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8 steps for conducting a NIST 800-171 self-assessment

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If you're in an organization that handles sensitive information or has contracts with the US government, it's wise to consider a NIST 800-171 self-assessment. This isn't just about meeting regulatory requirements. It's a crucial step in safeguarding your sensitive data. What's great is that it also helps you identify any weaknesses and vulnerabilities in your systems, offering a clear path to strengthen your security measures. It's a proactive and smart approach for your organization's data protection strategy.

In this post, we’ll first take a look at a brief overview of NIST 800-171 and the benefits of conducting a self-assessment before diving into the steps of how to carry out your own.

NIST 800-171, officially titled Protecting Controlled Unclassified Information in Nonfederal Systems and Organizations, is a set of security guidelines developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These guidelines provide a framework for protecting Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) in nonfederal systems and organizations.

CUI refers to information that is sensitive and therefore still requires protection but isn’t classified by the federal government. CUI can include a wide range of data, such as financial information, privacy-related data, legal documents, and other sensitive information. NIST 800-171 outlines various security requirements and controls that organizations must implement in order to safeguard this CUI.

Compliance with NIST 800-171 is often required for organizations that have contracts with the US government and/or handle CUI. Failure to comply with these guidelines can result in legal consequences and impact an organization's ability to secure government contracts, but more on that in the next section.

In addition to ensuring compliance and protecting CUI, a self-assessment can also help you identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in your systems, allowing you to better protect sensitive data and mitigate risks.

In turn, this can help you:

Avoid penalties

Non-compliance with NIST 800-171 can lead to legal penalties and financial consequences. Self-assessments help organizations identify and rectify compliance gaps, reducing the risk of facing such repercussions.

Build trust

Customers, especially those in government or other highly regulated sectors, trust organizations that adhere to established security standards. By conducting NIST 800-171 self-assessments, companies demonstrate their commitment to data security, building trust amongst clients and partners alike.

Maintain existing contracts and sign new ones

Many government contracts, especially those involving sensitive information, require compliance with NIST 800-171. Conducting regular self-assessments ensures that organizations meet these requirements, enabling them to maintain existing contracts and compete for new ones.

Allow for continuous improvement

Regular self-assessments are part of a continuous improvement cycle. By identifying areas of improvement, organizations can enhance their overall security posture, staying ahead of evolving cyber threats — and the competition.

Without further ado, here are the crucial eight steps for conducting a NIST 800-171 self-assessment.

Step 1: Gather necessary resources 

First, you’ll want to form a team that includes individuals with knowledge of your organization's IT systems, security policies, and operational processes. This team may include IT professionals, security experts, and other relevant stakeholders. Next, identify and categorize all CUI within the organization. Determine where this information is stored, processed, and transmitted. This step is crucial for understanding the overall scope of the assessment. 

Step 2: Familiarize yourself with NIST 800-171 requirements 

Familiarize yourself with the 14 control areas, or families, and the 110 NIST 800-171r2 security requirements within each family. Each family addresses specific aspects of information security and include:

  1. Access controls
  2. Awareness and training
  3. Audit and accountability
  4. Configuration management
  5. Identification and authentication
  6. Incident response
  7. Maintenance
  8. Media protection
  9. Physical protection
  10. Personnel security
  11. Risk assessment
  12. Security assessment
  13. System and communications protection
  14. System and information integrity

Step 3: Conduct an initial gap analysis 

Compare the current security measures and controls in place within your organization against the requirements outlined in NIST 800-171. Identify gaps and areas where improvements are needed. This analysis will serve as the foundation for your improvement plan.

Step 4: Develop a remediation plan

Create a detailed plan outlining how your organization intends to address the identified gaps and shortcomings. Prioritize the actions based on the level of risk and potential impact on the security of CUI.

Step 5: Implement remediation efforts 

Begin implementing the necessary security controls and measures outlined in your remediation plan. This may involve deploying new technologies, updating policies and procedures, and providing training to employees.

Step 6: Document your compliance efforts 

Maintain detailed documentation of your self-assessment process, the implemented controls, and any changes made to enhance security. This documentation is essential for demonstrating compliance during audits and assessments.

Step 7: Review and validate compliance 

Continuously monitor the implemented security controls to ensure they’re effective. It's important to note that the NIST 800-171 self-assessment process is iterative. This means that as cybersecurity threats evolve and organizational systems change, it's crucial to continuously assess and improve security measures to effectively protect CUI. Regularly review and update your security policies, conduct vulnerability assessments, and perform audits to continuously validate compliance and data protection.

Step 8: Prepare for third-party assessments

Conduct mock assessments internally to simulate the conditions of a third-party assessment. This helps identify any gaps in your preparedness and allows your team to prepare to interact with third-party assessors and practice their responses. Essentially, your team should be familiar with the assessment process and know how to provide accurate and concise information.

How Strike Graph can help with your NIST 800-171 self-assessment

Strike Graph makes it simple and fast to achieve NIST 800-171 compliance by helping you identify specific data points that prove your controls and map them to the 110 NIST 800-171r2 security requirements and prepare for your self-assessment.

Our automated evidence collection makes it easy to validate the efficacy of your controls and ensure constant NIST compliance, while our tailored, risk-based process ensures your team is only investing energy where you actually need to.

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