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Pentesting for NIST 800-53, FISMA, and FedRAMP

Overview of NIST 800-53, FISMA, and FedRAMP

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a U.S. federal agency responsible for developing and promoting technology standards and guidelines for a variety of areas, including cybersecurity, in support of federal agencies and private sector organizations. NIST’s goal is to help organizations mitigate cybersecurity risks, protect data and information, and enhance their overall security posture. 

NIST 800-53

To support this and other security efforts, NIST has issued a number of publications. One such publication, NIST Special Publication 800-53, “Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations,” provides a comprehensive catalog of security controls and guidelines that can be implemented to secure information systems. NIST 800-53 is a foundational resource for organizations to follow in developing security programs and facilitating compliance with security regulations and standards, including FISMA and FedRAMP. 


The Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA) is a U.S. law that mandates federal agencies to develop, document, and implement agency-wide programs to provide security for the information and information systems that support the operations and assets of the agency. Under FISMA, organizations are required to implement minimum recommended information security controls as defined in NIST 800-53.


The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) has the same basic goal as FISMA, to protect government information and systems and reduce cybersecurity risks in information systems. But while FISMA applies to all federal information systems, FedRAMP deals exclusively with cloud-related computing and services. FedRAMP provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and monitoring, including additional controls beyond baseline controls specified in NIST 800-53 to address the unique elements of cloud computing. 

Key Insights on NIST 800-53 Compliance

NIST 800-53 compliance is mandatory for U.S. federal agencies, and it is typically required for federal contractors who handle or have access to government information systems or sensitive information. 

NIST 800-53 covers security policies and controls that can be categorized into five major areas:

  • Identify: Identification and management of assets, including risk management
  • Protect: Protection of assets and data security, including user access control and least-privileged access controls
  • Detect: Continuous monitoring and discovery of anomalous activities
  • Respond: Methods and strategies for identifying and mitigating threats
  • Recovery: Restoration procedures for recovery from a system failure or attack

To achieve NIST 800-53 compliance, the organization needs to make a detailed evaluation of its cybersecurity requirements, policies and programs. Organizations tailor their compliance path to align with their individual operations, but all should consider the following steps.

  • Define scope: Understand NIST 800-53 requirements. Determine which systems and applications are in scope.
  • Conduct risk assessment: Identify vulnerabilities and security risks. Prioritize mitigation efforts.
  • Implement and test controls: Select and implement applicable controls from NIST 800-53 framework. Update policies and procedures as required. Document controls to facilitate compliance audits.
  • Monitor continually: Develop plans for ongoing monitoring of security controls
  • Develop incident response plans: Develop plans for detecting, responding to, and recovering from a cybersecurity incident.
  • Perform regular audits: Undergo regular audits to fulfill compliance requirements and enhance cybersecurity posture.

Leveraging HackerOne Pentest to Meet NIST 800-53 and FISMA Standards

HackerOne Pentest offers a proven approach to help organizations efficiently achieve compliance with NIST 800-53 and FISMA standards. By leveraging the expertise of elite, vetted pentesters, HackerOne Pentest conducts targeted validations of key technical controls, providing actionable insights to strengthen security posture. Our pentesting services assist with the following areas: 

  • Access Control Validation: Assess the enforcement of least privilege and separation of duties through effective authentication and authorization mechanisms. This ensures that only authorized users can access sensitive resources, reducing the risk of unauthorized access or privilege escalation.
  • Incident Response Evaluation: Evaluate the capabilities for a comprehensive incident response lifecycle, from preparation to recovery. This comprehensive assessment helps identify gaps and areas for improvement, enabling the organization to respond effectively to potential threats.
  • Risk Assessment: Conduct in-depth risk evaluations to identify vulnerabilities and inform control implementations. By leveraging the expertise of seasoned pentesters, organizations can gain a clear understanding of their risk landscape and prioritize remediation efforts effectively.
  • System and Communications Protection: Secure communication channels and control interfaces, employing cryptographic protections as necessary. This ensures that confidential data remains secure during transmission and that control interfaces are hardened against unauthorized access or manipulation.
  • Audit and Accountability Validation: Evaluate the organization’s audit and accountability mechanisms, ensuring that user activities can be traced and unauthorized access or modifications can be detected and addressed promptly. This helps maintain the integrity of the system and supports forensic investigations in the event of a security incident.

“The MoD has embraced a strategy of securing by design, with transparency being integral for identifying areas for improvement in the development process. Working with the ethical hacking community allows us to build out our bench of tech talent and bring more diverse perspectives to protect and defend our assets. Understanding where our vulnerabilities are and working with the wider ethical hacking community to identify and fix them is an essential step in reducing cyber risk and improving resilience.”
— Christine Maxwell, CISO, Ministry of Defence (MoD)

Read the full press release.

Navigating FedRAMP Compliance with HackerOne

HackerOne’s pentesting services are expertly tailored to help organizations achieve successful FedRAMP compliance. Our offerings focus on the following areas:

  • Cloud-Specific Controls: Our pentests extend beyond NIST 800-53, targeting cloud-specific concerns such as multi-tenancy, data encryption both at rest and in transit, and virtualization security.
  • Third-Party Assessment Organization (3PAO): While HackerOne is not a 3PAO, we collaborate with independent assessors during our pentests to deliver an unbiased and comprehensive evaluation of our security controls and compliance efforts.
  • Authorization Packages Documentation: Following our pentests, we produce detailed documentation, including the System Security Plan (SSP), Security Assessment Report (SAR), and Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M). These documents articulate our security measures and findings, providing organizations with a clear roadmap to address any identified vulnerabilities and achieve FedRAMP compliance.

“Implementing the VDP helped us triage and supplemented the internal team we were building. We also knew that the federal government was mandating VDP policies for their agencies, and we wanted to be on the forefront of embracing that security policy for our own constituents.”
— Jillian Burner, CISO, Ohio Secretary of State

Read the full story.

Additional HackerOne Services

  • Public Reporting Channel with a Vulnerability Disclosure Program (VDP): Risk Assessment control RA-5 (11) requires that organizations establish a public channel to receive external vulnerability reports, HackerOne Response offers a Vulnerability Disclosure Program (VDP) to help satisfy the control. By enabling organizations to establish a structured process for receiving and addressing security vulnerabilities reported by external parties, organizations can be on track to meet requirements and enhance overall risk management and compliance efforts.
  • Continuous Monitoring with a Bug Bounty Program: While our pentesting offers deep, targeted FedRAMP assessments, HackerOne Bounty extends this capability, providing ongoing, crowdsourced security testing, ensuring that your systems are constantly tested against new and emerging threats. This continuous approach aligns with FedRAMP’s emphasis on continuous monitoring, offering an agile, responsive framework to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities year-round. 

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