What is the Difference Between CMMC and NIST

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Reciprocity

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May 18, 2021

Cybersecurity cases are surging. And for a long time, that has been due to the lack of stringent compliance regulations to guide how businesses, government agencies, NGOs, etc., should operate to enhance their security posture. However, that’s bound to change if the new regulations are anything to go by.

If your company is contracted by the government under the Department of Defense, DoD, then you may have heard that you’re required to comply with the new Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) standards, right? If not, now you know!

Please note that the new CMMC regulations are distinct from the existing National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) regulations. And that begs the question: what differentiates CMMC from NIST? This guide lays everything in black and white, but first, let’s understand what each of these regulations entails and when they were established.

CMMS overview: what is it, and when was it established?

CMMC is a Department of Defense creation which came into being at the start of 2020. This establishment’s inspiration was to create a framework for protecting what is referred to as controlled unclassified information (CUI). These may include all government agency data, plus export, immigration, law enforcement, and nuclear records.

Around September 2020, the DoD started asking its contractors to present CMMS documentation. But one thing’s for sure; it will take some years to achieve full compliance; the goal is that every stakeholder will be compliant by 2026.

NIST overview: what is it, and when was it established?

NIST is a long-standing cybersecurity framework that has been effective since 2014. It was established by public and private contractors plus other cybersecurity stakeholders who felt theurge to protect sensitive data without stepping on one another’s toes. The framework got ratified when Congress passed the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014, giving it formal consent to apply as an international standard.

Today, NIST remains a trusted cybersecurity framework for reputable companies like Microsoft, Boeing, and JP Morgan. They rely on the framework to minimize or eliminate cyber threats, analyze and point out risk factors on their information systems and networks, stay current on cybersecurity matters, etc. Lastly, please note that complying with NIST standards is voluntary.

Understanding the differences between CMMC and NIST compliance

The most notable differentiating factor between the two cybersecurity frameworks is that CMMC leverages maturity models, whereas NIST doesn’t. These models refer to the cybersecurity sophistication levels that contractors may be eligible to, following a third-party assessment. As such, you must pass one maturity model test before getting permission to proceed to the next.

In essence, there are five CMMS maturity levels, as explained below:

  • Level 1: This is the most basic level, and it lays the foundation for cybersecurity must-haves and expectations. It uses basic computer hygiene to protect controlled unclassified information (CUI) and federal contact information (FCI). However, the contractor doesn’t have to document the level 1 processes.
  • Level 2: Here, the contractor begins documenting CMMC by meeting and measuring cybersecurity requirements. The documentation process also starts at this intermediate stage.
  • Level 3: At this stage, the contractor must present a CMMC implementation strategy, e.g., staff training programs, to prove that the compliance standards have been achieved.
  • Level 4: This requires all subcontractors under DoD to review their activities or practices and confirm that they meet the necessary cybersecurity standards and can implement the right remediation actions if the measures become lacking.
  • Level 5: The highest-ranking level requires contractors to comply with all CMMC standards in all processes and departments.

Here are other factors showing the differences between the two compliance standards and proving that CMMC is superior to NIST in many aspects:

  • Whereas NIST compliance is voluntary, the DoD will require all its contractors to achieve CMMC compliance by 2026. That will bolster cybersecurity as far as handling sensitive data goes because only contractors will certain CMMC accreditation levels will been trusted.
  • Unlike NIST, getting CMMC accreditation isn’t child’s play. That’s because a contractor must have each of their maturity levels reviewed by a third-party assessment organization (C3PAO) accredited by the CMMC Accreditation Body (CMMS-AB). Such3rd party reviews ascertain that the contractor has met the CMMC standards 100% and is eligible to handle sensitive data.

Does my business or organization need CMMC compliance?

2026 may seem like a long time to come, but let it not catch you by surprise when it dawns on you that you need CMMC compliance, yet you never bothered to acquire one. So how do you know whether you need to get the accreditation?

For starters, if your business holds a DoD contract or forms part of the supply chain (for the contract), then you should seek CMMC accreditation. The certification will also be required of all organizations falling under the Defense Industrial Base (DIB). These include all firms offering legal, tax, and statistical services to the government. Also, even if your company neither manages nor produces CUI but holds federal contracts, you’ll be required to get at least CMMC level 1 accreditation.

There you go!

In a recap, NIST is a voluntary cybersecurity compliance requirement, whereas CMMC is a soon-to-be mandatory standard. As such, companies without CMMC accreditation may still get DoD contracts until 2026, though it would be sheer luck. So the earlier you get started on the five maturity levels, the better.

Be prepared for CMMC compliance.

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