NIST SP 800-53 stands for the National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 800-53, Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems Organization. That's a mouthful, right? 

This critical standard provides a set of guidelines designed to make it easier for federal agencies and contractors to meet the requirements imposed by the Federal Information Security Management Act, or FISMA.

If you’ve ever wondered why NIST 800-53 matters, why your organization should comply, or how compliance will impact your security, we're here to help.

What is the Purpose of NIST 800-53?

NIST SP 800-53 seeks mainly to increase the security of information systems used by the federal government. According to

"The guidelines themselves apply to any component of an information system that stores, processes, or transmits federal information. The most recent update to the guidelines was Revision 4 in April 2013 by the Joint Task Force Transformation Initiative Interagency Working Group, part of an ongoing information security partnership among the U.S. Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, the Committee on National Security Systems, the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. federal civil agencies.

The guidelines are revised in accordance with the evolving nature of information security and cover areas like mobile and cloud computing, insider threats, application security, and supply chain security.”

To put it simply, NIST 800-53 establishes standards and guidelines designed to help U.S. government agencies understand how to architect and implement information security systems. Particularly, the publication applies to how these agencies should relate to the data they hold on their systems. The NIST is a non-regulatory agency within the U.S. Commerce Department. It was developed to encourage and assist innovation and science through a set of defined industry standards.

As the threat landscape continues to evolve and government systems become an increasingly popular and attractive target (due to the sensitive and critical nature of the information they store), organizations have been forced to take the steps needed to protect the integrity of their systems and the data within them. This is the basis for the introduction of NIST SP 800-53. 

Today, all federal agencies are required to comply with NIST SP 800-53 guidelines. The guidelines also apply to all personal entities or businesses that operate as a contractor for a federal agency.

Cybersecurity Framework, Explained

The Cybersecurity Framework was initially introduced by NIST, while the guidelines were established and issued by former President Barack Obama in 2013. The initial framework served a few purposes. Primarily, it was designed to serve as a framework of "how to" standards that would define best practices, global standards, and approaches that help organizations manage the information security risks that face their critical infrastructure. 

To make the framework easier to absorb and interact with, lawmakers split it into five primary functions:

  1. Identify
  2. Protect
  3. Detect
  4. Respond
  5. Recover

As recently as May 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order 13800. This order stated that all US heads of agencies and executive departments should now be held accountable for identifying, managing, and mitigating the cybersecurity risks facing their agencies going forward.

What NIST 800-53 Does

Before we can talk about what NIST SP 800-53 does, let’s define what exactly it is. Here’s how puts it:

"NIST 800-53 is a publication that recommends security controls for federal information systems and organizations and documents security controls for all federal information systems, except those designed for national security.

NIST 800-53 is published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which creates and promotes the standards used by federal agencies to implement the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) and manage other programs designed to protect information and promote information security. Agencies are expected to meet NIST guidelines and standards within one year of publication."

NIST SP 800-53 provides an exhaustive catalog of controls designed to make federal information systems more resilient. These controls are fully operational and technical and designed to create management safeguards that can then be used by various information systems. The standard seeks to promote integrity, confidentiality, and security of federal information systems.

NIST SP 800-53 is effective on these counts. Thanks to its comprehensive nature and intelligent guidelines, it’s a fantastic addition to any company’s cybersecurity efforts.

Why NIST 800-53 Matters

The most important function of NIST 800-53 is unification. Traditionally, a lack of unification between security systems is one of the primary risk factors for breaches and information theft. A lack of unification creates gaps, which hackers can then exploit and use against an organization. Luckily NIST SP 800-53 seeks to close these gaps. 

Today, the NIST SP 800-53 guidelines provide a unique and unified framework of information security, which is designed to help companies learn how to manage risks effectively. Primarily, NIST SP 800-53 applies to all agencies and contractors within the Federal Government. 

To put it simply, NIST’s primary mission is to promote innovation and enhance industrial competitiveness in the U.S. It does this by seeking to both enhance and advance measurement science and technology and to improve standards and guidelines in a way that promotes economic security and improves quality of life. 

Even if your company is not required to comply with NIST SP 800-53 guidelines, the standards outlined in those guidelines are still a fantastic starting part for anyone who wants to manage information security more effectively.

Today, complying with NIST SP 800-53 and other "best standards" for Cybersecurity Framework will help your organization improve compliance with other programs and regulations, including: 

  • CJIS
  • il 2-6
  • GDPR
  • FedRAMP
  • FedRAMP+
  • FedRAMP DoD
  • Plus many more!

Today, reading and learning about NIST 800-53 compliance is the best way to learn to comply with the guidelines for that standard. Before you can meet the security and data requirements it lays out, though, you must understand how the instructions will fit your company. One critical step is to choose a cloud service provider that meets the requirements. 

Information Security Diligence and NIST 800-53

Here's what the National Institute of Standards and Technology (an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Commerce) has to say about NIST 800-53 as it relates to information security diligence:

The security controls in NIST Special Publication 800-53 are designed to facilitate compliance with applicable federal laws, Executive Orders, directives, policies, regulations, standards, and guidance. Compliance is not about adhering to static checklists or generating unnecessary FISMA reporting paperwork. Rather, compliance necessitates organizations executing due diligence with regard to information security and risk management. Information security due diligence includes using all appropriate information as part of an organization-wide risk management program to effectively use the tailoring guidance and inherent flexibility in NIST publications so that the selected security controls documented in organizational security plans meet the mission and business requirements of organizations. Using the risk management tools and techniques that are available to organizations is essential in developing, implementing, and maintaining the safeguards and countermeasures with the necessary and sufficient strength of mechanism to address the current threats to organizational operations and assets, individuals, other organizations, and the Nation. Employing effective risk-based processes, procedures, and technologies will help ensure that all federal information systems and organizations have the necessary resilience to support ongoing federal responsibilities, critical infrastructure applications, and continuity of government.

Another primary purpose of NIST SP 800-53 is risk management. By ensuring control compliance, NIST SP 800-53 helps federal contractors employ risk management programs that keep information safe and secure. This, in turn, cuts down on the risk of hacks and other compromises.

NIST SP 800-53 does this by defining 18 different sections of what it calls the NIST SP 800-53 security control family. These are as follows: 

  • Access Control
  • Incident Response
  • Program Management
  • Audit and Accountability
  • Maintenance
  • Risk Assessment
  • Awareness and Training
  • Media Protection
  • Security Assessment and Authorization
  • Configuration Management
  • Personnel Security
  • System and Communications Protection
  • Contingency Planning
  • Physical and Environmental Protection
  • System and Information Integrity
  • Identification and Authentication
  • Planning
  • System and Services Acquisition

If you want to ensure the information solutions you’re relying on are NIST 800-53 compliant, there are multiple steps to take and features to implement. Following these steps correctly ensures compliance with NIST 800-53 and are illustrated within each of these control families. 

Who Must Comply WIth NIST 800-53?

Figuring out who needs to comply with NIST 800-53 can be complicated. To simplify it, here’s a breakdown for you:

  • According to Executive Order 13800, all US federal agencies must comply with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. 
  • Enterprises and organizations operating in the private sector must also follow NIST SP 800-53. This is mainly because NIST's framework serves as a guideline and a standard for any organization that wants to develop, maintain, or improve their information security practices. 

Latest NIST 800-53 Revisions

As with many similar regulations and guidelines, NIST 800-53 is a fluid, ever-changing document that will, by its nature, see regular revisions. 

Right now, the latest revision to NIST 800-53 is SP 800-53 Rev.5. Revision 5 is pretty straightforward, with the exception that it means NIST 800-53 is no longer be restricted to Federal systems. Instead, the revision means that SP 800-53 will pertain to all systems. 

The revision includes the following, according to ForcePoint

  • A proactive and systematic approach to make a comprehensive set of safeguarding measures available to a broad base of public and private sector organizations. 
  • The measures will apply to all types of computing platforms, including cyber-physical systems, mobile and cloud systems, general-purpose computing systems, industrial/process control systems, and IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

How do NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53 differ?

While NIST 800-171 and NIST 800-53 share some traits, they are very different systems. According to FTP Today:

While both of these publications share a similar goal of keeping data secure, they provide guidelines focused on two different areas to accomplish that goal. NIST 800-171 focuses on how CUI is handled and the measures that should be in place to ensure it is handled appropriately. NIST 800-53 instead focuses on the information solutions storing classified data and what security measures these solutions should have in place to ensure data is protected. 

Why Consider NIST 800-53?

Choosing to comply with NIST 800-53 offers a series of profound benefits. Right now, the cybersecurity environment is changing at breakneck speed, and organizations are doing everything they can to remain compliant and keep their systems from falling under unnecessary risks. Luckily, complying with NIST 800-53 guidelines is an excellent place to begin.

First, NIST 800-53 compliance is a significant factor of FISMA compliance, meaning you’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. NIST 800-53 also goes a long way to improve the security of your company’s information by securing your overall infrastructure. Even if you're not legally required to comply with the guidelines, choosing to do so is an excellent way to set your company up for success and close any gaps, as they may exist, in your current cybersecurity structure. 

Finally, NIST 800-53 promotes a level of independence, saying you should assess all your data and rank the most delicate pieces, thereby bolstering your internal security program.

With over 900 extensive compliance requirements, NIST SP 800-53 promotes many cyber benefits for your internal security and data program. By choosing to comply with NIST SP 800-53, you can bolster your intelligence and make other compliance issues easier to achieve. 

Build, Manage, and Report Your NIST 800-53 Program

Learn how you can build, manage, and report your cybersecurity program based on NIST 800-53 or 12+ other standards. By using the Apptega platform, you can simplify the complexity of NIST 800-53, eliminate spreadsheets, and document and report on your organization’s change and configuration management as part of your overall plan. Plus, with Apptega's Harmony you can see how your NIST 800-53 controls overlap other frameworks you are required to follow like ISO 27001, SOC 2, PCI, NIST, HIPAA, GDPR, CCPA and more.