NIST SP 800-53 compliance explained - how to be compliant
NIST Special Publication 800-53 is a catalog of security controls that helps safeguard information systems from a range of risks. It was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to strengthen US government information systems against known threats, and it outlines security and privacy controls that are designed to protect the privacy of users and safeguard the ongoing operation of information systems.
NIST SP 800-53 is part of a range of guidelines developed by NIST to help federal agencies meet the requirements of the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA). The controls are designed to achieve a consistent level of protection across federal information systems. When properly implemented, these controls strengthen the integrity of information systems and protect user data being processed.
NIST SP 800-53 was designed for federal agencies but can also be adopted by other organizations looking for best practice security and privacy controls. This guide explores NIST SP 800-53, its controls and requirements, and tips to help organizations achieve and maintain compliance.
NIST Special Publication 800-53 definition
NIST Special Publication 800-53 is a selection of controls and requirements designed to safeguard US federal information systems. It was created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and first published in 2005, with expert input from a working group of defense, intelligence and civil government representatives, in addition to cybersecurity experts and organizations.
NIST SP 800-53 contains a catalog of security controls in 20 different families or areas of focus. Controls cover a variety of topics from access control to incident response to configuration management. It is part of NIST’s 800 series of Special Publications, which focus on guidelines, controls and reports on computer security and cybersecurity. Although originally focused on federal information systems, recent editions have been revised to include non-federal systems.
How is NIST SP 800-53 evolving?
NIST SP 800-53 has undergone regular reviews and revisions to ensure that the requirements address the latest threats to information systems. Recent revisions have helped it integrate with existing risk management systems like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. Controls are explained clearly, covering the control’s mechanism and the level of security assurance.
Controls are regularly revised, added, or removed as new versions of NIST SP 800-53 are published. This keeps controls up to date with emerging risks, threats, and technologies. New controls also reflect changes in regulations or law. NIST SP 800-53 is designed to meet the needs of organizations as technology and risks evolve, ensuring controls continue to be effective.
NIST SP 800-53 Revision 5
The fifth revision, named “Security and Privacy Controls for Information Systems and Organizations” was published in 2020. While version four was named Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations, Revision 5 drops ‘Federal’ from the title, repositioning the guidance as relevant to all organizations, beyond just US government systems.
Revision 5 also focusses on an outcomes-based approach by changing the structure of the controls. Additionally, it eliminates the term ‘information system,’ extending the applicability to other relevant systems including IoT devices and cyber-physical systems.
Who must comply with NIST SP 800-53?
NIST SP 800-53 is a requirement for federal agencies, as it outlines the security and privacy standards to safeguard government information systems. With each new revision of NIST SP 800-53, federal agencies must be compliant within one year of the release of the new Revision and any new systems must be compliant with the latest Revision at the time of deployment. NIST SP 800-53 also applies to government contractors who operate on or manage federal IT networks – compliance requirements will be stipulated in their contract or service agreement.
US government contractors will also be well-versed on another publication in the NIST 800 series, NIST Special Publication 800-171, which is designed to protect sensitive government data, known as Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI), that resides on non-federal networks.
What data does NIST SP 800-53 protect?
NIST SP 800-53 sets out comprehensive privacy and security controls to protect information systems. The data on federal networks will be varied but may include sensitive information that is integral to the ongoing function of the US government. It could also include user’s private data, such as personally identifiable information (PII), which is equally important to safeguard.
NIST SP 800-53 provides a systematic approach to safeguarding all types of information and computing systems and products. Systems include:
- Cloud computing
- Mobile systems
- Healthcare systems
- Computing systems
- Internet of Things devices
- Systems and networks that control industry processes
The latest revision of NIST SP 800-53 is designed to be flexible in order to fit the needs and environment of an organization. Most controls are neutral to different technologies or sectors to stay flexible for a varied group of organizations. Because of the diversity of organizations and systems, the type of data these requirements can help protect will be varied.
What are the NIST SP 800-53 minimum controls?
Each NIST SP 800-53 control contains a base or minimum control, and a control enhancement. The minimum controls are the baseline security and privacy controls that need to be implemented to help protect the system. Embedding the minimum control is an integral part of achieving compliance with the specific NIST SP 800-53 control. Each NIST SP 800-53 control also has an ‘enhanced’ section. The enhanced controls build on the base controls, providing better protection or additional functionality. Enhanced controls are used by organizations or systems with an increased risk. Organizations must first implement the base control before the addition of a control enhancement.
An example would be in the Incident Response family of controls. A base control covers the process of incident handling, whilst a series of connected enhanced controls provide incident-specific guidance, such as supply chain coordination.
How do organizations determine which NIST SP 800-53 controls to comply with?
Federal network security teams perform an organizational risk assessment to identify the appropriate security controls required to protect their respective organizational operations (including mission, functions, image, or reputation) and assets, as well as the required security controls to protect individuals, other organizations, or US national security.
NIST Special Publication 800-53B, Control Baselines for Information Systems and Organizations, provides security and privacy control baselines that act as a starting point for organizations in the control selection process.There are three security control baselines – one for each system impact level: low-impact, moderate-impact, and high-impact, as well as a privacy control baseline that is applied to systems irrespective of impact level.
In addition to the control baselines, NIST SP 800-53B provides tailoring guidance and a set of working assumptions that help guide and inform the control selection process. By using the tailoring guidance and assumptions provided, organizations can customize their security and privacy control baselines to protect their critical and essential operations and assets, as well as protect individuals' privacy. The resulting set of security controls, with tailored baselines, establishes a level of security due diligence for the federal organization. Any new information systems developed by federal agencies will also need to be compliant with NIST SP 800-53 before being completed and embedded in a government network.
What are the benefits of NIST SP 800-53?
NIST SP 800-53 helps organizations strengthen their risk management processes by providing a catalog of security controls to reference. The controls are comprehensive, with more than 1,000 in total, covering all aspects and considerations of an information system. which improve system resilience and help to limit the damage from security incidents and breaches.
NIST SP 800-53 helps to protect information systems from various threats including:
- Cybersecurity incidents
- Privacy breaches
- Malicious attack
- Mistakes and human error
What are the NIST 800-53 control families?
NIST SP 800-53 has more than 1,000 controls across 20 distinct control ‘families’. Families include a range of controls relating to their specific area. For example, the ‘Access Control’ family contains security and privacy controls relating to device and user access to the system.
The 20 NIST SP 800-53 control families are:
How to ensure you’re NIST SP 800-53 compliant
Organizations will need to implement the relevant NIST SP 800-53 controls determined as part of the risk assessment process and evidence compliance with these controls as part of the organization’s annual FISMA reporting requirements. Monitoring continuous compliance against the selected controls, as well as adapting to any new updates or Revisions to the catalog, is crucial. The following guidance aims to help organizations successfully embed and sustain NIST SP 800-53 controls.
Support with NIST SP 800-53 compliance
Titania Nipper is a solution designed to audit network device configurations, identifying vulnerabilities and areas of non-compliance, and recommending ways to resolve each issue found. Nipper can automate the assessment of NIST SP 800-53 controls related to network devices. The tool is trusted by federal agencies to demonstrate compliance and manage security vulnerabilities. By accurately automating the assessment of NIST SP 800-53 controls, internal auditors can save up to three hours per device audit.