What is NIST 800-53 for beginners?

NIST 800-53 is a document that provides guidelines for implementing cybersecurity controls to protect information systems and organizations. It was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is part of the US Department of Commerce.

What is the purpose of NIST 800-53?

The main purpose of NIST 800-53 is to help organizations manage cybersecurity risks. It provides a catalog of security controls and control baselines that can be implemented to safeguard federal information systems (excluding national security systems). The controls are intended to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of systems and the information processed, stored, and transmitted by those systems.

Who is NIST 800-53 for?

NIST 800-53 was originally developed for US federal government agencies and organizations. However, it has been widely adopted by many non-federal entities as a best practice framework for cybersecurity. It can be used by:

  • Federal agencies and organizations
  • State, local, and tribal governments
  • Private sector companies
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Educational institutions

What’s included in NIST 800-53?

NIST 800-53 contains the following components:

Security controls

The main focus of NIST 800-53 is defining a comprehensive set of cybersecurity controls. These are safeguards and countermeasures to protect information systems and organizations from threats. The controls cover management, operational, and technical aspects of security.

There are 18 control families in NIST 800-53 covering areas like:

  • Access control
  • Awareness and training
  • Audit and accountability
  • Security assessment and authorization
  • Configuration management
  • Contingency planning
  • Incident response
  • System and services acquisition

Control baselines

NIST 800-53 defines three control baselines which represent minimum security requirements for federal information systems based on impact levels:

  • Low baseline – for systems with low confidentiality, integrity, and availability impacts
  • Moderate baseline – for systems with moderate impacts
  • High baseline – for systems with high impacts

The baselines help agencies select appropriate controls.

Implementation guidance

Each control includes supporting guidance to help organizations with implementation. The guidance defines control objectives, potential assessment methods, supplemental guidance, and keywords.

Control catalogs

NIST 800-53 provides different versions of the control catalog based on impact levels and organizational requirements:

  • Main catalog – comprehensive control set for federal information systems
  • Privacy controls – controls specific to protecting PII
  • Federal Public Key Infrastructure (FPKI) controls – controls for federal PKI systems
  • CMS minimally accepted risk controls – controls for Medicare/Medicaid systems

How is NIST 800-53 applied?

Organizations can use NIST 800-53 as a framework to:

  • Select and implement appropriate security controls for their information systems based on risk assessments.
  • Define security plans and improvement roadmaps.
  • Comply with FISMA, HIPAA, and other cybersecurity requirements mandated for federal systems.
  • Independently assess the effectiveness of security controls through auditing and continuous monitoring.

NIST 800-53 control categories

The controls in NIST 800-53 are organized into 18 families grouped into 3 classes:

Management (6 families)

  • Risk assessment
  • Security assessment and authorization
  • System and services acquisition
  • Planning
  • System and communications protection
  • Program management

Operational (10 families)

  • Awareness and training
  • Configuration management
  • Contingency planning
  • Incident response
  • Maintenance
  • Media protection
  • Personnel security
  • Physical and environmental protection
  • System and information integrity
  • Protective technology

Technical (2 families)

  • Access control
  • Audit and accountability

Benefits of implementing NIST 800-53

Key benefits of using the NIST 800-53 framework include:

  • Improved security posture through comprehensive controls that address many cyber risks.
  • Cost-effective security priorities guided by control baselines.
  • Standardized security processes across the organization.
  • Greater visibility into security controls for auditing.
  • Regulatory compliance with frameworks like FISMA and HIPAA.
  • Protection of sensitive data and critical systems.
  • Reduced risk of security breaches and cyber attacks.

Challenges with NIST 800-53

Some potential challenges with NIST 800-53 include:

  • Significant effort required to implement the large catalog of controls.
  • Complexity in selecting, tailoring, and managing appropriate controls.
  • Requirement for specialized expertise in NIST standards and cybersecurity.
  • Need for periodic updates as new versions are released by NIST.
  • Difficulty assessing cost vs value for some safeguard requirements.

Mapping NIST 800-53 to other frameworks

Many other cybersecurity standards and regulations cite or map to NIST 800-53 controls, including:

  • CIS Critical Security Controls (CIS Top 20)
  • ISO 27001
  • HIPAA Security Rule

This helps organizations leverage NIST 800-53 to comply with multiple mandates.

Latest version of NIST 800-53

NIST 800-53 is periodically updated as cyber threats evolve and new technologies emerge. The latest published version is Revision 5 released in September 2020. Key updates in NIST 800-53 Rev 5 include:

  • 89 new and enhanced controls related to areas like supply chains, mobile devices, industrial control systems, and cloud services.
  • Mandatory privacy controls to safeguard personally identifiable information (PII).
  • Greater emphasis on small and medium-sized business needs.
  • Focus on outcome-based versus prescriptive requirements.


Implementing the guidelines in NIST 800-53 can significantly strengthen an organization’s cybersecurity posture. The extensive catalog of controls provides a line of defense across management, operational, and technical domains. While it requires effort to implement, NIST 800-53 offers a flexible and cost-effective approach to reducing cyber risk and protecting critical systems and data.