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Last Updated on January 28, 2021

We see plenty of organizations that are compliant—but not secure. Yet rarely, if ever, do we find an organization to be secure but not in compliance.

Cybersecurity regulators care about compliance, but hackers are opportunistic and the slightest risk can lead to a major data breach. If you want proof of that fact, recall the massive credit card data exfiltration’s at Target, Michaels and Neiman-Marcus, all of which were certified PCI-compliant at the time their breaches occurred.

The Difference Between Compliance and Security

Compliance does not equal security, nor are they the same thing.  

  • Compliance is a one-size-fits-all, point-in-time snapshot that demonstrates you meet the minimum, security-related requirements of specific regulatory standards like PCI, SOX or HIPAA.  
  • Security is the whole unique system of policies, processes and technical controls that define how your organization stores, processes, consumes and distributes data so that it’s effectively and verifiably protected from cyber threats. 

A key difference between compliance and security is that compliance requirements change slowly and predictably, while the security/threat landscape is in a perpetual state of change; this often means compliance is a few steps behind current threats.

How to Gain True Security

In short, just checking those compliance boxes won’t cover all your security needs and can leave your precious data and systems without adequate protection. To be secure as well as compliant, you need a holistic, information security management system (ISMS) approach that links your controls into a comprehensive framework. Regulatory standards can’t provide that framework alone, no matter how prescriptive they are.

If you’re facing compliance challenges, making those problems go away as quickly and cheaply as possible and “worrying about security later” can seem like the right move. But putting compliance before security puts the proverbial cart before the horse. Robust, cost-effective and streamlined compliance is a direct consequence of an effective security strategy—not its foundation.

When information security is your goal, every control you implement, every standard you’re certified against and every audit you pass demonstrably increases your ability to protect the interests of your clients, partners, employees and owners/stockholders.

Shoot for security and you’ll land in compliance every time. Shoot for compliance and you could land far, far away from secure.

To chart a direct and cost-conscious course to knowing you’re secure and proving you’re compliant, contact Pivot Point Security.


What is the difference between security vs. compliance?

Being compliant with an industry-specific set of control standards (e.g., PCI DSS for payment card processors) is not equivalent to having a robust and effective information security posture. Compliance basically measures whether your security program meets a particular set of one-size-fits-all security standards at a particular point in time. Security, conversely, is unique to each organization. Security focuses on holistically mitigating risk associated with the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data, so it relates to all your physical and electronic data—not just the part covered by a compliance mandate. A robust security program makes compliance much easier to achieve, as most or all of the needed controls will already be in place and much of the remaining work will concern documentation and/or process. But because of its more narrow scope, compliance does not imply security in the same way.

Are compliance and security equally important?

One way to look at it is that compliance and security are equally important, but for different reasons. Compliance drivers are legal/regulatory, while security drivers relate to business risk (and, increasingly, business competitiveness). Security and compliance have similar goals around securing sensitive data by managing risk. Both security and compliance deal with controls to reduce risk. A team charged with information security responsibilities might not focus on specific compliance requirements (e.g., documentation or policies) that relate to information security. But these are key business requirements that must be met.

What is IT security compliance?

Compliance from the standpoint of IT security means making sure your business meets the security and data privacy standards that are applicable to your industry or vertical. For example, there are differing IT security compliance standards for payment card processors (PCI), healthcare organizations (HIPAA) and firms doing business in the EU (GDPR). By achieving IT security compliance you can avoid fines and sanctions, as well as avoid the financial and reputational damage associated with data breaches.


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