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What is NIST?

What does NIST stand for? It is short for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As described in the U.S. government's SP 800-53, NIST is a body that handles the technology, metrics, and standards used within the technology and science industries. 

NIST began in 1901 in the U.S. as a segment of the Department of Commerce (DOC). It plays a vital role in how businesses are run. NIST’s mission involves promoting innovation and competition within industries through the advancement of scientific measurement standards and technology. NIST makes users’ lives better by strengthening economic security.

This makes NIST different from other bodies that issue guidelines, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which focuses on risk control. Also, unlike the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS), NIST is more focused on data security than procurement. And while both deal with cybersecurity, NIST is different from the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC), which deals with the Department of Defense (DOD) and other defense-related bodies.

What Does NIST Do?

As the body that controls the guidelines that pertain to technology, NIST outlines how data should be protected. This includes providing standards that govern the security measures needed to protect data, as well as shore up the systems and tools used to ensure data safety.

By conforming to NIST standards, a cybersecurity team establishes a baseline for the safety of a network. This can be used as a benchmark that can apply to various businesses, regardless of their industry.

What Is NIST Compliance?

Compliance involves following the NIST guidelines and ensuring that the business remains in compliance as time goes on. This often includes making adjustments as the business’s vulnerabilities shift and as the cybersecurity landscape evolves.

Remaining in compliance helps protect not only the data but also the people whose lives the data represents and affects. If a hacker penetrates a government data storehouse, more than those within the agency would be impacted—regular Americans could have their data exposed or secrets that impact national security could be revealed.

NIST compliance also helps an organization conform to the standards within the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), which promotes information security as it impacts the U.S. government.

NIST Compliance Benefits

NIST compliance comes with several benefits to both an organization and the people it serves. 

First, it ensures a more secure infrastructure for the organization. With a strengthened infrastructure, it is more difficult for cyber threats to penetrate and disturb the day-to-day operations of various teams and individuals. Further, an organization with stronger infrastructure is more resilient to successful attacks. Not only does it have the tools to limit the spread of attacks, but the various employees and executives also likely have a better understanding of how the tools impact cybersecurity. This enables greater cooperation around security issues.

For businesses that deal with the U.S. government, NIST compliance is especially important. It opens the way for government contracts that would otherwise be out of reach. Even small companies, when NIST-compliant, can offer a safer business environment that avails them of potentially lucrative deals with the government.

Individual subcontractors who conform to NIST standards can, similarly, qualify to do business with the government. In addition, because they would have stronger data security policies than other subcontractors, other companies may feel more comfortable doing business with them.

Who Should Comply?

Any company that does business with the United States government should comply with NIST. This includes agencies within the U.S. government, as well as businesses and individuals that the government may hire to perform work on projects. In addition, anyone who may do business with the government in the future should comply as well. This removes a potential hurdle during the bidding process.

At times, NIST compliance may even be included in the contract you sign with a government agency. It is important to carefully read all contracts to see if NIST compliance is a requirement. Further, a subcontractor being hired by a company performing work for the government should also make sure they are NIST-compliant. This way, they will not interfere with the company’s efforts to secure—or keep—the job.

NIST SP 800-53 Compliance

The NIST 800-53 publication examines ways to manage and safeguard data on federal information systems. This NIST compliance document harmonizes information on security procedures not only for the federal government but also for contractors and other third parties who have access to federal data.

What Is NIST Compliance?: Top 10 Security Controls in NIST SP 800-53

The top 10 security controls in NIST SP 800-53 include:

  1. Access control: Ensures only authorized users have access privileges
  2. Audit and accountability: Involves a system of checks and balances to ensure proper protection
  3. Awareness and training: Ensures team members are given the pertinent security controls training, including how these controls protect their systems
  4. Configuration management: Ensures all configurations address the latest needs of the system without compromising security
  5. Contingency planning: Involves creating a plan that provides different options in case your security controls do not perform as expected
  6. Identification and authentication: Focuses on ensuring users and devices have valid identification and the rights they need to access systems and data
  7. Incident response: Orchestrates the steps and tools used when there is a breach
  8. Maintenance: Necessary for keeping the system up-to-date and functioning as it should
  9. Media protection: Involves protecting the physical media used to store data, such as hard drives and servers
  10. Personnel security: Ensures people that manage sensitive systems and data are protected from cybercriminals who may target them

Why Should You Comply?

NIST is not an arbitrary set of standards. It comes with benefits that provide many kinds of organizations—regardless of the nature of their business—with advantages when it comes to data security.

Protection of Data

NIST outlines ways to protect data, and whether your data is classified or not, using these standards is a good way to keep it safer. The NIST standards were established to protect some of the most sensitive data available, so they are well-suited to bolster the data security of many organizations and individual contractors.

In some cases, data security requires a company to protect its customers as well. When customer data gets exposed, the organization’s reputation can easily take an expensive hit. For example, if credit card data gets leaked, it can be used by hackers to compromise consumers' credit accounts and make unauthorized purchases. If this happens and the problem comes to light, the company could face serious consequences. Keeping in line with NIST standards can prevent this.

Competitive Advantage

Aligning with NIST standards can put you ahead of the competition. Confidence in subcontractors and contractors to protect data is a very important factor for many companies. In a situation where you and your competitor both bid for the same contract, the bid will likely be in your favor if you can guarantee both controlled unclassified information (CUI) protection and NIST compliance while your competitor cannot. High cybersecurity standards and compliance as a business are both qualities that can be appealing to your potential clients.

In addition, with cybersecurity attacks impacting the government on a constant basis, businesses are more likely to support a company that goes the “extra mile” to show they care about and support the data security standards espoused by the U.S. government. Similar to an organization or individual that not only conforms to but also goes overboard as they follow stringent code, a company that adheres to NIST standards sends a message that it is responsible with its data and considerate of its customers.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework outlines all the ways data needs to be protected to create a more secure organization. In order to make sure assets are adequately protected from malicious actors and code, the framework makes use of the same procedure each time. 

It is composed of five steps:

  1. Identify: In this step, the data and systems that need to be protected are identified. This often involves those that fall under the jurisdiction of specific legislation designed to protect consumers, patients, or sensitive information.
  2. Protect: In the protection phase, the team puts security measures into place to safeguard the data. These will often involve specific tools, hardware, and software designed to address common security concerns. However, it may also involve getting stakeholders and employees on board so everyone can work together to guard sensitive data and systems.
  3. Detect: In the detection step, tools and policies are designed to discover an incident when it happens. This requires enhanced visibility into the various systems, networks, and devices used by the organization. It may also include applications that manage data or interface with it in the course of regular business.
  4. Respond: The response phase requires a company to devise a plan for responding to a threat. The plan will include the different methods used to mitigate the threat, as well as which tools will be used. An organization’s response mechanism may include intentional redundancies designed to approach a threat from multiple angles, such as redundant firewalls or antivirus software.
  5. Recover: In the event an attack penetrates the network, the process outlined by NIST also includes ways of helping an organization recover as quickly as possible. This may include recovering data from backups, regaining control of workstations, or spinning up parallel devices. Recovery may also include resiliency measures and tools that ensure the company has as little downtime as possible.

How Fortinet Can Help

Protecting your endpoints is crucial in the formation of any cybersecurity defense plan, including one outlined by NIST. Every endpoint that has or processes data is a potential target. This includes endpoints that use software securely hosted in the cloud. As the data is accessed by the application, a hacker inside the endpoint could take this as an opportunity to infiltrate an otherwise safe system.

The Fortinet FortiNAC solution provides endpoint visibility throughout your network. FortiNAC works by profiling each endpoint on your network on a continuous basis. This includes examining how the device itself is functioning, as well as the applications running on it. Abnormalities can be flagged and addressed, and the behavior of users can be monitored as well. When and how a user uses an endpoint can be analyzed to determine if abnormal—and potentially risky—behavior is happening. The corrective action can be taken.

FortiNAC also automates the way guests are allowed to access the network. This enables guests to safely, easily, and quickly gain access to what they need, provided they have sufficient credentials and authority. FortiNAC can also manage Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices, which sometimes have more lax security measures, such as easy-to-guess passwords. While nothing replaces stringent security policies, FortiNAC can help reduce the risk inherent to an IoT architecture. 

FortiNAC can also discover the different devices that are on the network. If any suspicious changes arise, FortiNAC can make it easier for the IT team to respond quickly and effectively, helping the organization remain in line with NIST standards.