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NIST Updates Guidelines for Safeguarding Sensitive Government Data

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Contractors and other organisations conducting business with the federal government now have clearer, more straightforward guidance for protecting sensitive data. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has finalised its updated guidelines for safeguarding this data, known as controlled unclassified information (CUI), in two key publications: Protecting Controlled Unclassified Information in Nonfederal Systems and Organisations (NIST Special Publication [SP] 800-171, Revision 3) and its companion, Assessing Security Requirements for Controlled Unclassified Information (NIST SP 800-171A, Revision 3). These revisions are particularly significant in digital technology, addressing the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats and the necessity for robust protection measures.

CUI encompasses a range of sensitive information, including intellectual property and employee health records, which, if compromised, could have serious implications. Systems that process, store, and transmit CUI often support government programmes involving critical assets, such as weapons systems and communication networks, making them prime targets for adversaries. Therefore, ensuring the security of this data is paramount.

The two publications draw on NIST’s comprehensive source catalogue of security and privacy controls (NIST SP 800-53) and assessment procedures (NIST SP 800-53A). Before this update, discrepancies in the language between these documents and the source catalogues potentially created ambiguity and uncertainty in security requirements and assessments. The latest revisions aim to address these issues by streamlining and harmonising NIST’s cybersecurity guidance portfolio, making it more coherent and user-friendly.

Ron Ross, one of the authors of these publications, emphasised, “For the sake of our private sector customers, we want our guidance to be clear, unambiguous, and tightly coupled with the catalogue of controls and assessment procedures used by federal agencies,” he said. “This update is a significant step toward that goal.”

NIST released draft versions of the guidelines for public comment last year. The feedback highlighted the community’s interest in having the safeguards available in machine-readable formats, such as JSON and Excel, to benefit cybersecurity tool developers and implementing organisations. These alternate formats are now available through NIST’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Reference Tool, enhancing accessibility and usability.

Ross noted, “Toolmakers often want to import relevant sections of the guidance directly into an electronic form for easier reference and use. Providing the guidance in these additional formats will allow them to do that. It will help a wider group of users to understand the requirements and implement them more quickly and efficiently.”

The companion publication, SP 800-171A, is designed to help users assess the security requirements outlined in SP 800-171. It includes a complete set of updated assessment procedures corresponding to the changes in security requirements and new material to illustrate how to conduct security requirement assessments effectively. This dual publication approach ensures that both the implementation and evaluation of security measures are comprehensively covered.

In the coming months, NIST plans to revise other supporting publications related to protecting CUI, particularly those associated with high-value assets and critical programmes. The revisions of the NIST guidelines reflect a significant advancement in protecting controlled unclassified information, particularly in the digital technology sector. This proactive approach not only strengthens security measures but also enhances the efficiency and clarity of cybersecurity practices across the board.

As digital technology continues to evolve and become more integral to government and private sector operations, the importance of robust cybersecurity measures cannot be overstated. NIST’s updated guidelines represent a crucial tool for organisations striving to protect their critical information assets in an increasingly complex threat landscape.


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