Securing Data: Federal Information Security Controls 101

Securing Data: Federal Information Security Controls 101

Data is the lifeblood of any organization, and protecting it is critical to maintaining business continuity. The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002, or the Federal Information Security Modernization Act, updated in 2014, states that federal agencies must implement a comprehensive security program for their information systems to adhere to national data security standards. Businesses can achieve FISMA compliance with the proper knowledge and tools.

This blog will review everything you need to know about FISMA compliance, the role of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in administering information security policies for Federal Executive Branch agencies that are not related to national security, and Federal Information Security Controls Guidance.

We will start by reviewing Federal Information Security Controls (FISC) and why they are essential for your organization’s data security. From there, we’ll dive into National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines for FISMA, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance on FISMA, critical success factors for FISMA compliance, and What Guidance Identifies Federal Information Security Controls.

As a bonus, I will list some recommended resources that you could use to maintain your organization’s data security.

Understanding Federal Information Security Controls

FISC safeguards the United States’ sensitive information systems. These controls provide minimum security requirements for federal agencies and contractors working within them, which cover the government’s sphere. NIST publishes the FISC guidelines covering various topics such as access control, incident response, and risk assessment. Additionally, compliance with FISC guidelines is mandatory under FISMA, which ensures that every federal agency has an information security program in place to protect its information assets against vulnerabilities or breaches.

Adhering to these guidelines reduces the risks of unauthorized access and disclosure of personally identifiable information (PII). To maintain the effectiveness of information security policies, Congress enacted the E-Government Act, which requires government-wide annual reporting by each agency head on their security incidents’ status. The Electronic Government Act was introduced to improve electronic government services and processes and manage federal spending around information security.

OMB guidance clarifies meeting FISMA security and privacy controls for federal information systems and organizations through proper certification, categorization, accreditation, continuous monitoring, safeguards implementation, and reporting requirements, focusing on eliminating inefficient and wasteful reporting.

What is FISMA?

The United States FISMA became law in 2002 as a response to the vulnerabilities present within government information systems. It was amended by the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014. FISMA requires all federal government agencies to establish and maintain safeguards to protect against unauthorized access or disclosure of sensitive information, such as PII.

Why is FISMA Important?

FISMA safeguards federal information and assets from unauthorized access or damage. Its implementation requires agencies, private sector organizations, and service providers that deal with national data or provide services to federal agencies, including state agencies like Medicare and Medicaid, to establish robust security programs following federal programs.

Compliance with these programs helps prevent cyber attacks, data breaches, and other security issues. Additionally, FISMA helps maintain public trust in government agencies’ ability to protect sensitive information and mitigate adverse effects.

NIST Guidelines for FISMA

FISMA requires federal agencies and contractors to comply with FISC guidelines published by the NIST to ensure the security of the United States’ national information and assets. The FISC guidelines include access control, incident response, and risk assessment controls. Compliance with these guidelines is mandatory for federal agencies and contractors handling sensitive government data.

The Office of Management (OMB) guides FISMA compliance and reporting requirements per federal law. Certified information system security professionals within each agency must implement a data security program that meets minimum security requirements per NIST SP 800-53 and stays current with FISMA standards.

Non-compliance can lead to a breach of PII, adversely affecting the affected individual(s). In addition, compliance failure may lead to congressional censure, reduction in federal funding, and harm to reputation.

FISMA Compliance Best Practices

To comply with FISMA requirements for FISC in the United States, agencies must develop and implement effective security programs. This involves conducting comprehensive risk assessments and implementing appropriate safeguards such as continuous monitoring and incident response planning. To ensure compliance with federal law, agencies must also maintain a system security plan and conduct regular audits and reviews, including annual security reviews, to assess the effectiveness of their information security program during the fiscal year. By doing so, agencies can identify vulnerabilities that may put sensitive data at risk of breach or other adverse effects.

NIST 9 steps toward FISMA compliance checklist

Source: Appknox

OMB Guidance on FISMA

For effective implementation of the FISMA, OMB provides comprehensive guidance to federal agencies. The agencies must develop, implement, and maintain information security programs that include risk management, periodic assessments, continuous monitoring, and reporting requirements guidelines for selecting security controls. OMB guidelines enforce compliance with FISMA regulation that guarantees the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of federal information systems and data.

Proper training programs for employees, such as program officials and the chief information officer, are also crucial for upholding the standards set by this act.

Critical Success Factors for FISMA Compliance

Ensuring compliance with federal information security controls is vital for protecting sensitive United States Federal Information Systems information. To achieve compliance with FISMA, federal agencies must implement a comprehensive information security program that includes risk management, periodic assessments, and continuous monitoring. It involves developing robust access controls and authentication measures to safeguard government information’s confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

FISMA certification and accreditation are crucial aspects of this process, ensuring that security controls are sufficient and risk is mitigated through risk categorization. This four-phase process, which includes initiation and planning, certification, accreditation, and continuous monitoring, helps validate the effectiveness of the implemented security measures.

An incident response plan should be created in case any breaches or vulnerabilities arise. Proper documentation and records of security controls and compliance efforts are also essential to assess the effectiveness of information security policies continually. Regular training programs for federal employees are critical components of compliance with FISMA.

Reporting and Compliance Management

Ensuring compliance with federal information security controls, including FISMA compliance requirements, is critical for organizations operating in the United States. Implementing FISMA guidelines safeguards sensitive data from breaches and vulnerabilities. Reporting and Compliance Management establishes clear policies and procedures for reporting security incidents, conducting regular audits, and assessing the effectiveness of information security policies to identify areas of non-compliance.

By meeting FISMA compliance requirements, organizations improve data protection, prevent data breaches, and plan incident response more effectively.

Compliance management tools like automated workflows, task tracking, and reporting dashboards streamline compliance activities. Conducting risk assessments regularly while maintaining proper documentation of these evaluations ensures continuous monitoring of cybersecurity risks.

FISMA IT Audit Drivers Overview

Overview of IT Audit Drivers for FISMA

In today’s digital age, federal agencies must ensure that their information systems remain secure and compliant with federal information security controls, such as those mandated by FISMA and the Privacy Act of 1974. To achieve this, information technology (IT) audits are conducted to verify that minimum security requirements for categorization, certification, and accreditation levels based on risk assessments are met, as outlined in NIST Special Publications (SP) 800-53.

These audits involve assessing risks, evaluating controls, testing procedures, and reporting findings. Compliance with FISMA helps protect sensitive government data from cyber threats while ensuring federal information systems’ confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

Every Federal agency—Civilian, Defense, or otherwise—has security compliance requirements that must be met annually or continuously. After completing documentation and risk assessment, agencies must certify that security controls function correctly. After completing the certification, the information system receives “accreditation” as defined in NIST SP 800-37, the guide for federal information system security certification and accreditation.

Auditors are tasked with identifying any vulnerabilities within an agency’s information systems. Risk management frameworks are leveraged to address these vulnerabilities. The access to PII also stresses continuous monitoring. Continuous monitoring is also emphasized by the United States OMB, highlighting the importance of keeping a watchful eye on an agency’s information systems to ensure ongoing compliance.

To measure an agency’s compliance program effectiveness, reporting dashboards provide a comprehensive view of metrics, including unauthorized access attempts and reported incidents. These metrics help auditors to gauge the effectiveness of an agency’s compliance program and identify areas for improvement.

The government accountability office ensures that federal agencies comply with these regulations. Regular audits and assessments hold agencies accountable for their compliance efforts and ensure they meet their obligations to maintain secure information systems.


In 2014, an update to FISMA assigned the task of supervising information security policies for non-national security Executive branch agencies to DHS. The creation of the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) aims to safeguard critical infrastructure from cyber threats and other security risks.

CISA works closely with public and private sector entities to detect and mitigate these risks, offering advice and assistance to enhance security measures. Additionally, the agency collaborates with international partners to exchange information and establish effective strategies for protecting critical infrastructure globally.

FISMA Compliance Resources List

Recommended Resources for FISMA Compliance

Numerous recommended resources are available in the United States for those looking to maintain Federal Information Security Controls to see if their framework is good under FISMA compliance rules.

Special Publications (SPs) by NIST for comprehensive guidelines on information security implementation

Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) publications for higher-level cybersecurity standards approved by Congress

Office of Management (OMB) guidance on FISMA requirements and OMB Memorandum M-17-12 related to Risk Management Framework (RMF)

Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) for a unified approach to security assessment and authorization across state agencies

Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is responsible for guidance on risk management frameworks and cybersecurity threats, including annual reports.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the Federal Information Security Controls?

Federal information security controls are standards and guidelines developed by the NIST to protect sensitive government information. They cover various aspects, such as access control, incident response, risk management, and security assessment.

What are the NIST Privacy Controls?

Federal information security controls are standards and guidelines created by NIST to safeguard sensitive government information. These controls include various measures such as access restrictions, encryption, and monitoring. Adhering to these guidelines is essential for meeting the requirements of data privacy laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

It is critical to note that certain types of information, such as social security numbers, are classified as PII. Therefore, these sensitive data must be handled with extra care and appropriate safeguards must be implemented. Individuals and organizations can protect themselves and stakeholders from security breaches and cyber threats by taking necessary precautions.

Overall, implementing privacy controls in order of risk is critical to maintaining the confidentiality and safety of personal data in today’s digital age.

What Guidance Identifies Federal Information Security Controls?

NIST is a valuable resource for those seeking guidance on federal information security controls. NIST Special Publication 800-53 provides recommended security measures organizations can implement to protect against cyber threats. In addition, NIST offers frameworks like the Cybersecurity Framework and Risk Management Framework to help manage security risks and ensure compliance with federal regulations.

Categorizing information security risks is crucial for organizations to focus their security efforts on high-risk areas and ensure that sensitive information is given the highest level of security. The NIST’s FIPS 199 standard provides risk categorization guidelines and defines risk levels that organizations can assign to their information systems during risk categorization.

These frameworks serve as a comprehensive approach to security, encompassing everything from identifying risks and vulnerabilities to implementing protective measures and monitoring for potential threats. By following NIST guidelines, organizations can better safeguard their sensitive information and mitigate cyber-attack risks.

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Are There Any Common Vulnerabilities in Information Security that Companies Should be Aware of?

Companies must be well-informed about information security vulnerabilities to protect their sensitive data. These vulnerabilities include weak passwords, phishing attempts, and outdated software. To reduce the vulnerability risk, companies should encourage and enforce strong passwords and provide extensive training to their employees to help them recognize and report suspicious activity.

Moreover, it is imperative for companies to regularly update their software, as this is a crucial measure that can prevent the exploitation of vulnerabilities. By taking these steps, companies can ensure they are well-equipped to protect themselves against potential security breaches and safeguard their valuable assets.

What Are The Consequences Of Failing To Secure Sensitive Data Properly?

In today’s digital age, it has become increasingly crucial for businesses to protect sensitive data adequately. Failing to do so may have severe consequences, including but not limited to financial loss, harm to reputation, legal ramifications, and various cybercrimes, such as identity theft and fraud. Therefore, you should apply utmost importance to implementing federal data controls; they can help establish a secure data storage and transmission environment.

By doing so, businesses can ensure that confidential information remains safe from potential threats and protect themselves from the possible fallout of data breaches. These measures can include encryption, firewalls, access controls, and other essential security protocols to mitigate the risks associated with data breaches and cyberattacks. Ultimately, businesses prioritizing the proper protection of sensitive data can instill confidence in their stakeholders and safeguard their reputations in the long run.

Final Thoughts

Compliance with FISMA has become increasingly important as cyber threats evolve. By implementing FISMA guidelines, organizations can ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of their sensitive data. However, achieving FISMA compliance is a challenging feat.

It requires a dedicated effort to stay up-to-date on evolving threats and regulations and the implementation of adequate security controls. Check out our comprehensive NIST guide for more information on achieving FISMA compliance.