Considerations for Ensuring Cyber Compliance in Government Contracts


Ensuring your operations are secure from cyber threats is essential as a federal contractor, but it’s only half the story. Compliance with the cyber security standards the government upholds, including FISMA and CMMC, is not necessarily the same thing as protecting your data and operations. While the latter is an essential part of the former, it is just one half of a Venn diagram that does not entirely overlap with the other.

CASK Engineer checks compliance with cyber regulations
Cask engineer ensures comprehensive cyber compliance with government standards.

Many federal contractors focus on cyber security under the assumption that it is the same thing as cyber compliance, but this is not the case. Contractors who make this assumption may find themselves caught off-guard when they discover they are no longer eligible to receive or renew a federal contract due to lapsed compliance with FISMA or CMMC standards.

There is actually a difference between cyber security and compliance. One of the most important things contractors must do to ensure cyber compliance is adhering to the requirements laid out by FISMA, or the Federal Information Security Modernization Act. In this article, we will explore what FISMA is, its relationship to CMMC, and how contractors can ensure both adequate cyber compliance and cyber security for their federal contracts.

Does FISMA apply to contractors?

FISMA defines the framework of guidelines and security standards necessary to ensure the protection of sensitive government information and operations. Originally passed in 2002, this act ensures government compliance with comprehensive data security practices by requiring all federal agencies to develop, document, and implement agency-wide cyber security programs.

FISMA obligates federal agencies to ensure security in the handling, processing, and storing of federal information by relying on the guidelines developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Contractors who work with these federal agencies share this obligation as well. To win and maintain cyber security contracts, federal contractors must make certain to comply with FISMA standards as well as CMMC, if applicable.

Like federal agencies, federal contractors have a responsibility to abide by the standards FISMA sets to ensure cyber security for government contracts. To remain compliant, contractors must ensure their systems are FISMA accredited, which involves:

  • Categorizing information systems by their risk levels to ensure that High-Value Asset (HVA) systems are given the highest level of security
  • Meeting all baseline security control requirements relevant to their systems and functions, as outlined by NIST SP 800-53
  • Documenting the baseline controls used to protect a system in a System Security and Privacy Plan (SSPP) and submitting the SSPP to receive Authorization to Operate (ATO) for a FISMA system
  • Performing regular risk assessments such as Adaptive Capabilities Testing (ACT) to validate current security controls and to determine if additional controls are required
  • Conducting annual security reviews to obtain a FISMA certification, as defined in NIST SP 800-37
  • Continuously monitoring FISMA-accredited systems to identify potential weaknesses and documenting changes in the SSPP

Considerations for Compliance With Cyber Security Standards

Maintaining FISMA cyber compliance as a government contractor requires a proactive and comprehensive approach, including, but not limited to:

  • Familiarizing yourself with FISMA regulations and NIST guidelines to understand the specific security controls, risk management processes, and reporting requirements applicable to your operations
  • Establishing a robust NIST Risk Management Framework (RMF) to integrate security, privacy, and cyber supply chain risk management activities into your processes and identify, eliminate, and minimize risks to critical data
  • Clearly categorizing your information systems and data based on their impact levels (low, moderate, and high) and ensuring everything in each category is protected by the appropriate security controls
  • Maintaining thorough documentation of security policies, procedures, and controls
  • Keeping detailed records of security assessments, risk assessments, and authorization documentation
  • Using continuous monitoring processes to track and respond to security events in real time and assess the security posture of your systems
  • Developing and regularly testing an incident response plan that aligns with FISMA requirements to ensure effective and swift responses to and recovery from cyber incidents
  • Regularly assessing and updating security controls for each categorization level
  • Providing ongoing cyber security training and awareness programs for employees to keep them aware of security threats and their responsibilities to maintain FISMA compliance
  • Enforcing strong access controls and physical security systems to ensure only authorized individuals have access to sensitive information
  • Assessing the cyber security and cyber compliance posture of your third-party vendors and subcontractors to ensure their services also comply with FISMA requirements
  • Conducting regular security assessments and receiving an ATO for your information systems
  • Submitting accurate and timely compliance reports to the appropriate government agencies, demonstrating adherence to FISMA requirements.
  • Implementing comprehensive logging mechanisms and regularly reviewing and analyzing audit trails to detect and respond to security incidents
  • Conducting periodic security training and simulation exercises to test the effectiveness of security controls and response plans

In addition to FISMA, contractors may also need to adhere to CMMC (Cybersecurity Maturity Model Compliance) requirements. Just like how following cyber security best practices does not guarantee FISMA compliance, FISMA compliance does not guarantee compliance with CMMC requirements and vice versa.

FISMA and CMMC are both aimed at enhancing the cyber security practices of federal agencies and contractors and ensuring different levels of sensitive information receive appropriate safeguards. However, while FISMA is a federal law that applies to all federal agencies and their contractors, CMMC is a framework specifically applicable to defense contractors who handle Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) and other sensitive information.

All federal contractors must pay close attention to FISMA requirements, while only defense contractors need to concern themselves with CMMC. While there is some overlap between FISMA and CMMC compliance, the latter involves:

  • Understanding the different CMMC maturity levels (1-3) and the specific cybersecurity practices associated with each level
  • Identifying the CMMC level required for the specific contract you are pursuing
  • Performing a thorough gap analysis to assess your current cybersecurity practices against the required CMMC level
  • Creating a System Security Plan (SSP) that documents how your organization meets the security requirements outlined in the CMMC framework
  • Implementing the necessary security controls and practices outlined in the CMMC framework
  • Developing a Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M) to address any identified weaknesses or gaps
  • Working with accredited third-party assessors (C3PAOs) to conduct assessments and obtain the necessary certifications for your organization

Ensure Comprehensive Cyber Compliance with Cask Government Services

For federal contractors, maintaining cyber security best practices for government contracts is essential to winning and maintaining cyber security contracts, but maintaining CMMC and FISMA compliance includes meeting many specific and complicated cyber compliance demands. Ensuring compliance with both FISMA and CMMC requirements is often incredibly complex for organizations to manage on their own.

Fortunately, cyber compliance as a service (CCaaS) can help organizations manage the challenging work of maintaining compliance with the cyber security and information management practices mandated by government clients. CCaaS enables contractors to gain the resources and expertise to continuously stay up-to-date with federal compliance best practices and requirements at a fractional cost.

To find out how our CCaaS offerings can help you maintain both the security of your sensitive data as well as compliance with the complex data security requirements of the federal government, contact us today.

Cyber Compliance FAQs

What is the difference between cyber security and compliance for federal contractors?

Cyber security focuses on protecting data and operations, while compliance involves meeting specific standards set by the government, such as FISMA and CMMC. Both are important for federal contractors, but they are not the same thing.

Do federal contractors need to comply with FISMA regulations?

Yes, federal contractors working with government agencies must comply with FISMA regulations, which outline security standards and guidelines for protecting sensitive government information and operations.

What is CMMC and who needs to comply with it?

CMMC stands for Cybersecurity Maturity Model Compliance and is specifically applicable to defense contractors handling Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) and other sensitive data. Only defense contractors need to comply with CMMC requirements.

How can federal contractors ensure compliance with both FISMA and CMMC?

Federal contractors can ensure compliance with FISMA and CMMC by familiarizing themselves with the regulations, implementing necessary security controls, documenting security practices, conducting regular assessments, and working with accredited assessors to obtain certifications.