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What is the difference between NIST SP 800-53 and SP 800-171?

Navigating the maze of information security standards in the government contract world can be quite the task. If you’re in this industry, you've probably heard a lot about NIST SP 800-53 and NIST SP 800-171. But what's the difference between the two? 

Read on to get all the details on these frameworks, especially as they relate to FedRAMP and CMMC compliance. Let’s dive right in.

What is NIST SP 800-53? 

Established in 1901, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, is a non-regulatory government agency within the US Department of Commerce that is responsible for developing standards, guidelines, and measurements for many areas, including IT, engineering, biotechnology, and more.

NIST SP 800-53 is a specific set of security and privacy controls that are designed to help federal organizations protect their CUI, or controlled unclassified information, from cyber threats. 

But what are some examples of CUI? These include anything along the lines of personally identifiable information (PII), sensitive personally identifiable information (SPII), confidential business information (CBI), and more.

All federal agencies require the SP 800-53 security framework, including for government contractors and any private corporations directly sharing federal servers or networks. These controls also form part of the security requirements for FedRAMP authorization. FedRAMP relies heavily on NIST SP 800-53, requiring cloud service providers seeking certification to comply with a set of controls drawn from the framework. 

To obtain a FedRAMP authorization, a provider must demonstrate that they have implemented all required controls, as well as any additional controls that have been identified as necessary for their specific cloud offering. This ensures that cloud service providers operating in a federal environment meet the same high standards for security as any federal agency.

But the main benefit for companies that achieve FedRAMP authorization is they can offer their services to federal agencies, which can be a significant source of revenue. And, like achieving compliance with any framework, it demonstrates a commitment to good security and privacy practices.

Why is NIST SP 800-53 compliance important? 

Compliance with NIST SP 800-53 is essential for federal agencies to demonstrate their commitment to protecting sensitive data and customer information, meeting government regulations, ensuring customer trust and confidence, detecting cyber threats faster and minimizing damage in case of a security incident. 

Compliance also helps organizations build secure infrastructure and remain compliant with legal obligations like GDPR. These regulations are necessary for organizations to protect their systems from potential threats, paving the way for greater company growth.

What are some NIST SP 800-53 compliance requirements?

NIST SP 800-53 provides a comprehensive set of security controls for information systems that handle sensitive data, covering 18 control families, including access control, security assessment and authorization, and incident response. 

To give you a general idea of the main components, here are a few of the NIST SP 800-53 compliance requirements:

  • Establishing encryption, access control, and user authentication standards
  • Developing a comprehensive risk management program, including asset management, configuration management, personnel security, media protection, and more
  • Creating an incident response plan to quickly assess and reduce the impact of potential incidents
  • Meeting federal information security requirements
  • Demonstrating to customers or partners that their organization is taking steps to protect sensitive data

Organizations are expected to comply with these requirements in order to maintain a secure infrastructure that is compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.

Now, let’s compare all that to NIST SP 800-171, the underpinning for CMMC compliance.

What is NIST SP 800-171?

NIST SP 800-171 is a security framework that helps non-federal organizations protect CUI data. The framework provides guidelines to secure CUI by establishing encryption, access control, and user authentication standards.

By following the requirements laid out in the NIST SP 800-171 framework, organizations can ensure their sensitive information is secure from cyber threats while meeting requirements set forth by federal regulations. Again, NIST SP 800-171 applies to non-federal companies with no direct connection of any kind to federal servers. 

Why is NIST SP 800-171 compliance important? 

NIST 800-171 is based on the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002, which outlines a set of security standards that federal agencies must adhere to. NIST SP 800-171 compliance is particularly important because it prevents the potential compromise of information that might not have been officially categorized as CUI due to lower standards prior to companies pursuing NIST SP 800-171. And (like 800-53) it protects CUI from cyber threats and other risks while demonstrating a commitment to keep personal information safe. 

What are some NIST SP 800-171 compliance requirements?

This doesn’t encompass the whole publication, but here are some of the NIST SP 800-171 compliance requirements:

  • Ensuring software and system configuration management
  • Establishing encryption, access control, user authentication, and privacy protection standards
  • Developing a comprehensive risk management program including asset management, personnel security, and network security
  • Creating an incident response plan to quickly assess and reduce the impact of potential incidents
  • Auditing information systems regularly to ensure that security controls are in place and functioning
  • Meeting federal information security requirements;
  • Demonstrating to customers or partners that their organization is taking steps to protect sensitive data

Let’s just have a closer look at the similarities and differences between NIST SP 800-171 and NIST SP 800-53 when it comes down to where it matters most — the audit process.

NIST SP 800-53 vs. 800-171 in FISMA audits

Organizations that handle sensitive government data, such as contractors and sub-contractors, must comply with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) to protect that data. 

FISMA covers a variety of areas concerning data security, and the two most important are SP 800-53 and 800-171. 

NIST SP 800-53 provides a comprehensive set of security controls for federal systems covering 18 control families. On the other hand, NIST SP 800-171 focuses specifically on the protection of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) in non-federal systems, such as those used by contractors and sub-contractors.

The main difference between these two standards is their scope. While both provide guidelines for protecting sensitive information, 800-171 applies specifically to contractors that handle CUI for government agencies. This means that organizations subject to FISMA audits must comply with both sets of guidelines, but 800-171 will only apply if they handle CUI.

Another difference between the two is the language used in the standards. SP 800-53 is written in more technical terms and geared toward IT professionals, while 800-171 is more accessible to non-technical personnel and uses more straightforward language. This makes 800-171 more easily understood by contractors who may not have IT backgrounds.

Despite these differences, there is significant overlap between the two standards. Both require risk assessments to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities, as well as regular monitoring and testing of systems to ensure compliance. They also both require organizations to establish incident response plans and procedures and to train employees on relevant security policies regularly.

Does your organization need NIST 800-53 or NIST 800-171?

Determining whether your organization requires adherence to NIST 800-53 or NIST 800-171 standards is a critical step in ensuring robust cybersecurity compliance. Understanding the nuances between NIST 800-53 and NIST 800-171 will help you identify the right security controls for your organization's unique needs.

Organizations that need NIST 800-53

NIST 800-53 is designed for federal agencies that handle classified information. However, it's also recommended for organizations that handle CUI and have a high level of risk. 

Some examples of organizations that may need NIST 800-53 include defense contractors, financial institutions, and healthcare providers. These organizations have a lot to lose if their systems are compromised, and NIST 800-53 provides a comprehensive set of controls to mitigate that risk.

Organizations that need NIST 800-171

NIST 800-171 is designed specifically for non-federal organizations that handle CUI. If your organization handles CUI but isn't a federal agency, NIST 800-171 is likely the framework for you. 

This applies to contractors that work with the Department of Defense, energy companies, and research institutions. NIST 800-171 provides a subset of the controls in NIST 800-53, but they are still robust and effective in mitigating risk.

[H2] Getting started with NIST SP 800-53 and 800-171

Strike Graph’s comprehensive compliance platform is designed to streamline NIST 800-53 (FedRAMP) and NIST 800-171 (CMMC) compliance. 

Controls are pre-mapped to NIST 800-53 and NIST 800-171, setting a solid foundation for FedRAMP, StateRAMP, and CMMC compliance (and any future frameworks you may need, thanks to multi-framework mapping). And, we provide a suite of versatile AI-powered tools like automated evidence collection, our AI security assistant, and audit prediction to make sure you don’t waste valuable time and resources on grunt work. 

Want to see for yourself how Strike Graph simplifies NIST? Sign up for your free account today.

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