Information security and compliance are crucial to an organization's data protection and financial security. Though compliance and security are different, they both help your company manage risk. When you use them together, they can reduce threats to your company's confidential information and heighten your reputation in your industry. Knowing how to meet security and compliance standards can help you reduce risk and better protect your business.
This article describes the distinctions between information security and compliance. We also cover why companies need to employ both of them along with some commonly followed regulatory frameworks. So, let’s dive in.
Information security overview
Information security refers to a set of technical processes, tools, and systems used to protect an enterprise's information and technology. More specifically, businesses use technical, physical, and administrative controls to manage the risks related to their information. Essentially, information security boils down to managing risk and protecting critical information from threats.
When you don't secure your information, you expose yourself to greater risk if your information is attacked. By securing your information, you reduce the chances a data breach or other security threat will do significant damage to your company. Typically, information security aims to meet three primary characteristics: confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Together, these characteristics are called the CIA triad.
Confidentiality: While you want your information available to approved users, you also want to keep it safe from unauthorized parties. Good security keeps your information confidential and free from prying eyes. Security designed to keep your information confidential prevents disclosure to unwanted parties and only allows authorized users to access it.
Integrity: Your information security should have integrity, meaning all of your information is accurate. By keeping your data and information accurate, your team can take more informed actions. When your information security doesn't have enough integrity, bad actors can make unauthorized alterations, leading to your team making decisions based on inaccurate information.
Availability: Your company information should be available when your authorized users need it. When your team can't access information, they can't do their jobs properly.
Alongside the three primary characteristics, information security should feature three kinds of controls to ensure data is kept secure. Technical, administrative, and physical controls all make up a functioning information security system.
Technical controls: Technical controls refer to the IT portion of your information security. Technical controls include antivirus software, permissions, passwords, and firewalls. While this is the most recognizable type of control that people think of in regard to information security, it needs to be combined with physical and administrative controls for complete security effectiveness.
Administrative controls: Administrative controls are crucial when you want to minimize threats related to people and better manage your company's security efforts. These controls regularly come in the form of training, procedures, policies, and standards. By having these administrative controls, you can better guide people within your organization on how to keep your company's data secure.
Physical controls: As the name suggests, physical controls are the kind of controls you can actually touch. They're made to assist with the physical management of information, allowing or preventing access as needed. Common examples of physical controls include camera surveillance, alarm systems, and door locks. While technical controls can prevent viruses and digital threats, physical controls are important as well since they help prevent old-fashioned theft.
Without all three of these controls, your data will likely be open to attacks and other security threats.
IT compliance overview
Information security compliance is another critical factor to take into account. Compliance refers to a company's need to meet a third party's standards, often in the form of a client's contractual terms, security frameworks, or government regulations. These regulations and standards are meant to help organizations improve the security of their information. Typically, standards provide companies with best practices for the kind of data they handle and the industry they operate in.
When businesses don't meet information technology compliance standards and laws, they can face severe fines. Additionally, failing to comply can leave a company's security open to a data breach where critical information could be stolen. Since most organizations must follow some security regulations, they need to make compliance a priority to protect their data and information.
One of the biggest challenges businesses face in meeting compliance requirements is simply determining which standards apply to them. Once they determine the appropriate standards, they sometimes struggle to understand which controls and policies are necessary to reach full compliance.
The difficulty of figuring out which rules and regulations your company should comply with originates from how third parties write information security standards. Rather than writing them for specific businesses, third parties craft regulations for many different organizations in a similar industry. Since these regulations need to apply to many different organizations, third parties write them with some vagueness, requiring companies to interpret them on a case-by-case basis until enough precedent has been set.
Because regulations are open to some interpretation, information security-related compliance often comes down to an organization following whatever their last regulator or auditor told them. These regulators or auditors will interpret how a third party's regulations apply to a particular company and then give that company instructions on how to follow them. Following a third party's information security compliance standards often makes it possible for a company to conduct business operations with a specific client, such as the military, or in a certain market, such as the healthcare industry.
Compliance regulations can vary a great deal due to the interests of different third parties. For example, a government may have strict privacy laws that organizations have to comply with to do business in that country. In extensively regulated markets, such as finance, a company will also need to meet industry standards to avoid fines and other consequences. Additionally, some clients have high standards for confidentiality and security that any company wanting to do business with them must follow.
What are the differences between information security and compliance?
Compliance and security work together to protect a company properly. They both aim to help a business protect its digital and physical assets from risk. Both information compliance and security standards create, implement, and enforce protective controls.
However, they do have some major differences businesses may want to understand to protect themselves from security and compliance risks. In essence, information security involves implementing controls to protect a company's information. In contrast, compliance is about ensuring those controls meet a third party's contractual or regulatory requirements.
Who it's practiced for: Companies practice information security for their own sake, without any need to meet a third party's requirements. A company's unique security needs drive proper safety practices. Organizations practice compliance to ensure they adhere to outside regulations so they can conduct business operations safely. So, while security is practiced for individual businesses, compliance is practiced for third parties.
What drives it: The need to protect a business from continuous technical threats drives a company's security practices. In contrast, common business needs, such as following industry standards and avoiding fines, drives the need for compliance. Security is geared more toward preventing technical threats, while compliance practices are designed to minimize threats to a company's ability to operate.
When it's finished: Security is never finished. As technology grows and bad actors refine their potentially destructive instruments, businesses have to update their security accordingly. In contrast, compliance is finished whenever a third party decides a company has met its standards. Of course, businesses still have to maintain these standards after a third party recognizes they've met them, but a company's operations won't need to change unless new laws or regulations come into play.
How it's enforced: Companies must enforce their own security standards and practices. For compliance, a third-party regulator or auditor inspects and audits businesses to enforce their regulations.
Compliance and security both reduce risk, but they're vastly different in the way they manage it. For example, consider how a security professional's day might be different than a team member focused on compliance.
Security professional's day-to-day operations
A security professional often spends their days using software to conduct asset discovery and manage their system's vulnerabilities. They also configure and manage firewalls, handle secure configuration management, and maintain file integrity. These tasks help them design and establish a secure system that protects data while it's in storage and when it's transferred.
Security teams are also responsible for preventing intrusions into the system and responding to attacks quickly when they occur. Additionally, many security professionals will manage and monitor logs for increased cybersecurity. Besides cybersecurity, companies employ in-person security guards to block unauthorized access to key locations and workers dedicated to maintaining physical barriers, such as door locks and fencing.
All of these combined security operations defend a company's information and technology assets from bad actors. Since a security professional's mandate is to protect a company's information, they often don't put compliance high on their list. In fact, some security professionals might even be antagonistic to compliance standards if they think the regulations conflict with their ability to protect their business.
Compliance professional's day-to-day operations
A compliance professional protects more than just an organization's information assets. They're also responsible for ensuring compliance with laws, regulations, and policies. A compliance team protects an organization from legal, physical, and financial risk by staying on top of the standards the company should follow.
The team is also tasked with presenting compliance information to relevant company members so they can make any changes necessary to meet the regulations or laws. A compliance team member will interview other key team members and audit relevant operations to gain more information about compliance. After these interviews and audits, they'll report their findings, communicating them to parties that can authorize needed changes.
Much of a compliance team's day revolves around reading and understanding standards related to their company. Once they analyze compliance standards and confer with proper regulators or auditors, they'll develop policies their company should follow. After a security team implements compliant controls, a compliance team will follow up with a third party to verify that these new controls meet their standards. While a security team is only responsible for creating security controls, a compliance team must prove these controls meet compliance standards.
Why are both information security and compliance necessary?
You might be wondering how security and compliance can work together, since they're so different. Even though they serve different purposes, they're united in their goal of reducing risk. A strong security and compliance alliance can better protect your business from threats and keep your data safe. Since both compliance and security serve crucial protective functions, they must work together.
On their own, security and compliance both have their shortcomings, making an alliance necessary. For example, a company only focused on compliance will likely leave out strong security practices, such as user awareness training, multi-layered security systems, and regular third-party testing of external security controls. Similarly, a company solely geared toward security will probably miss out on the benefits of complying with regulatory standards and fail to see gaps in existing security controls.
Since security and compliance complement each other, organizations need to create a system combining them both. This system will include security controls to guard information and data assets. After these security controls are in place, your compliance team can check them and ensure they're meeting certain standards. Combining security and compliance strengthens your security controls for the future and helps you create reports and documents for compliance auditing.
In addition to protecting your data, IT security compliance also strengthens your reputation in your industry. Proper compliance practices and strong security controls show potential clients their data is secure with your company. A strong security compliance program also lets them know your business won't run into financial problems due to compliance-related regulations. When you combine compliance and security, you demonstrate to potential clients and other key players in your industry that your company is committed to offering the best in information security.
Compliance and security based on specific frameworks
Compliance is regulated by specific cybersecurity frameworks that define proper security practices for organizations to follow. An auditor or regulator will look at a company's current security controls and practices to determine if they meet a framework's requirements. When a company doesn't live up to a framework's standards, it can face financial penalties and leave itself open to security threats. Frameworks originate from best practice standards, industry regulations, and legislation. Some frameworks are required, while others are optional.
Here are some of the primary frameworks companies regularly strive to comply with:
SOX: U.S. public accounting firms, management companies, and public company boards must comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). This act requires companies to keep their financial records for up to seven years. Legislators created this act to prevent Enron-like scandals from occurring again.
NIST: NIST stands for National Institute of Standards and Technology. This organization created a framework to give organizations a customizable guide to reduce and manage cybersecurity risk. The framework accomplishes this goal by combining various best practices, guidelines, and standards. Businesses regularly use NIST to create a common risk language to improve communication across industries. This framework is voluntary, and many companies use it to reduce risk.
PCI-DSS: Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) is a set of 12 regulations that set standards to protect customer credit card information and reduce fraud. Companies handling people's credit card information regularly follow these standards.
ISO 27000 Family: The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) crafted the ISO 27000 family of standards to provide key security requirements for maintaining information security management systems. To meet these requirements, organizations must implement certain security controls. This framework's regulations apply to many different kinds of business. Many companies follow these regulations to assess the effectiveness of their cybersecurity practices.
ISO 31000 Family: The ISO 31000 family of standards governs the main principles of risk management and implementations. Like the ISO 27000 family, this framework helps many different businesses assess the quality of their cybersecurity practices.
HIPAA: HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and it regulates parts of U.S. health care. Title I relates to protecting people's access to health care when they have been laid off or are between jobs. Title II simplifies key health record processes by requiring electronic records and safeguards for patients' privacy. This act applies to all organizations handling health care data, such as hospitals, doctor's offices, employers, and insurance companies.
How to meet information technology compliance standards of a particular framework
When you want to meet a framework's IT security compliance standards, you can follow a few key steps to reach full compliance. Companies regularly comply with various frameworks to spot areas where their security needs more work. Management teams are ultimately responsible for ensuring their companies' compliance and security processes meet a framework's requirements.
Here are some of the primary steps to building compliance within your security's controls:
- List the security tools you use for your company's operations
- Place the information you process through a risk assessment to identify weaknesses
- Review a framework's regulations and requirements to understand its needs
- Analyze your security controls, looking for any areas where they fall short of the framework's compliance requirements
- Plan how your company will respond to any deficiencies in your security controls
- Test your different solutions to determine which one is most efficient and effective
- Choose a solution that best meets both your security requirements and the framework's compliance standards
Once your company has conducted these steps and found the right solution, you'll likely want to continue to assess the solution's success regularly. By following your initial assessment with repeated reviews, you can ensure security and compliance work together in your organization. A unified security and compliance approach involves using relevant compliance frameworks, analyzing your security systems, fixing any problem areas, and regularly assessing a system's efficiency.
Learn more about security and compliance from Box
The Content Cloud is an all-in-one platform designed for secure content collaboration. It includes enterprise-grade security and compliance management to help your company manage risk. Our platform offers precision control over your data, access, and users. You can also use the Content Cloud's intelligent threat detection and complete lifecycle management and governance to protect your information and easily comply with regulatory requirements.
Box provides security and compliance across all your content. Our built-in vertical security and compliance capabilities cover:
- All industries with FLSA ,OSHA, SOX (1,2,3), PCI DSS, IRS with NIST 800-53, and FIPS 140-2 and TLS
- Financial services with FINRA and MiFid II
- U.S. federal government with FedRAMP, DoD Cloud SRG, ITAR/EAR, and NIST 800-171/DFARS
- U.S. healthcare with HIPAA and HITECH
- Life sciences with GxP
Box Governance also allows you to properly manage the lifecycle of your content through retention policy, legal holds, and disposition management.