NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), United States

NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), United States


The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a non-regulatory federal agency under the aegis of the Undersecretary for Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce. It is concerned with maintaining measurement standards and developing technology in order to improve productivity, promote commerce, and enhance the qualify of life in the United States. It also has a number of security functions, which have come to the forefront in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks upon the United States.

Background. Founded in 1901 as the Bureau of Standards, NIST today involves the development and maintenance of standards and measures used in virtually every arena of public and private life. Private industry in the United States uses more than 9,000 NIST standards.

Characterizing the breadth of the NIST mission, Anne C. Mulkern wrote in the Denver Post, "When consumers buy beef at the butcher, it's weighed on a scale that's calibrated to a NIST-developed standard. Automobile seat belts all must adhere to a safety standard set by NIST." At its Web site in 2003, the institute itself described the range of areas in which it is involved: "From automated teller machines and atomic clocks to mammograms and semi-conductors, innumerable products and services rely in some way on technology, measurement, and standards provided by [NIST]."

Organization. In line with its mission, NIST oversees four major cooperative programs: the NIST Laboratories, which advance the national technology infrastructure; the Baldridge National Quality Program, designed to encourage excellence among U.S. manufacturers, service providers, health-care companies, and educational institutions; the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a network of local centers that assists small manufacturers; and the Advanced Technology Program, whose function is to promote research and development of new technologies in the private sector.

With a 2003 operating budget of $810 million, NIST employs some 3,000 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support and administrative personnel. Some 1,600 other guest researchers also work with the institute. Additionally, NIST works with some 2,000 manufacturing specialists and support staff at various locations nationwide. It has two offices: a 578-acre (234-hectare) facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and a 208-acre (84-hectare) installation at Boulder, Colorado.

Intelligence and security work. In addition to the work of its Computer Security Division and efforts to assist law-enforcement agencies in detecting criminal activity on computers, NIST has played a significant part in the investigation of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mulkern, writing in January 2002, discussed the greatly enhanced stature of the institute, which at that time was being considered for a lead role in the investigation of the World Trade Center collapse.

NIST scientist Ronald Rehm, according to Mulkern, "goes to work every day and watches the World Trade Center burn, over and over again." His purpose was not to relive a moment of national agony, but to study it the way a coroner does a cadaver—for clues as to the cause of death. One finding he had already turned up, which contradicted the accepted wisdom about the collapse, was that the temperature inside the buildings was not high enough to melt steel. Instead, the levels of heat had only been enough to bow the steel, and this alone put enough pressure on the walls and floors that the buildings fell. Additionally, the heat of the jet fuel alone did not explain the rapid spread of the fire, according to Rehm, who had determined that the large paper supplies in the offices, along with other combustible materials, greatly abetted the conflagration.

Not only was NIST involved in the investigation of what happened, it was also deeply concerned with efforts to prevent another such tragedy by helping to interdict suspicious persons. Among its tasks in the post-attack security environment was a mandate from the federal government to develop standards for biometric recognition systems, which use face recognition, retina scanning, voiceprints, and other characteristics of an individual's physique to provide identification. NIST has also been tasked to study the use of electromagnetic waves as a means of detecting objects hidden under clothing.



Mulkern, Anne C. "Agency Tackles National Security: NIST's Boulder Lab Developing Technologies to Combat Terrorism." Denver Post. (January 25, 2002): C1.

Piazza, Peter. "Tools for Digital Sleuths." Security Management 46, no. 4 (April 2002): 36.


National Institute of Standards and Technology. < > (January 28, 2003).


Commerce Department Intelligence and Security Responsibilities, United States
IDENT (Automated Biometric Identification System)
NIST Computer Security Division, United States

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