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Security vs. compliance: What’s the difference?

May 17, 2022

For many businesses, security and compliance are inextricably linked, and for good reason. Without security, it is impossible to demonstrate compliance, and without compliance, there is no objective proof of security. 

The challenge is to create an effective security program while simultaneously achieving compliance. The better your organization understands this relationship, the easier it becomes to support both initiatives and move forward as a business. Let’s dive in. 

What is security and why is it important? 

Security refers to the ability to protect your organization from internal and external risks. The methods used to secure your company are known as called controls. These are the physical, administrative, and technical measures used to mitigate malicious and accidental threats. Most security initiatives fall into two categories: cybersecurity and information security.

Cybersecurity 

Cybersecurity is the practice of protecting digital data, networks, and devices from criminal intervention. Hackers, viruses, phishing, and breaches are the primary threats. This kind of security is especially concerned with electronic technology that connects to the internet. Examples of cybersecurity measures include: 

  • Installing a firewall
  • Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
  • Encrypting data
  • Authorization of access

Information security (infosec)

Information security is the practice of protecting any kind of data an organization handles, whether it’s stored, used, or dispersed. In contrast to cybersecurity, infosec caters to all kinds of data, not just digital. Customer behavior data, internal employee info, third-party data, payment information, and health information are examples of protected info. Common infosec practices measures include: 

  • Installing an Information Security Management System (ISMS)
  • Centralizing and assigning data ownership
  • Defining security practices and protocols in code
  • Keeping internal systems and policies updated

Cybersecurity and information security come together to fortify confidentiality, integrity, and accessibility. Without these security measures in place, it’s not possible to achieve compliance standards. More importantly, your company will be exposed to numerous threats, risks, and attacks. 

What is compliance and why is it important? 

Compliance is the practice of proving your security methods and controls are effective. Organizations usually have to adhere to compliance regulations because of legal mandates or requests from a third-party client or vendor. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is an example of a state-mandated compliance, while SOC 2 is a form of compliance that organizations adhere to in order to prove security measures are in place. 

It’s important to consider the kind of industries or geographic locations your company plans to conduct business. Healthcare entities may require you to obtain a HIPAA certification. If you anticipate doing business with citizens in the European Union, you’ll have to comply with GDPR

You may already be in a state of compliance, however; many certifications or standards will require a third-party audit to produce an objective report on your behalf. Whether the incentive to comply is mandatory or conditional, compliance plays a significant role in the growth, safety, and reputation of your business. 

Bridging the gap between security vs. compliance 

Creating a strong security program in addition to demonstrating compliance can be a complex process. Where should a company start first? Which controls are most important? Which employee should lead the charge on security vs. compliance? Every business will have different challenges, but here are a few tips to help you connect the dots between security and compliance. 

Develop a keen sense of security awareness
Before building an effective security program that will meet compliance standards, it’s best to understand how to respond to security threats. Security is a company-wide responsibility. The more aware each employee is about security, the more comprehensive your efforts will be.

Adopt the right perspective
It can be discouraging to go through the compliance process for the first time, especially if you know you have a strong security posture. Even if you don’t check every box right now, going through the audit process will mitigate indecision and give you clear action items.

Conduct a risk assessment
Once your security controls are in place, a risk assessment will help you find out if there are any gaps or missing elements. Performing a risk assessment prior to a compliance audit can save you time and money. An assessment will help you identify the likelihood of risk frequency, rank risk scenarios, and locate any weaknesses across your security program. 

Learn more about security and compliance 

Vanta’s 6 principles for pragmatic startup security
Create a culture of security from the start
10 steps to effective compliance risk management