Sure, you have probably heard of NIST SP 800-53 (Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations). If you’re like most in the cybersecurity industry, you recognize it as a security framework designed to help your organization select appropriate security controls to keep your data safe and your business off the regulator’s radar.

Great — but, do you really know how to maintain NIST SP 800-53 compliance? Do you know why it’s an excellent idea to standardize your internal security controls against this guideline? Or what the best practices are for maintaining compliance with NIST SP 800-53? Are you aware that version 5 provides a more inclusive, flexible, user-friendly experience?

Organizations today are required to adhere to an increasing number of information security compliance requirements, and today’s security professionals need all the guidance and support they can get. NIST SP 800-53 compliance can provide a welcome guideline to kickstart a new security program or fortify an existing one. It’s time your organization got to know NIST SP 800-53, and in this article, we will pull back the curtain on this practical compliance guide.

What Is NIST SP 800-53 Compliance?

NIST SP 800-53 is a set of prescriptive guidelines providing a solid foundation and methodology for creating operating procedures and applying security controls across the board within an organization. It offers a catalog of controls to help organizations maintain the integrity, confidentiality, and security of information systems while walking the tightrope of regulatory compliance.

Initially designed for federal information systems, the NIST SP 800-53 framework has expanded in scope. Today, all organizations can benefit from using NIST SP 800-53 as a foundation for building their security infrastructure.

Why should you standardize your internal security controls against NIST SP 800-53?

Nearly all other frameworks and certification programs use NIST SP 800-53 or ISO 27001 as a baseline reference. If you implement one of these, you’re well on your way to meeting many other framework requirements also. Pieter Vanlperen, a Managing Partner at PWV Consultants and 20-year software architect and security expert, explains, “NIST SP 800-53 has broad overlap with most other security and privacy frameworks. It’s an excellent starting point for any business that doesn’t need to meet more specific standards, but especially for those who may need to in the future. NIST SP 800-53 remains a gold standard in the industry.”

It’s interesting to note how closely the security controls from NIST SP 800-53 map with ISO 27001. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as these two frameworks are basically the same in structure and content. The difference lies in the scale — NIST SP 800-53 applies only to organizations in the United States, while ISO 27001 standards apply globally.

A vector character with multiple giant gears, illustrating NIST SP 800-53 families of controls.

NIST SP 800-53 Families of Controls

NIST SP 800-53 lists 18 families of controls that provide operational, technical, and managerial safeguards to ensure the privacy, integrity, and security of information systems. Controls are broken into low, medium, and high-impact categories. Security baselines define each category, describing the minimum security requirements. These three categories provide a starting point for the security control selection process chosen based on the security category and associated impact level of information systems.

Eighteen families are broken down into five key areas most worthy of attention from a cyber protection perspective. Teams succeeding within these five areas can claim a reasonably holistic network protection level across both cloud and traditional environments. They are:

  • Identification and management of assets incorporating a robust risk management strategy
  • Protection of assets including access control, data security, and protective procedures and technology
  • Detection of anomaly events through continuous security monitoring
  • Response, including identification and mitigation of threats
  • Recovery from attacks through orchestrated planning and improvements
Two vector characters look at an awards podium with a giant first place trophy.

Best Practices for NIST SP 800-53 Compliance

On the road to full compliance, it’s essential to understand and incorporate some fundamental security principles. You will find these key principles woven into the NIST SP 800-53 compliance best practices below.

Discover and classify sensitive data

Start by locating and securing all your sensitive data and then classifying it based on your business policy. You want to conclude this phase of discovery with knowledge of your sensitive data, the vulnerabilities within your system, and potential threats in your environment.

Map data and permissions

Here you want to establish an understanding of who can access what data. The critical action step is identifying all user, group, folder, and file permissions within your system.

Manage access control

Managing access starts with creating rules to govern who can reach what information. These rules must be well-known and strictly enforced. Action steps for improved access control involve inactivating stale user accounts, proactively managing user and group memberships, and working from a “least privilege” model, which involves giving users the least amount of access they need to do their job.

Monitor data, file activity, and user behavior

Start by keeping immaculate records of how users access systems and data files. Use these records to create a baseline of regular activity to help identify anomalies such as weird access locations, rapid access upgrades, and sudden mass movements of data. Be sure to install a system of controls designed to monitor and detect insider threats, malware, and misconfigurations. Any vulnerabilities, anomalies, or attempted breaches should be discovered and remediated as quickly as possible.

Create a security-centric culture

The majority of employees want to help keep networks and company data secure, and it falls on organizations to teach them how. Management should provide tactical knowledge and instill a culture where security is everyone’s responsibility. Action steps include awareness training of NIST SP 800-53 regulations from day one and holding all personnel accountable for their role in keeping information systems secure.

Perform ongoing assessment

NIST SP 800-53 recommends organizations deploy security assessment tools to gauge their real-time security posture. These software tools, created by security experts, measure the effectiveness of all organizational security measures and suggest system improvements based on empirical evidence.  

But once your team has installed the appropriate controls and followed the NIST SP 800-53 compliance best practices, how do you know if your controls are implemented correctly and producing the desired outcome for meeting your organization’s security requirements?

NIST Special Publication 800-53A establishes standard assessment procedures to assess security controls’ effectiveness in information systems, specifically those controls listed in NIST SP 800-53. These recommended assessment procedures provide a starting point for developing more specific procedures and can be supplemented by the organization if necessary based on an organizational risk assessment. Organizations have the flexibility to create additional assessment procedures for those security controls not contained in NIST Special Publication 800-53.

For more details on how to use NIST SP 800-53 to kickstart or fortify your security program, check out our webinar: How to Use NIST SP 800-53 To Protect Your Information Systems.

A vector character in a business suit stands on top of a mountain with a flag.

What Changed in NIST SP 800-53 Version 5?

The fourth version of NIST SP 800-53 had been around since 2013, with many non-government organizations finding it overly prescriptive and difficult to use. The framework was revised in September 2020, and version 5 brought a few significant changes. First, the terminology changed; the specific terms “federal” and “information” disappeared, opening the framework to all organizations and types of systems.  

Second, the revised framework puts more emphasis on privacy — quite possibly a result of the recent proliferation of privacy protection laws. Version 5 of NIST SP 800-53 integrates privacy into security controls, resulting in one comprehensive set of controls for all organizations.

Finally, version 5 brought a new level of operational flexibility. The emphasis remains on meeting the requirement but with far less prescriptive oversight regarding a specific tool or technology. Passwords provide an excellent example of this new flexibility. Version 5 doesn’t place particular requirements on password length or complexity — it just mandates having a password that’s complex and, most importantly, effective.

How Hyperproof Helps Maintain NIST 800-53 Compliance

NIST SP 800-53 provides an excellent foundational framework to keep your organization on track with compliance. However, the comprehensive nature of the security control guidelines can make adopting the framework a bit challenging. Hyperproof’s compliance operations software solution makes it easier for organizations to align their security program against the NIST SP 800-53 framework. With Hyperproof, you can:

  • Access NIST 800-53 Rev 5 guidelines in an organized template, domain by domain. Hyperproof provides separate templates for Low Impact, Medium Impact, and High Impact levels.
  • Easily map controls to NIST requirements
  • Collect evidence verifying the design and functionality of internal controls.
  • Collaborate seamlessly with business ops teams and auditors.
  • See how NIST 800-53 cross maps to other security frameworks.
  • Assign tasks, keeping team members on track.
  • Access dashboards to gauge your organization’s progress and compliance posture.

NIST SP 800-53 Compliance — Important Takeaways

So, do you feel more knowledgeable about what many consider a gold standard among security control frameworks? You now know why smart organizations align their internal controls against the overarching standards of NIST 800-53, and you have the best practices list for maintaining NIST 800-53 compliance and have been updated on the more inclusive and flexible version 5 framework.

What’s next, you ask?

If your team is serious about keeping your data safe and not running afoul of cybersecurity and data privacy regulations, the next step is obvious. Adopting NIST SP 800-53 as your guideline and Hyperproof as your solution partner will give your organization a leg up in the never-ending quest to ensure security and maintain compliance across your organization. Schedule a demo today.

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