NIST 800-171 vs 800-53: Why They're Different [Comparison]

NIST 800-171/CMMC


In an era where digital transformation is not just a trend but a necessity, the significance of cybersecurity has skyrocketed. With increasing volumes of data being exchanged and stored online, protecting this information from cyber threats has become paramount for both public and private entities. This growing digital landscape brings with it a heightened responsibility to safeguard sensitive information, making adherence to robust cybersecurity standards more crucial than ever.

Against this backdrop, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed key frameworks - NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53 - to provide comprehensive guidelines for cybersecurity. These standards are pivotal in establishing robust security protocols, especially for organizations handling Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). Whether you are a federal agency, a private contractor, or a non-federal organization, understanding and implementing these standards is not just about compliance; it's about fortifying your cybersecurity posture in a world where digital threats are constantly evolving. In this article, we delve into the nuances of NIST 800-171 and 800-53, helping you understand their distinctions, applications, and the crucial role they play in the overarching scheme of cybersecurity.


The key distinction between NIST 800-171 vs 800-53 is that 800-171 refers to non-federal networks and NIST 800-53 applies directly to any federal organization.

Federal agencies test their systems against NIST 800-53 controls, and non-federal agencies working with government entities test their systems against NIST 800-171.

Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) will only escalate in terms of the scrutiny that it falls under, and companies that handle such data will need a plan to become compliant with these requirements or risk losing out on lucrative government contracts.

LEARN MORE: Here's All You Need To Know About NIST 800-171 Compliance Requirements (+ Next Steps)

If your company is a Department of Defense (DOD) contractor or within the supply chain, you need to know which of the two standards you are expected to meet.

Controlled Unclassified Information is worth defining when you consider that compliance simply establishes the fact that a company can adequately safeguard such information.

While not necessarily “classified” information, CUI is information that is not suitable for public viewing, as it can contain personal information and sensitive data. CUI is separated into about 20 unique categories that range from infrastructure to transportation.

Here we explain the differences between NIST 800-171 and 800-53 in simple terms.

But if you're doing business with the federal government, it's important that you understand the language in your contracts.

You will need to prove compliance based on that language.

What is NIST 800-171?

NIST SP 800-171 is a Special Publication that outlines the specific requirements that any non-federal computer system must follow to properly safeguard the confidentiality of CUI that is stored, processed, or transmitted throughout the system.

If your company is a federal contractor, you've handled CUI to some extent. Prior to the introduction of NIST 800-171, there were no standards for the handling of CUI.

Why NIST 800-171 Compliance is Important

The lack of standards proved to be a problem in certain cases because some unclassified information contained “sensitive information.”

NIST 800-171 was established for the purpose of standardizing the process of handling CUI and thus sensitive information.

NIST 800-171 is based on the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 and went into effect on Dec 31, 2017, to be the set of guidelines outlining the standards for how government contractors must demonstrate the security of CUI.

Companies that are contractors for the federal government are required to achieve the requirements that are outlined in NIST SP 800-171 as evidence of their capabilities to provide adequate security to protect the circulation of CUI at their company.

NIST SP 800-171 Compliance Requirements

The requirements outlined in the NIST SP 800-171 are broken down into two different categories—administrative and technical:

  1. Administrative regulations (PDF) define the steps your company needs to take to prevent incidents from occurring, including proactively reporting vulnerabilities, maintaining hardware and consistently reviewing workflow procedures.
  2. Technical regulations outline the technical steps a company needs to take to protect the digital data that is stored or that can be transferred across the Internet, such as cybersecurity and limiting access.

Again, it is the non-federal agencies that work with government entities that can comply by testing their systems against NIST 800-171 security controls.

These controls are in place to protect CUI that is not considered a part of federal information systems against hackers and/or otherwise unauthorized access.

The controls of NIST SP 800-171 are categorized into 14 families, including Access Control, Incident Response, and Awareness & Training.

What is NIST 800-53?

The NIST 800-53 publication covers federal institutions and the information systems that they use. It is a comprehensive layout of the guidelines that government institutions are required to follow in the security of their infrastructure.

Further, NIST 800-53 has been used as a resource by government organizations in the development and implementation of their information technology security protocols.

The federal government casts a wide net in terms of private corporations it works with, and it’s common for these small, private companies to be directly connected to federal servers, networks, or related IT systems, hence requiring NIST 800-53 compliance.

Categories of NIST 800-53 Security Systems

Companies need to understand the complexities and nuances of being in compliance with NIST 800-53, which categorizes security systems into 3 compliance levels:

  1. Low
  2. Moderate
  3. High

These security controls are classified into 18 control families aiding federal agencies in determining the organizational impact and possible risks to their systems.

The 450+ page publication (PDF) has been used successfully by federal agencies as the framework for the development and application of strategic measures implemented to safeguard government information and operations from cyberattacks and other threats.

3 Identifying Designations of NIST 800-53 Controls

NIST SP 800-53 ensures that all federal agencies and contractors achieve the minimal level of protection for their infrastructure, including information systems.

This applies to all federal agencies, including government contractors if those contractors operate federal systems, such as a cloud-based platform, for example.

The security controls in NIST 800-53 have 3 separate identifying designations:

  1. Common;
  2. System-specific, and;
  3. Hybrid controls.

The purpose of these 3 designations is to assign responsibility, understand the impact of the control, document security measures, and reduce implementation costs.

NIST 800-171 vs 800-53: Which Applies To You?

Understanding the difference between NIST 800-171 and 800-53 and knowing which of the two applies to your company should be a priority for your business.

Refer to the flow chart below for visual guidance:

Please note: This flowchart is a simplified guide; for comprehensive compliance advice, consult with a cybersecurity expert.

NIST SP 800-53:

"Applies to all federal agencies and government contractors that are operating federal systems. This includes companies providing cloud services to the Federal Government."

It is important to point out that there have been incidents of commercial organizations that did not operate on any federal systems, yet these same companies still had 800-53 compliance language written into their government contracts.

So, it's crucial to understand the ins-and-outs of your government contract to assure compliance with either of these publications.

If your company works in direct contact with a federal information system, the controls listed in the 800-53 document are required for your company.

NIST 800-171:

Some examples of organizations that would need to comply with NIST 800-171:

  • Universities supported by federal grants
  • Manufacturers supplying goods to federal agencies
  • Service providers for federal agencies

Here's a simple table with a quick recap of the two publications:

Feature NIST 800-171 NIST 800-53
Applicability Non-federal organizations handling CUI Federal agencies and contractors operating federal systems
Focus Protecting the confidentiality of CUI in non-federal systems Comprehensive security for federal information systems
Control Families 14 control families 18 control families
Number of Controls Fewer controls compared to 800-53 Over 1,000 controls with three different baselines
Compliance Levels Uniform level of compliance Categorized into low, moderate, and high impact levels
Implementation Mostly used by private sector companies, universities, and contractors Primarily used by government entities and federal contractors
Scope of Information Primarily CUI All federal information and systems
Purpose Standardizing the process of handling C UI Protecting government information from cyberattacks
Compliance Evidence Self-assessment and documentation Formal assessments and continuous monitoring
Updates Periodically updated to reflect changes in the cybersecurity landscape Regularly updated to include latest security practices

Here's a final visual recap of NIST 800-171 vs NIST 800-53:

High level comparison of NIST 800-171 vs NIST 800-53

NIST Compliance Enables Business Growth

The first step in becoming compliant is to understand the language in your current contracts and knowing where your company stands in terms of compliance obligations.

Determining whether your company needs compliance within the NIST 800-171 or 800-53 framework may require the guidance of a consulting firm that has the strategic knowledge and team to handle such an important matter for your company.

With key expertise in guiding businesses through the process of complying with NIST 800-171, Encompass Consultants has helped 100s of businesses enable government relationships and enhance the business outlook for the long-term.

To learn more about the next steps in your journey to becoming NIST 800-171 compliant, check out our additional resources by clicking on the image below.

Updated January 16, 2024

Frequently asked questions

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

Non-federal networks are required to be compliant with the 800-171 framework. Federal networks are required to be compliant with the NIST 800-53 guidelines.

2. Which NIST requirement do I have to comply with?

Non-federal entities without a direct connection to a federal network system fall under the NIST 800-171 mandate. If your company works directly with a federal information system, you need to be in compliance with NIST 800-53.

3. What is the purpose of NIST 800-171?

NIST 800-171 is a framework dictating how contractors and subcontractors that provide services to federal agencies will secure Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) – Designed specifically for non-federal entities.

4. What is the purpose of NIST 800-53?

NIST 800-53 is a framework defining the standards and guidelines to be used exclusively by federal agencies in securing Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI).

5. How does the scope of CUI protection differ between NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53?

NIST 800-171 specifically focuses on protecting CUI in non-federal information systems and organizations. In contrast, NIST 800-53 covers a broader scope, providing a comprehensive framework for protecting all federal information and systems, which includes CUI as well as other types of sensitive federal information.

6. What are the main differences in compliance requirements between NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53?

NIST 800-171 compliance is typically self-assessed and requires organizations to implement 110 security controls across 14 families. NIST 800-53, however, is more extensive, with over 1,000 security controls across 18 families, and often requires formal assessments and continuous monitoring. The level of detail and rigor in NIST 800-53 is generally higher due to its application in federal systems.

7. Can a company be subject to both NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53 standards?

Yes, a company can be subject to both standards if it operates both non-federal systems handling CUI (requiring NIST 800-171 compliance) and federal information systems (requiring NIST 800-53 compliance). This dual compliance is often seen in contractors who work closely with federal agencies and handle a mix of information types.

8. How do updates to NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53 affect existing compliant systems?

Updates to either NIST 800-171 or NIST 800-53 require organizations to review their current security measures and make necessary adjustments to remain compliant. Such updates might introduce new controls or modify existing ones, reflecting evolving cybersecurity threats and technologies. Organizations are expected to continuously monitor these updates and adjust their security practices accordingly.

9. Are there specific industries or sectors where NIST 800-171 is more applicable than NIST 800-53, or vice versa?

NIST 800-171 is particularly relevant to private sector companies, including manufacturers, universities, and service providers, that handle CUI as part of their work with federal agencies. NIST 800-53, on the other hand, is more applicable to federal agencies and organizations directly operating federal information systems. Industries such as aerospace, defense, and research, which often involve collaboration with federal agencies, may find NIST 800-171 more pertinent.

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