the most important one yet: once you know where CUI is located and how you move it around, you have to look for a way to encrypt it during both stages. In other words, encrypt that data while in storage and when in transit.
- Train Employees. Anyone handling CUI in your company needs to receive regular training to avoid negligent acts that may put you out of compliance. We recommend training all employees in cybersecurity matters.
- Monitor Data. One of the biggest requirements of NIST 800-171 is constant monitoring. You need to monitor CUI and record related user activity at all times. Doing so is a great idea, even if you’re not planning to become NIST 800-171 compliant.
- Assess (And Reassess) Your System. Assess how you’re doing compliance-wise once every quarter or semester. The sooner, the better. Everything related to your compliance state should be under investigation during that process. That means checking devices, software, training, and more.
NIST Compliance Benefits
Becoming NIST compliant gives you an edge over threat actors and cybercriminals who are after your data. At the same time, doing so improves your chances of achieving compliance in other areas, such as becoming HIPAA compliant and similar.
Does that mean NIST compliance is a magic bullet? Not quite. It does make you as close as bulletproof as possible, especially if you weren’t following any cybersecurity standards to protect your data.
It’s impossible to meet every NIST standard. As we’ve stated above, there are more than 1300 of them. You have to do your due diligence to figure out which one is the best for your company. The government will be sure to tell you if you must comply with any of them.
Does NIST compliance have any cons?
NIST offers standards and frameworks for all companies, but that doesn’t mean all businesses have what it takes to live by these rules and suggestions. One survey shows the cost of adopting NIST standards often prevents companies from doing so.
We have decided to write our NIST compliance checklist with “assess your costs” as the first item. You may end up spending more than what you have in your IT budget by trying to comply with a standard that isn’t mandatory – yet.
Are you a government contractor? By all means, follow these standards! Are you a regular company doing regular business? Take a look at your budget before making a choice. We cannot stress how beneficial following NIST standards is, though that’s not reason enough to bankrupt your company.
NIST compliance is only mandatory for government contractors handling CUI (controlled unclassified information), though that doesn’t mean these companies alone will benefit from these standards. The NIST Cybersecurity Framework can greatly improve your chances of fending off cyberattacks. NIST compliance proves costly, though highly beneficial as well.