Unlocking NIST Special Publications: How to Use the NIST Framework

Kerwyn Velasco
May 23, 2024
August 7, 2023
Learn how to maximize the NIST Special Publications for your cybersecurity program with anecdotes
Table of Contents

In the wild world of business, where cyber threats lurk around every virtual corner, there is no doubt about the need for top-notch cybersecurity. But what is the best way to fortify your defenses (or pump up an existing program)? Industry experts agree: Dive headfirst into an established cybersecurity framework, with the NIST Special Publications at their lead.

By adopting an acknowledged cybersecurity framework, organizations can understand their baseline – where they stand – and gain valuable guidance and objectives for planning, implementing, and optimizing their cybersecurity programs. These programs significantly enhance an organization's capabilities in threat detection, risk mitigation, and incident response. They also contribute to achieving the organization's objectives in risk management and regulatory Compliance.

While several cybersecurity frameworks are available, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF) has emerged as the “rockstar” of the industry. Why should organizations adopt the NIST framework? The NIST CSF offers a standardized set of rules, guidelines, and standards applicable to organizations in any industry, empowering them to construct an effective cybersecurity program.

The tried-and-true NIST framework is comprised of many parts. In this blog, we aim to help you understand how to use the NIST cybersecurity framework for different purposes and the benefits of using each NIST Special Publication.

Which NIST Special Publication Should I Use?

The first step is to define your objective - what are you trying to achieve? Then you can determine which NIST Special Publication will enable you to reach your goals. Use this handy, detailed guide to help you with implementing the NIST cybersecurity framework.

My organization wants to…

…Develop a risk management process.

NIST Special Publication 800-37, or NIST Risk Management Framework (NIST RMF), is an all-encompassing publication that brings together a whole family of risk-related documents. This framework was created based on the requirements of the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA), specifically for entities that manage information security risks in federal information systems. It outlines a structured and systematic approach -- supported by detailed guidance and supporting documentation -- to aid organizations in each step of the Risk Management Framework process. Its goal is to promote consistent and effective risk management practices to safeguard federal information systems and protect the sensitive data they handle.

The steps involved in the NIST RMF are: 

  1. Categorize your system
  2. Select the relevant controls
  3. Implement those controls
  4. Assess the controls
  5. Authorize the system
  6. Monitor the controls
anecdotes describes the 6 steps involved in one of the NIST special publications: RMF

…Communicate about cybersecurity and how to handle an incident.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF) is a framework that organizations can adopt to protect critical infrastructure. Why use the NIST Cybersecurity Framework? It enables organizations to assess their current cybersecurity posture, identify vulnerabilities and risks, and prioritize resources based on the potential impact and likelihood of cyber incidents. Using the CSF, organizations can communicate about cybersecurity in a way that aligns with their overall risk management strategies. The CSF provides guidance on developing and implementing an incident response plan (IRP) that communicates effectively with relevant stakeholders, ensuring a coordinated and efficient response to security incidents. This special publication is currently under comment and review for a second iteration. 

The NIST CSF has five functions:

  1. Identify
  2. Protect
  3. Detect
  4. Respond
  5. Recover
Explore the 5 key functions of the NIST special publication, NIST CSF with anecdotes

…Find and adopt a list of Security and Privacy controls.

NIST 800-53 is the most comprehensive of the documents and the most well-known and widely adopted by federal and non-federal agencies.   

What is NIST 800-53?

The publication presents a catalog of security and privacy controls organizations can implement to take a risk-based approach and mitigate risks to their information systems. These controls are organized into 20 control families, such as Access Control, Audit and Accountability, Configuration Management, Incident Response, and System and Communications Protection. The latest revision focuses on providing more flexibility to organizations in tailoring security and privacy controls based on their specific needs and risk profiles.

Some examples of some of the controls listed in NIST 800-53:

anecdotes displays NIST 800-53 controls, a NIST special publication


Other NIST Special Publications to be Aware of:

  • NIST SSDF – The NIST Secure Software Development Framework provides guidance for integrating security practices throughout the software development life cycle (SDLC). It promotes secure coding, risk management, stakeholder collaboration, and continuous improvement. By following the SSDF, organizations can develop more secure software systems by identifying and addressing vulnerabilities early in the development process, mitigating security risks, and fostering a culture of security awareness and best practices.

  • NIST 800-171 outlines the minimum cybersecurity standards that federal contractors and organizations handling controlled unclassified information (CUI) must adhere to. The NIST 800-171 policy and procedures cover various areas, including access control, incident response, system monitoring, and security awareness training. It aims to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of CUI, ensuring that organizations have appropriate safeguards to prevent data breaches and unauthorized access. Compliance is essential for organizations working with the U.S. government to safeguard sensitive information and maintain a strong cybersecurity posture.

It is important to note that many of these NIST special publications feature crossover guidelines and requirements with other documents.

The Benefits of NIST Special Publications: Why Organizations Rely on Them

By adopting and implementing the NIST Special Publications, organizations can maintain consistency in reporting cybersecurity matters to leadership, promote effective communication and collaboration among stakeholders, and solidify their Compliance foundation. Overall, NIST frameworks deliver a comprehensive and structured approach to cybersecurity, helping organizations navigate the complex landscape of cyber risks and build resilient security practices.

NIST RMF: Gain a Holistic View of Risk 

The NIST Risk Management Framework (RMF) is required for businesses working with the federal government and offers significant benefits for any company. These include asset protection, reputation management, intellectual property (IP) protection, and competitor analysis. By prioritizing risk understanding and mitigation, a robust risk management framework safeguards assets and business operations while minimizing the detrimental impact of cyberattacks. The purpose of the NIST SP 800-37 is to help protect valuable IP and provide valuable insights into the competitive landscape, enabling informed decision-making and enhancing competitiveness.

NIST CSF: Maintain Consistency when Reporting to Leadership 

The benefits of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework are that it provides common language, terminology, and frameworks that facilitate effective stakeholder communication and collaboration. This shared understanding enhances communication between technical and non-technical staff and external partners, promoting a holistic approach to cybersecurity.

The framework also fosters better understanding and informed decision-making at the executive level.

NIST 800-53: Solidify your Compliance Foundation

Private organizations voluntarily adopt and comply with NIST 800-53 because it helps with selecting the necessary security controls, policies, and procedures to safeguard information security and privacy. This customization process ensures security and Compliance and contributes to overall business success. By following the guidelines, organizations can achieve consistent and cost-effective implementation of controls across their IT infrastructure. Additionally, adhering to NIST 800-53 provides a strong foundation for compliance with other regulations and programs such as HIPAA, DFARS, PCI DSS, and GDPR.

Adopt NIST Special Publications for Cybersecurity Success

Even though not mandatory, adopting established cybersecurity frameworks, such as the NIST special publications, is crucial for organizations aiming to strengthen their defenses and protect against cyber threats. These frameworks offer valuable guidance and objectives for planning, implementing, and optimizing cybersecurity programs, ultimately enhancing an organization's capabilities in threat detection, risk mitigation, and incident response.

Kerwyn Velasco
Security and Compliance Nerd with 10 years GRC experience wearing all kinds of hats. He currently does marketing at anecdotes.
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