Clearing up confusion about data on nonfederal systems

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology is looking for input on a government guide on how to handle sensitive federal information that resides in nonfederal systems and organizations.

Last fall, NIST issued recommendations for securing sensitive data on IT systems at companies that work for the government. The draft standards, released Nov. 18, are aimed at contractors and other nonfederal organizations that store controlled but unclassified information (CUI) in the course of their work.

At the time, NIST officials told FCW that nonfederal organizations must try to meet a wide range of contract clauses. "Conflicting guidance" from multiple agencies can lead to "confusion and inefficiencies" about how to handle sensitive federal information in nonfederal information systems that include contractors, state and local governments, and colleges and universities.

Office of Management and Budget regulations already require agencies to ensure their partners protect CUI, but don't provide specifics on how to do it, the NIST officials said.

The draft standard would remedy that situation, they said, requiring nonfederal systems to incorporate two-factor authentication when CUI is stored, and generally meet the Federal Information Security Management Act moderate standards already in place on 70 percent of agency systems.

On April 3, the agency opened up a public comment period on its second and final draft of the guidance document. NIST said in a statement that the draft contains significant changes from the November version.

The changes were based on comments received from public- and private-sector users. The additions build in more clarity, scope and applicability, and define underlying assumptions and expectations in applying the recommended CUI security requirements.

According to NIST, the final draft explains how the publication relates to the CUI federal rule and a planned Federal Acquisition Regulation clause that the National Archives and Records Administration will sponsor next year. Alongside NIST's effort, NARA is developing a standardized, government-wide approach to protect CUI when nonfederal organizations are in possession of the information.

Comments on the final public draft of "Protecting Controlled Unclassified Information in Nonfederal Information Systems and Organizations" should be sent to by May 12.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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