From more broad laws like GDPR to industry-specific regulations like HIPAA, most organizations today must comply with some kind of data protection guideline. Some businesses may even have to comply with numerous data protection regulations. As such, compliance with data protection regulations has become increasingly complicated. 

National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 800-171 (NIST SP 800-171) is one such data protection framework—albeit a particularly specific one. We’ll go into this in a bit more detail later, but NIST SP 800-171 applies only to non-federal organizations that handle government Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). It’s a particularly complicated framework, especially for small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), and, as such, deserves some attention. So, let’s dive into NIST SP 800-171.

What is NIST? 

First, we should understand NIST. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce (DOC). It promotes innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology. 

The agency develops and maintains various standards, guidelines, and best practices across multiple fields, including cybersecurity, information technology, manufacturing, and engineering.

What is NIST SP 800-171?

NIST Special Publication 800-171 is a set of guidelines developed by NIST to help non-federal organizations protect CUI in their systems and networks. It outlines specific security controls and best practices to safeguard sensitive information from unauthorized access, disclosure, and loss. While it isn’t a legal regulation, organizations handling CUI on behalf of the government are contractually obliged to comply with NIST SP 800-171.

The framework applies to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that handle Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) on behalf of the US federal government. To comply with NIST SP 800-171, organizations must implement encryption, access controls, monitoring systems, and incident response capabilities to bolster their cybersecurity posture and protect CUI. 

What is Controlled Unclassified Information?

CUI is unclassified information that requires safeguarding or dissemination controls under law, regulation, or government-wide policy. In addition to Special Publication 800-171, CUI appears in other regulations, including the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS).

CUI is a category of sensitive information that does not meet the criteria for classification under Executive Order 13526 but still requires protection due to its sensitivity and potential impact on national security, privacy, or other interests. Examples of CUI include:

  • Proprietary business information.
  • Sensitive but unclassified government data.
  • Personally identifiable information (PII).
  • Sensitive information for law enforcement.

NIST SP 800-171 Impacts on SMBs

NIST Special Publication 800-171 has many impacts on SMBs. They include:

  • Compliance Obligations – SMBs dealing with government CUI must meet compliance obligations or face financial penalties, contractual disputes, or reputational damage. 
  • Enhanced Security – NIST SP 800-171 mandates implementing comprehensive security controls tailored to protect CUI. SMBs must invest in technologies, processes, and training to enforce encryption, access controls, monitoring systems, and incident response capabilities, significantly enhancing their security posture.
  • Cost Considerations – SMBs seeking to comply with NIST SP 800-171 will often need to make financial investments in infrastructure, personnel, and ongoing maintenance. However, small to medium-sized businesses often operate with constrained budgets and limited resources and may struggle to allocate the funds necessary to achieve compliance.
  • Competitive Advantage – Compliance with NIST SP 800-171 can offer SMBs a competitive advantage, particularly when competing for government contracts. Smaller organizations may win government contracts over their larger competitors by pre-achieving NIST Special Publication 800-171 compliance. 
  • Supply Chain Implications – SMBs not directly under government contracts but working in a government supply chain are subject to the compliance requirements of their larger counterparts. Failing to comply with NIST SP 800-171 can damage business relationships, result in lost revenue, and bring about inefficiencies.
  • Cyber Insurance Requirements – Some insurance providers may mandate compliance with NIST SP 800-171 as a prerequisite for cybersecurity insurance coverage. SMBs that adhere to the standard may qualify for lower premiums, comprehensive coverage, and risk mitigation strategies tailored to their needs. 

How SMBs can Comply with NIST SP 800-171

SMBs face unique challenges in complying with NIST SP 800-171. Limited resources, lack of expertise, and implementation complexity are significant obstacles for SMBs striving to achieve compliance. To navigate these challenges effectively, SMBs can adopt the following strategies:

  • Seek guidance from cybersecurity experts or consultants familiar with NIST SP 800-171 requirements and best practices.
  • Leverage cost-effective solutions and technologies tailored to their organizational needs and budget constraints.
  • Prioritize critical security controls based on risk assessments and compliance objectives, focusing on areas with the most significant impact.
  • Embrace a culture of continuous improvement and learning, fostering collaboration among internal teams and external partners to address cybersecurity challenges collectively.

Reading the framework and your government contract in full is also essential. While this article provides an overview of NIST SP 800-171, its impacts on SMBs, and advice on how organizations can comply with it, it can seem like an overwhelming task. 

To learn more about NIST SP 800-171 and how Fortra can help check out Fortra’s guide here.