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Does Compliance = Security?

Posted February 15, 2011    Peter McCalister

Since it’s hard to analyze the tradeoffs between security and productivity, IT organizations can fall back on gut feel, rules of thumb and past practices in making these decisions.  The easiest answer is frequently to just follow the rules and regulations so you remain in compliance with industry regulations or current policies.  As a result, compliance becomes a substitute for security. But are they really equal?  Does being in compliance mean you have a secure IT environment?

I see a number of major challenges when staying in compliance is substituted for a well thought out IT security strategy. First, compliance oriented policies tend to be backward looking making sure that past problems don’t reoccur but do little to help anticipate new threats. Compliance also focuses on process rather than results, in many cases with a heavy emphasis on record keeping. And focusing on compliance can stifle innovation because new security techniques are needed to deal with new technical approaches.

Now don’t get me wrong. Staying in compliance is a good thing to do. It’s essential in many businesses. And the rigor that comes with staying in compliance is a necessary element of good security strategy. Maintaining SAS 70 Type II compliance, for example, lets everyone in the organization know that key processes are important and gives everyone an independent perspective of whether an organization is doing what they say they are going to doAnd while it’s often joked about, a compliance mandate often pays the bills for real security. If that’s what it takes to upgrade key infrastructure, that’s good too.

But it’s clear that compliance doesn’t equal good security.  According to Jim Jaeger, director of DoD & Commercial Cyber Solutions for General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems,  “Virtually every breach we investigate, that company has been certified as being compliant within the last year.”  And at its worst, Jaeger sees that “these compliance regimes give people an incredible false sense of security.”

So compliance is a great way set a minimum bar for security policies. But you need to take into account the real value of your data and the threats that face your industry and particular business.  So we are back to having to do that difficult analysis on the real costs and benefits of security. And while there is no simple answer there may be a different way to frame the problem.  Can you implement security in a way that enhances productivity?   Wouldn’t that be great!   The good news is that most of the trade-offs can be mitigated by implementing a privilege identity management solution.

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