IT Compliance Vs IT Security: Differences and Similarities to Know

Posted by Mike Brattain on Feb 17, 2021 5:30:00 PM

In Compliance, NIST

Some of the big questions different organizations have about their IT are often about the need for regulatory compliance and for strong IT security. Sometimes, there’s a bit of confusion about the difference between IT compliance and IT security because of how much the two tend to overlap.

However, it is important to understand the distinction between IT security and compliance. Why? Because, although the two are closely linked, achieving one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re meeting the needs of the other.

What is IT compliance? What is IT security? How are the two different? Where are the similarities between them? And, why does every business need to strive to meet both IT policy compliance and information security goals?

Before you crack open the Compliance for Dummies handbook, here are some things to know about IT compliance and IT security:

What Is IT Compliance?

IT compliance is when an organization attempts to follow a set of regulatory compliance guidelines set forth for them by some other entity. In most cases, this involves governmental regulatory standards or certain industry-mandated standards that an industry organization imposes.

Examples of regulatory compliance standards include:

  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). A set of guidelines that healthcare industry organizations must adhere to.
  • The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). A set of data privacy, accessibility, and control standards the European Union (EU) imposes on companies that collect, transmit, and handle the data of EU citizens.
  • The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). A regulation mandated by payment card companies that are designed to prevent the compromise of payment card and cardholder information by companies that take credit card payments.
  • NIST SP 800-171. A Special Publication from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that "provides recommended requirements for protecting the confidentiality of controlled unclassified information (CUI)." Often applicable for manufacturers and contractors working with the Department of Defense (DoD).

These are just a small handful of the different governmental and industry-mandated IT compliance standards a company might have to deal with. Other compliance requirements and standards may apply depending on the industry a business is in or even depending on specific clients or customers the company works with. For example, some organizations, like the Department of Defense, might impose extra requirements on their vendors.

What Is IT Security?                                                                                                   

IT security, also known as information security or cybersecurity, is the term for the policies, procedures, and tools that a business uses to protect its data from loss or illicit use by others. Goals in an IT security plan typically focus on maintaining IT asset uptime, keeping sensitive information confidential, and ensuring that data integrity is preserved.

IT security professionals are often most concerned with assessing the specific cyber threats which will have the biggest impact on a business and employing tools, policies, and procedures to counter those threats. This often means performing a threat assessment that looks at how likely specific threats are to target the business, what the impacts of those threats are, and how they could be countered.

For example, if a business stands to lose a lot from phishing attacks and is frequently targeted by them, a cybersecurity engineer might recommend installing an anti-phishing software and training employees to recognize and avoid phishing attacks.

If ransomware is a threat, the cybersecurity specialist might recommend creating a remote backup of the business’ mission-critical data. This way, if the company’s data is corrupted by ransomware malware, then they can restore the corrupted data from the backup.

One of the goals of IT security is making the biggest impact on security for the smallest spend. So, cybersecurity pros tend to focus on making the smallest possible fixes that address the cyber threats with the biggest potential impacts and the highest chance of happening.

IT Compliance vs IT Security

So, what makes IT compliance different from IT security? Where do the two overlap?

Differences between IT Compliance and IT Security

Some of the key differences between IT compliance and IT security are:

  • IT Compliance is Enforced by Other Organizations; IT Security Is Primarily an Internal Initiative. Regulatory compliance is mandated by an external organization. When auditing IT infrastructures for compliance, these auditors may include checks of the organization’s IT security. However, the organization only needs to meet a specific minimum standard to pass the audit. IT security practices are set by the organization itself and may go well above and beyond the minimums required by regulatory bodies.
  • Failing to Meet Regulatory Compliance Standards Can Result in Fines and Sanctions; Failing to Meet IT Security Needs Can Result in Other Losses. One of the reasons why businesses strive to meet regulatory compliance burdens is that failing an audit can carry penalties—such as fines or other sanctions. The penalty for insufficient IT security is that it puts the organization at a higher risk of data security breaches and data loss.
  • IT Security Is a Constantly Evolving Need; Compliance is Comparatively Static. For IT compliance, once the organization meets its minimum “due diligence” requirements, there isn’t a need for change unless the compliance standard itself changes (which they do change). However, IT security is a constantly-changing need as new cyber threats and attack strategies are created every day. To keep the business safe, cybersecurity teams need to constantly revise their security strategies and tools while keeping an eye out for new threats.

Similarities between IT Compliance and IT Security

So, where do IT compliance and IT security overlap? Some of the key similarities include:

  • Both Help Businesses Reduce Risk. While the specific risks reduced may be slightly different between the two, cybersecurity and regulatory compliance do help businesses reduce the risks they face and their potential for loss.
  • IT Security Is Often a Key Compliance Requirement. In many IT compliance standards, IT security is a key component of compliance. Regulators may require specific tools to ensure data security and availability. For example, PCI DSS has a requirement detailing the use of data encryption to protect payment card information when being transmitted across public networks (PCI DSS Requirement 4).
  • Both Are Important for Maintaining Customer Trust. Failing to meet a key compliance standard or being subjected to a massive data breach can be PR nightmares for any company. Demonstrating that key compliance requirements are being met and that all reasonable precautions against a security breach are being taken is essential for earning the trust and confidence of customers (both for B2B and B2C companies).

Why You Need BOTH IT Compliance and IT Security

Saying “should I strive for IT compliance or strong IT security?” is kind of like saying “should my car have wheels or brakes?” Without both, you just aren’t going to go very far.

Companies need to strive to both meet their regulatory compliance requirements and optimize their security measures to defend against cyberattacks. Without compliance, companies open themselves up to audit risks and potential penalties that can keep them from doing business. Without strong security, companies are at risk of losing everything: Intellectual property, sensitive customer data, payroll information, accounts receivable data—everything.

So, it’s vital for companies to strive for both compliance and security in their IT infrastructure.

Need help building a strong cybersecurity framework for your business that meets both your compliance and security needs? Reach out to Systems X today! For more information on cybersecurity and other IT topics, subscribe to the blog:

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