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The ultimate guide to NIST 800-53
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December 21, 2022

The ultimate guide to NIST 800-53

Government contracts are a lucrative goal for many businesses, but all that new cash comes with new regulations too. That’s why many organizations find themselves thrust into the world of NIST 800-53 compliance.

What is NIST 800-53 compliance and why might your organization need it? This guide serves as your ultimate NIST 800-53 overview to introduce you to this specialized security standard.

What is NIST 800-53?

You might hear NIST 800-53 go by similar names like NIST special publication 800-53 or NIST SP 800-53, but they all refer to the same literature. NIST 800-53 is a publication of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency in the US federal government.

NIST 800-53 is a set of security standards and controls that all US federal agencies need to follow for their information systems. The exception is any agency that falls under national security like the military. It’s designed as a guide for agencies to protect their data and information systems in a thorough yet cost-effective way.

This standard is actually part of a larger security regulation called FISMA. This stands for “Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014.”

How does NIST 800-53 work?

NIST 800-53 takes you through a specific process for protecting your information system. You start by categorizing your information system as requiring low, medium, or high security.

With that category in mind, you then look at NIST 800-53’s Security Control Catalog and identify which of the controls in the catalog are applicable and beneficial to your organization.

The controls are distributed across 20 control families:

  • Access control
  • Audit and accountability
  • Awareness and training
  • Configuration management
  • Contingency planning
  • Assessment, authorization, and monitoring
  • Identification and authentication
  • Incident response
  • Maintenance
  • Media protection
  • Personnel security
  • Physical and environmental protection
  • Planning
  • Risk assessment
  • System and services acquisition
  • System and information integrity
  • System and communications protection
  • Program management
  • PII processing and transparency
  • Supply chain risk management

Next, you customize those catalog controls to suit your organization and supplement these controls with any others that arise from an organization-specific risk assessment. With a detailed list of controls that are specific to your information system, you then implement them one by one.

What version of NIST 800-53 is current?

Practice makes perfect, as they say, so NIST 800-53 has gone through several revisions and drafts. The original publication was released in 2005, but the current version (as of this blog’s publication date) is the Fifth Revision. The final draft of this revision was published in September 2020, and this is the version that is used today for NIST 800-53 compliance.

Who should be NIST 800-53 compliant?

Whether your organization needs to be NIST 800-53 compliant depends on your business and your clients or partners. NIST 800-53 compliance is required for all US federal agencies with the exclusion of national security-related agencies.

For all federal agencies that need to be NIST 800-53 compliant, their contractors and partners in the private sector need to be compliant too. This is to ensure that no unauthorized people or organizations can get access to federal information through a private sector contractor.

With that said, many organizations use NIST 800-53 as a guide for their information security program, even though they aren’t legally required to comply with the standard. It’s often used by US state governments and local governments as well as private organizations.

NIST 800-53A and NIST 800-53B: Complementing documents of NIST 800-53 explained

You might have heard of some publications by similar names, including NIST 800-53A and NIST 800-53B. What are these documents and how do they relate to NIST 800-53?

Each of these documents complement NIST 800-53 in specific ways. NIST 800-53A is a set of procedures for conducting assessments on the NIST 800-53 controls. In other words, this document details how to determine if your organization is NIST 800-53 compliant.

NIST 800-53B, on the other hand, includes a list of baseline controls for high-, medium-, and low-security categories. You can use this publication to determine which of the NIST 800-53 controls from the Security Control Catalog are necessary for your organization.

Is there a NIST 800-53 compliance certification?

As we noted above, NIST 800-53 is a rather customizable security standard, with the ability to identify a set of controls that apply to your organization and to customize and supplement those controls. So what exactly does NIST 800-53 compliance look like?

Unlike some security standards and protocols, there is no certification for NIST 800-53 compliance. This can save you the expense of an audit, but it does make it difficult to gauge whether you’re fully compliant.

There is, however, a certification for full FISMA compliance, known as an Authority to Operate or ATO. This may or may not be necessary for your organization, and it is a much more extensive certification, but it can be a very in-depth way to keep your information system secure.

A useful guide for NIST 800-53 compliance

If you’re interested in or required to have NIST 800-53 compliance, allow our experts to guide you through the process. Vanta’s comprehensive automated security platform gives you a singular organized resource to inform and track your compliance strategy step by step. Learn more about Vanta and our NIST 800-53 compliance guide today.

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Assign remediation tasks to system owners
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If your organization processes, stores, or transmits cardholder data, you must comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), a global mandate created by major credit card companies. Compliance is mandatory for any business that accepts credit card payments.

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