NIST SP 800-53 Complete Guide
Nowadays, information and technology are essential for the proper functioning of organizations
and governments because they guarantee the security of information systems and networks. To
protect data and technological infrastructure correctly, it is necessary to follow solid standards
The National Institute of Standards and Technology of the United States established a series of
recognized standards and guidelines that are implemented internationally. One of the most
relevant is NIST SP 800-53, which contemplates a variety of security controls for information
systems and networks.
This guide offers a complete and detailed vision of NIST SP 800-53, covering the scope,
objectives, and specific controls that must be considered to guarantee the security of information
systems and networks. By reading it, security professionals and organizations can strengthen
their security posture to protect their most valuable assets and stay ahead in a constantly evolving
NIST SP 800-53
NIST SP 800-53 are the Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and is a standard developed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. The standard covers various security controls and guidelines on risk management, access control, audit and accountability, business continuity, data protection, physical security, and other aspects to protect information systems and networks against threats and risks.
The standard is applied within the U.S. government and used by private organizations and international entities as a reference for establishing effective security measures. To ensure its proper implementation NIST SP 800-53 is frequently updated to adapt to technological advances and new threats, and its latest version incorporates security approaches based on NIST's risk management framework, known as the NIST Cybersecurity Framework.
Implementing NIST SP 800-53 can help companies or organizations improve the protection of their information systems and networks, reduce security risks, comply with legal requirements, and build a solid foundation for information security management.
NIST's Role in the Development of Security Standards
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, also known as NIST, plays a crucial role in developing security standards, especially information and network security. Below, we explain some of the critical roles NIST plays in this process:
- Establishment of standards: NIST stipulates various security standards, such as NIST SP 800-53, which establishes security controls for information systems and networks. These standards are based on research and identified best practices.
- Collaboration with stakeholders: NIST works closely with industry, government, or any interested party to gather feedback, experience, and knowledge from security experts. Such collaboration ensures that the standards developed by NIST reflect current needs and challenges.
- Validation and evaluation: NIST performs the relevant security tests and assessments on technologies and solutions to verify compliance with the standards. These evaluations allow the identification of possible weaknesses and corresponding improvements.
- Guidance and education: NIST provides guidance and educational resources to help organizations and professionals understand and implement security standards, such as publications, guides, tools, and training that help promote the practical application of the standards.
- Maintenance and updating: NIST is responsible for frequently reviewing and updating security standards to keep up with technological advances and new threats. This ensures that the standards remain relevant and effective in a constantly evolving environment.
Importance of NIST SP 800-53 in the field of information security
NIST SP 800-53 is critical to the area of information security for several reasons:
- Recognized frame of reference: NIST SP 800-53 is used by the public and private sectors. In general, its implementation extends beyond the United States and is used by international organizations and standards, making it a reliable reference accepted internationally.
- Comprehensive coverage: The NIST SP 800-53 standard covers various security control domains, helping organizations comprehensively address key information security aspects. This includes risk management, access control, data protection, business continuity, physical security, etc.
- Risk-focused approach: NIST SP 800-53 is based on the risk management approach, which helps organizations to identify and assess security risks effectively. By focusing on the specific risks of each organization, the most efficient resources can be allocated, and protection can be established accordingly.
- Continuous updating: The standard is constantly updated by NIST to keep up with technological advances and new threats. This ensures organizations have the latest best practices and security controls to address emerging challenges adequately.
- Regulatory compliance: NIST SP 800-53 helps organizations comply with legal requirements related to information security. Many national and international regulations and compliance frameworks reference NIST SP 800-53 as a recognized standard in meeting required security controls.
- Proven best practices: NIST SP 800-53 is based on experience and best practices identified by the security community. Application of the standard provides organizations with proven controls and approaches for protecting their information systems and networks.
Information Security Fundamentals
Fundamental principles of information security
The principles of information security cover the essential guidelines and approaches required to ensure the protection of assets and are widely accepted within the industry. Some of the fundamental principles are explained below:
- Confidentiality refers to protecting information by restricting access only to authorized persons. For this purpose, access controls, encryption, and information classification policies are used.
- Integrity: guarantees that the information is accurate, complete, and not modified without prior authorization. This protects data from unapproved alterations to ensure the accuracy and consistency of information throughout its life cycle.
- Availability: Information and systems must be available so those in charge can access them anytime. To this end, the necessary measures are implemented to prevent unplanned interruptions, thus ensuring business continuity and mitigating the effects of disasters or incidents.
- Authenticity: The identity of users must be verified to ensure that they are who they say they are. Authentication mechanisms, such as passwords, tokens, or biometrics, ensure that only authorized persons can access systems and information.
- Non-repudiation: It is necessary to provide evidence that an action or transaction has occurred to prevent the persons involved from denying their participation. To achieve this, recording and auditing techniques are implemented to adequately track and document activities to provide accurate evidence in case of disputes or investigations.
- Proof of compliance: Compliance with applicable policies, regulations, and security standards must be demonstrated, for which periodic audits and evaluations are carried out, in addition to implementing adequate controls and security measures.
Types of common threats and attacks
Several types of common threats and attacks can affect information security, the most well-known of which are explained below:
- Malware: also known as malicious software, is a type of threat that includes viruses, worms, Trojans, ransomware, and spyware that infiltrates inside systems and networks to damage, steal information, or gain control of devices.
- Phishing: This attack uses social engineering techniques to trick users into revealing sensitive information of great importance, such as passwords, credit card numbers, or personal data. Such attacks are usually carried out by individuals who impersonate legitimate entities, such as banks or well-known companies and send fake emails or messages to users to obtain valuable information.
- Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks: The purpose of these attacks is to overload the system or network with malicious traffic, thereby causing the interruption or significant reduction of services. In this way, denial-of-service attacks exhaust system resources, such as bandwidth or processing capacity, preventing legitimate users from accessing services.
- Brute force attacks: In this type of attack, the objective is to guess passwords or encryption keys by trying different combinations until the correct one is identified. For this purpose, automated software is implemented through repetitive and rapid attempts to discover the password, taking advantage of the weakness of predictable or weak passwords.
- Injection attacks: These attacks take advantage of vulnerabilities in web applications to insert and execute malicious code within the affected systems. Some of the most common injection attacks are SQL injection, in which malicious SQL commands are inserted into database queries, and command injection, in which system commands are inserted into application inputs.
- Spoofing attacks: Attackers, in this case, impersonate another person or entity to gain unauthorized access to confidential systems or information. For this attack, techniques such as email spoofing or fake websites are often used to deceive users to obtain information or access credentials.
- Interception attacks: In this type of attack, communication between two legitimate parties is intercepted and captured. An interception attack usually involves eavesdropping techniques on unsecured networks or compromising intermediate devices to gain access to essential data such as passwords or confidential information.
Overview of NIST SP 800-53
History and evolution of NIST SP 800-53
The NIST SP 800-53 standard was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the U.S. in 2005 as part of a series of special publications to provide information security guidelines and controls for the proper management of federal systems.
After that, NIST SP 800-53 has undergone several revisions and updates, and its latest version in 2020, known as SP 800-53 Rev. 5. Its updates reflects technological advances, changes in threats, and emerging security challenges.
Objectives and scope of the standard
The main objective of NIST SP 800-53 is to provide a broad range of security controls and guidelines to help organizations protect their information systems and assets. The standard was created for U.S. federal agencies, government contractors, and other organizations to improve their information security.
The scope of the standard covers several areas of security, such as data protection, access management, risk management, physical security, business continuity, auditing, and monitoring, among others. These stipulations are intended to provide a global framework that can be applied to the needs of each organization.
Structure and Organization of Security Controls
NIST SP 800-53 organizes security controls into sections called families and subfamilies. Each family represents a specific security subject area and comprises data such as purpose, description, potential impact, special considerations, and associated recommendations. In addition, the standard guides the use of the controls to adapt them to different environments and requirements.
The standard is underpinned by the NIST risk management framework, referred to as the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF). It can be used with other security standards and frameworks, such as ISO 27001, to establish a holistic approach to information security.
Implementation of NIST SP 800-53
The step-by-step implementation process for NIST SP 800-53.
Determine the approach
In implementing the NIST cybersecurity framework guidelines, organizations should be aware of three implementation approaches: inheritable, specific, and hybrid. Each establishes the scope, nature, applicability, development, and accountability of the control measures set.
- Inheritable controls receive protection, evaluation, authorization, and supervision from an external entity responsible for the system.
- Specific controls are so named because each rule has a particular purpose, and the organization must adopt appropriate ones to meet its security and privacy requirements. Their development and monitoring are the responsibility of the system owner.
- In the case of hybrid controls, these take on common parts of the programs, but the requirements and technologies used vary according to the organization's needs. In these cases, the vendor is responsible for ensuring implementation and evaluation.
Selection of security controls
For selecting security controls and information privacy, the company must have defined its information's security and privacy goals and the cybersecurity risks that it intends to prevent or mitigate.
The controls reflect these two elements (goals and risks), so the circumstances associated with each objective and risk must also be considered to determine whether they are independent or related, as the applicable controls could also overlap.
Setting policies and procedures
After defining each control, the organization should establish when and where each control measure should be applied. Indicate who oversees its evaluation, supervision, updating, and monitoring methods to ensure effectiveness.
Goal:To ensure access, use, and manipulation of essential information by authorized company members.
Risk: Malicious access by third parties to essential information.
Measure to implement: Control access to information.
- Indicate the maximum number of subscribers.
- Designate account permissions administrators.
- Define privileged accounts.
- Indicate how the monitoring of account activity is to be carried out.
- To fix the terms, methods, and persons in charge of the audit of the accounts.
- Method of deletion or disabling of accounts.
Let's look at another example:
Goal: Secure access of authorized personnel to each account.
Risk: violation of accounts or resources.
Control: Secure access
- Include multi-factor access enabled for access to each account.
- Verify user identity.
- Authorize administrator access to the account.
Future trends in information security
Some future trends in information cybersecurity that require organizations to make effective implementation of the NIST SP 800-53 framework:
- Increased attacks through AI: Cybercriminals will use AI to launch more sophisticated attacks that circumvent traditional security measures, grow phishing with emails that appear trustworthy, or create malware that bypasses the security protocols of programs used by the enterprise.
- Supply chain threats: As business organizations rely more on a network of suppliers and partners, the level of exposure to attack rises. Hackers can use external suppliers to access their customers' systems and data, looking for the weakest link.
- Increased disinformation: the use of synthetic channels created by AI has the potential to create false content, from news and headlines, images and videos that appear truthful and disseminate them en masse, to affect the image of a person or entity and ultimately manipulate public opinion.
- Access to the cloud: more and more data and critical infrastructure is being moved to the cloud by organizations so that cybercriminals can gain unauthorized access and use or hijack information.
Recommendations for compliance with NIST SP 800-53
Given the information security risks that will deepen in the coming years, we present some recommendations extracted from NIST SP 800-53 to strengthen the security of the infrastructure:
- Identify and classify confidential data: Organizations handle a large volume of data, but not all of it is critical and needs the same level of confidentiality; discovering which are essential allows the adoption of more effective measures focused precisely on them.
- Set permissions: delineate who can see, use, and manipulate the data. Be specific, from the user's name, the folders they can access, and the session duration.
- Monitor activities: You need to know who, when, and where you access systems and files. Keeping an updated log lets you quickly identify and locate irregular activities and those responsible.
- Consolidate a culture focused on security: The organization should train personnel in different areas and levels with technical and tactical knowledge for accessing and using information systems. As well as promoting awareness and a sense of responsibility among personnel.
- Continually assess: Assessment tools should be incorporated to let you know where the organization stands regarding security, how prepared it is, and what areas need strengthening.
Pirani: Facilitates compliance with NIST SP 800-53
Pirani is a software solution that helps organizations establish internal security programs aligned to NIST SP 800-53. With Pirani, organization members can analyze threats more effectively, identify risks, and place them in an organized risk matrix and heat maps to see the level of impact (low, medium, and high) and the likelihood of materialization.
In addition, it can be set up according to the organization's policies and procedures, and follow, in real-time, the established controls' compliance and effectiveness level. Pirani allows you to assign tasks, indicate the responsible members, indicate the dates for compliance with the control measures, etc. The tool also collects information on the company's risk status, is updated in real-time, and is presented in graphs and charts.
Finally, its internal audit module allows evaluation of the risk in the different areas and levels to measure the organization's performance in protecting and securing information.
The NIST 800-53 General Standards provide a cybersecurity framework that enables organizations of all types to adopt adequate internal controls and practices in their security programs to ensure the protection and privacy of their data and critical infrastructure. These flexible and inclusive guidelines guide organizational members and leaders to create cybersecurity policies and procedures tailored to their organization's unique needs.
Although they are a catalog of non-binding controls designed to standardize the implementation of threat control methodology and procedures, they are an excellent starting point for organizations wishing to optimize their risk posture.