Keeping any business afloat is challenging these days, and many business owners are hard-pressed to keep up with technological demands as they focus instead on the primary work of their enterprise. However, any company that’s doing business in today’s global marketplace may be inadvertently risking losses or even closure if it doesn’t have at least a basic understanding of the information technology (IT) requirements (compliances) and risks (security) that currently exist. As a business owner, it’s essential that you understand the differences between IT compliance vs. IT security challenges, so that you can make the appropriate investments you need to keep your organization operating and profitable.

Why IT Compliance? Why IT Security?

It’s important to note that these two elements of corporate reality – IT compliance vs. IT security – are two distinctly different concepts and becoming fully comprehensive in one does not mean you are also fully comprehensive in the other. Each concept covers a separate and distinct aspect of any company’s well-being, so both require independent analysis and effort to become fully operational as a stand-alone asset. Only when each is wholly sufficient in and of itself should they be considered together as evidence of sound enterprise IT governance.

What is IT Compliance?

Compliance means conforming to the rules set in place that ensure that goods or services meet the accepted requirements established by the regulated industry and don’t create or pose unnecessary threats. External entities are responsible for setting and enforcing industry-based standards and industry members assume the obligation of compliance by engaging in the industry itself. Most industries have at least one set of standards, and some sectors are governed by several intersecting or overlapping bodies of rules.

In the technology industry, standards govern many aspects of how companies collect, manage and use the data of their customers and consumers. Most of the regulations got their start in the mid- to late-1990s after the Enron scandal revealed how easy it was to manipulate data for illegitimate gain. And, as the access to and use of technology for all purposes grew, so did the number of ways in which companies could exploit it. Consequently, there are now many regulating entities around the world that issue rules affecting technology and all of its uses.

For example, the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) sets standards for the payment card and electronic financial transactions industry. Companies that take consumer’s money through any digital portal must comply with the rules governing those practices and operations. The recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) establishes uniform standards for any company (regardless of its location) that handles the personally identifying information (PII) of any European Union citizen or resident.

Being compliant with any particular set of standards means that all relevant aspects of the business that are required to conform to those standards actually do conform to those standards and the company can prove that fact. Any company that uses technology to do business within a specifically regulated sector (or a relevant legal jurisdiction in some cases) must demonstrate compliance with those standards or risk fines or other penalties.

What is IT Security?

Keeping an IT system secure means keeping internet-connected systems safe from inappropriate intrusions, and preventing unauthorized entities from accessing or using their data or programming. IT security strategies focus on maintaining control over five main factors that exist within most information systems: users, data, applications, networks and operations.

  • User-level security ensures that only entities that are intended or authorized can gain access to any aspect of the corporate IT system. Security measures here include passwords and double authentication procedures.
  • Data security requires keeping information safe where it is stored, when it is used, and when it is in transit. Data security requires oversight on both external users (customers, third-party contractors, etc.) as well as internal users (employees, leadership, etc.).
  • Application security involves the protection from intrusions of the processing capacities of any application or program. Standard application security procedures often include firewalls and encryption, each of which prevents unauthorized access to the software or its function.
  • Network security involves keeping a series of computers and their operators, applications and information safe from intrusion. Network security practices utilize both hardware and software as tools in managing access to any port or database in the network.
  • Operational security looks at IT from the interloper’s view and encourages security professionals to seek vulnerabilities within the full scope of their IT constellation.

Knowing When to Address IT Compliance vs. IT Security

In some ways, IT compliance and IT security overlap when the compliance requirement mandates high levels of IT security. In many other cases, however, compliance activities are separate and distinct from security practices and becoming compliant in those standards does not also result in becoming secure. If your industry requires that your business maintain specific types of hard- or software to be compliant with its rules, then investing in those assets will bring you into compliance with your industry but may not make your enterprise more secure from unwanted intrusions. Conversely, if you’ve invested heavily in IT security systems and believe your organization is as safe as possible from attacks or hacks, it may still be non-compliant with industry standards.

Many small- and mid-sized companies struggle to know if or prove that they are fully compliant with their industry standards. Some mistakenly believe that their security investments also bring them into compliance with regulations. If your company needs to ensure both IT compliance and IT security, you should ask your nearest IT security and compliance specialist for assistance.


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