Over the last couple of years, organizations across the globe have been facing an increasing number of cyberattacks. The rapid shift to remote work left many organizations vulnerable and bad actors took advantage of this situation. And the global average cost of breaches has seen a sharp increase in 2021 compared to the previous year; from 3.86 million USD in 2021 to 4.24 million USD in 2022.
The stakes are higher and organizations across the world are revamping their cybersecurity strategies to minimize their risk. Along with this, governments and regulatory agencies are clamping down on poor security practices and introducing tighter regulations. In this situation, the IT department has to step up their IT security as well as IT compliance measures.
IT security and IT compliance are two aspects of risk management, and unfortunately there’s a lot of confusion regarding both.
In this article, we explore IT security and IT compliance and how they both work together to keep the organization and its customers safe from cyber threats.
What is IT security?
IT security is a set of measures and practices implemented within the organization to protect its assets, its employees, and customers safe from cyber threats. The IT department is responsible for protecting the organization’s network and assets, as well the data stored by the organization.
As you can imagine, there are different aspects to IT security and is as complicated as the variety of threats the organization may face. IT security has to defend the organization from malicious software, attacks that interrupt the company’s services, malicious actors that may damage or destroy the company’s and its clients’ assets, social engineering attacks targeting the employees or the customers, and attackers trying to steal data from the company servers, to name a few.
And just like the evolving nature of cyber threats, IT security is also a constantly changing field.
The security of the data that may concern the organization, its employees, and its customers is considered to be a subset of IT security referred to as information security. With the rise in the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and advanced analytics solution which all store and use large amounts of data, information security has become a key part of IT security.
Among other things, this is why it's important to build a culture of cybersecurity. IT security strategy of an organization is essentially a risk mitigation strategy; minimize the possibility of a successful attack and also the consequence of an attack.
For example, an organization may implement two-factor authentication throughout its digital workplace, biometric access to the company premises, and ask its employees to use the best password managers. And at the same time, the company may isolate its core systems, add multiple redundancies to its servers, and device and practice a disaster recovery and business continuity plan.
It’s important to understand that IT security is not just about the technical aspects; it’s not just implementing the latest security updates and patches or constantly monitoring the network for suspicious activity. It's also about building a robust cybersecurity culture within the organization; it’s about educating and informing the employees to identify and mitigate cybersecurity threats and encouraging them to follow strong security practices.
What is IT compliance?
IT compliance is exactly as the name suggests; ensuring that your IT processes and practices comply with the standards and regulations set by your customers, the governments, and the certifying bodies. While IT security is a set of practices defined by the IT department to keep the organization secure, IT compliance is about implementing the practices defined by a third party to showcase a minimum level of IT security.
The IT compliance standards include GDPR, HIPAA, PCI DSS, ISO 27001, as well as standards that may be dictated by the clients. As you can see, some standards, for example, GDPR and HIPAA are defined and mandated by governmental agencies, while ISO 27001 is defined by certifying bodies. And some of these standards are legally mandated while others are implemented to assure potential clients and customers of the level of security.
The compliance requirements for IT vary with industries. For example, financial and healthcare organizations usually have to comply with more strict regulations compared to a chain of mattress stores or a fast-food business. Organizations that deal with the personal data of their customers are also usually tightly regulated.
There are different kinds of compliance standards depending on the goal. For example, GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation is concerned about keeping data secure, while HIPAA is more about patient data in healthcare organizations. And ISO 20000 is related to the quality of service delivered by an IT company. But in simple terms, the goal of IT compliance is quality control and assurance; assuring a third party that your organization is following a prescribed standard.
IT compliance places a huge emphasis on the documentation of processes. For example, with compliance standards related to data security, organizations have to maintain clear records on who has had access to data sets. This documentation will also be subject to periodic audits by third parties to ensure compliance (which is why it's important to have a software license compliance audit checklist).
What is the difference between IT security and IT compliance?
There may be significant overlaps between the organization’s IT security and compliance practices. But while the goal of IT security is to protect the organization and its clients and customers, the focus of IT compliance is more towards protecting the clients, their assets, and their data. And while the IT security strategy of organizations may vary even within an industry, the compliance standards remain consistent at least within an industry.
IT compliance requirements also tend to be very specific, for example, implement 256-bit encryption for all payment transactions or enable two-factor authentication for logins. And IT security is more about the goals, and the methods and practices may vary.
Lapses in IT compliance may incur severe penalties from the respective authorities. At best the company can lose certifications and at worst you may face revenue loss, significant fines, along with other measures from regulatory authorities. Lapses in IT security can take down the business processes of the entire company, damage the assets of the company and its customers, can result in loss of company and consumer data, and on top of that, they may incur fines or other penalties from government agencies.
Why is IT compliance necessary?
In very simple terms, IT compliance is necessary for an organization to remain in business.
IT compliance is necessary to work with clients and customers
Following certain standards and having certification assures potential customers that your organization is trustworthy enough to work with; that your services will have a certain level of quality and security.
For example, the ISO 20000-1 standard dictates how an organization will handle the planning, designing, and delivery of services and how the organization and clients will define the requirements. This ensures that both the client and the organization clearly understand what’s expected of each other. In the case of ISO/IEC 27001, it requires that the organization is constantly evaluating its information security risk management strategies and assures clients about how your organization will safely handle their data
Another factor is that your client may be working with multiple service providers. And if all of these providers are following different practices or standards, this will complicate things for the client. But with IT compliance, the client simply has to choose providers that follow a consistent standard which will greatly simplify processes on their end.
Lapses in IT compliance can lead you to lose your clients. It can also affect your reputation and may cause you to lose potential business and clients.
Even in B2C companies, IT compliance lapses can be costly. Violations garner a lot of media attention and can damage your reputation; customers can lose their trust and may turn to other brands. A 2019 customer survey by PingIdentity showed that 81% of customers would stop interacting online with a brand after a data breach, including 25% who said they would stop interacting in any capacity. This can seriously affect an organization’s revenue and stock value.
IT compliance is necessary to avoid fines and other penalties from regulatory agencies
With GDPR, the EU empowers authorities to impose fines up to $24.1 million or 4% of global annual turnover for a company, whichever is higher. For willful HIPAA violations, criminal penalties start at a minimum of $50,000 and may even include a jail term. Violations of other IT regulations can also incur similar penalties.
On top of this, these lapses can result in lengthy expensive investigations which can erode customer trust.
How can IT security and IT compliance work together?
While organizations cannot limit themselves to IT compliance to manage their risk, it can certainly act as a starting point.
There’s often a significant gap between what compliance standards expect and what the organization needs to do to secure their IT. Standards and regulations are often very broad strokes and not specific for an organization or its customers. But they certainly mitigate the IT risks and can act as the bare minimum upon which you can build your IT security strategy.
For example, most standards, particularly related to information security specify strict access control requirements. Organizations are required to manage and document who has access to what. And IT security can build upon this to improve the overall safety of the IT network, by defining access management protocols for different assets.