December 10, 2021

    NIST 101: Everything You Need to Know About the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

    Even if you’ve only dabbled in cybersecurity, you’ve likely heard the acronym NIST — which stands for National Institute of Standards and Technology. Behind that simple acronym are huge implications for organizations that experience cybersecurity threats or that regularly handle sensitive files and information.

    The NIST framework for cybersecurity can help keep your organization safe from breaches, and it can also help you achieve compliance so that you can work with other organizations and government agencies that are concerned about cybersecurity.

    To help you better understand the NIST framework for cybersecurity, here are in-depth details about NIST and specific publications relevant to cybersecurity and the protection of sensitive files and information.

    What is NIST?

    As we’ve shared before, NIST is more than just a cybersecurity framework. NIST security standards collectively serve as “a valuable tool in the fight against data breaches.” The National Institute of Standards and Technology is a lab where cybersecurity defense strategies and tactics are tested on an ongoing basis. The goal is to provide continually updated measurements and standards that respond to the newest technologies and the latest approaches used by hackers around the world.

    Founded in 1901, NIST has become the authority on best practices for securing digital information. Operating within the U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST and its guidelines, standards and recommendations hold significant influence over how both the private and public sectors approach cybersecurity.

    Why Use NIST?

    It’s a great question: Why use NIST? The NIST framework is completely voluntary for private businesses and organizations. If you run your own business, you can simply take the NIST framework as a series of helpful suggestions for protecting your data and sensitive information.

    But there are 2 primary reasons why any organization would want to use NIST and follow its cybersecurity framework:

    • Security: The work that NIST does and the standards it publishes represent the latest and greatest thinking in cybersecurity defense. If and when you implement the NIST framework, you help insulate your organization against data breaches and any resulting liability. The heightened security is invaluable.
    • Opportunity: Since 2017, all government agencies have been required to follow NIST standards. That means private contractors working with government agencies are typically also required to follow certain NIST standards like NIST SP 800-171 and NIST SP 800-53. In short, implementing the NIST framework is essential if you hope to win government contracts.

    And it’s not just the government that may require you to implement the NIST framework before entering into a business relationship. You may find that some organizations in the private sector also rely on the NIST framework — and also require their strategic partners to implement the NIST framework before starting joint projects.

    How to Implement the NIST Cybersecurity Framework?

    Any NIST Implementation seeks to follow these 5 NIST cybersecurity framework functions:

    1. Identify risks within an organization and its systems.
    2. Protect an organization and its systems against breaches and attacks.
    3. Detect security incidents and minimize their impact to the greatest extent.
    4. Respond quickly when breaches occur.
    5. Recover any data or information that’s been lost.

    Of course, NIST is constantly updating its framework for achieving these goals. In 2017, defense contractors faced an end-of-year deadline for updating their cybersecurity measures to comply with NIST 800-171, which is a Special Publication of NIST. This Special Publication provided new standards for storing and sharing Controlled Unclassified Information — better known as CUI. Many organizations that work with government agencies and within the defense supply chain conduct a NIST 800-171 implementation so that they can work with CUI.

    CUI is often a target of hackers. Any company working in the defense supply chain within the United States, and organizations working in other capacities with the U.S. government, will need to store and share CUI. NIST 800-171 provided an updated framework for protecting CUI. In February 2021, NIST 800-172 added more to the base framework.

    As the deadline approached in late 2017, we shared a simple 6-step process for compliance with NIST 800-171:

    1. Locating CUI: Identify where you currently store CUI and how you currently transfer CUI. Knowing where you store and how you transfer CUI will help you focus on the security of those systems.
    2. Categorizing CUI: Once you know where CUI is located in your systems, separate it from information and data that is not CUI. While you’ll want to protect all of your organization’s information, isolating CUI will help you expedite the compliance process.
    3. Implementing Controls: After isolating your CUI, implement controls to encrypt the CUI both while it’s at-rest and while it’s in-transit.
    4. Training Employees: Any team members that participate in the storage or transfer of CUI should know the related best practices. Basically, train your employees so that the actions of one individual won’t cause you to fall out of compliance.
    5. Monitoring Data: Compliance with NIST 800-171 means monitoring CUI and recording all related user activity.
    6. Assessing Systems and Processes: Finally, you should regularly assess the systems and processes in place for NIST 800-171 compliance. This should be done on a quarterly or annual basis. Identify risks within an organization and its systems.

    The right implementation process will help you comply with the NIST framework and allow you to store and transfer CUI as a government contractor.


    NIST 800-171 vs. NIST 800-53

    It’s easy to confuse NIST 800-171 with another publication known as NIST 800-53. While the two are similar, you’ll find some nuances when comparing NIST 800-171 vs. NIST 800-53. A key distinction between NIST 800-171 vs 800-53 is that 800-171 refers to non-federal networks and NIST 800-53 applies directly to federal organizations.

    As mentioned above, NIST 800-171 addresses the storage and transferring of CUI. It outlines specific measures that should be in place to safely store and transfer CUI. NIST 800-53 is different in that it includes controls that addresses classified information. CUI is by name unclassified information. And while CUI’s security and protection is important, the government has deemed the security and protection of classified information as more important. NIST 800-53 outlines standards for protecting classified information.

    As you can imagine, there’s a great deal of overlap and similarity in how an organization is asked by NIST to protect and secure both CUI and classified data and files.

    Get a NIST-Compliant Storage and File Sharing Solution

    The cost of creating your own systems for securely storing and sharing CUI and classified files is astronomical. It’s far more efficient and inexpensive to find a trusted partner that offers a storage and file transfer system that complies with NIST 800-171 and other relevant standards.

    That’s exactly what we offer through our GOVFTP product. With GOVFTP from FTP Today, you enjoy end-to-end encryption for your files both at-rest and in-transit. You get the security that CUI and other sensitive information demands, and you also enjoy opportunities to expand your business through government contracts.

    Simplify CUI storage and sharing with GOVFTP. Get a short demo of our GOVFTP product and chat with an expert about safely storing and sharing your sensitive files.

    Arvind Mistry

    Arvind, Sharetru's Director of Compliance, brings 11+ years' experience in cloud solutions for Federal Govt. & public sector from esteemed companies.

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