Security and Compliance

A common error is to think that because a system, solution, process, company, person, or other entity is not compliant with a particular standard, it’s insecure. It’s not a grievous error, and is an understandable one to make which doesn’t cause any harm (except occasionally causing more investment in security, which is usually a good thing anyway).

The flip side of this is where the problem comes in – when the assumption is made that because an entity is compliant with a particular standard or standards it is secure.

The reason that people often fall into this error is because compliance is straight-forward (not necessarily easy): it’s a very binary set of conditions to meet in order to be compliant, and if you fail them you’re not compliant. It’s a very easy idea to understand, and quite comforting to conflate with the idea of being secure – because compliance is achievable. Security is not.

In a similar way to illness in people, compliance is the regular checkup with the doctor who confirms that you’re in a fine state of health, because you don’t have any symptoms on the checklist. A year later the heart attack hits, because not only were the predictive symptoms not on the list, but the doctor’s reassuring words convinced the patient they could be a little lazier and put less work into their fitness.

It isn’t that compliance and standards aren’t important, they are, very much so. It’s that they simply should not be the one measuring point used to determine whether or not something is secure. In fact they shouldn’t be used to determine whether something is secure at all. At most a few days after a standard is written, it’ll have sections that are out of date. Security moves fast, and standards bodies have no real way to keep up without moving to a living standards model – which would be a completely different discussion.

Security is an aspiration, not a goal that can be reached through checklists. The checklists help, but the important aspects of genuinely continuously improving security are a company culture which takes security seriously, security subject matter experts always looking to make justified improvements to reduce risk, a high value placed on using actionable threat intelligence to anticipate and prevent incidents, and instilling a culture of security knowledge, engagement and awareness throughout the entirety of an organisation.

Or to sum it all up with a nice little aphorism, we must be careful not to confuse the map for the territory.

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