Learn the difference between IT security and IT compliance

A man in an office learns about the difference between IT security and IT compliance.

IT security and IT compliance often work hand-in-hand, but this relationship can make it challenging to tell the two disciplines apart. This confusion makes it difficult to separate the distinct roles that come with security and compliance. In fact, confusing the two could ultimately hurt the security of your organization.

Check out this guide to understand the differences between IT security and compliance. We’ll explain how the two terms are different and how you can adjust your security protocols to stay both safe and compliant.

In this article, you’ll learn:

Overview of IT security vs. IT compliance

IT security involves the infrastructure and processes used to protect your business from breaches and cyberattacks, while IT compliance focuses on meeting regulatory and industry requirements through a compliant setup.

It’s easy to tie IT security and IT compliance together because they’re both IT functions, but they aren’t the same. Compliance is not security — and compliance alone doesn’t always achieve security.

Though they’re separate concepts, the link between IT security and IT compliance is enough to make people question how different they really are. In reality, you can’t think about creating the strongest and most secure system for your organization without considering the protocols you’re required to follow and whether compliance is enough to cover your needs.

What is IT security?

IT security is the systems, controls, infrastructure, and processes you have in place for your organization’s hardware and software that protect you from accidental or malicious security incidents. The goal of IT security is to lock down your devices, software, and network so they’re as vulnerability-free as possible.

You can’t prevent every data breach, hack, or unintentional leak, but following IT security best practices significantly reduces the chances of a security or data breach.

Organizations invest in IT security to prevent hackers and other threats from affecting the organization’s ability to function. Hackers will take down business systems either for profit — through ransomware attacks that can cost millions of dollars — or just for the challenge. Data breaches can hurt your company’s reputation and lead customers to not trust you with their information.

It’s impossible to block every potential threat, but IT security aims to mitigate the damage done when an attack is successful. For example, if your IT security team proactively segments your network, that can significantly limit a hacker’s access to your systems — and reduce the impact of an attack.

As modern threat agents become increasingly sophisticated, the tools that security analysts and officers use should also become more complex. A solid IT security plan includes controls for physical security (like cameras and locks), technical security (like antivirus), and administrative security (like IT policies).

IT security is multifaceted, but these are some of the most common categories of security tools:

  1. IT infrastructure. These tools monitor your infrastructure for any weaknesses or abnormalities. They check your performance, availability, and logs to give you more visibility into your infrastructure as a whole.
  2. Network access. Who — or what — has access to your corporate network? Network access control (NAC) software gives you the power to manage who connects to your network, on which devices, and on what terms. In an age of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and remote-first work, this is a must.
  3. Authentication. Single sign-on isn’t secure. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and two-factor authentication (2FA) tools make it easier to prove a user’s authenticity every time they access your network.
  4. User training. Human error is the leading cause of all cyberattacks. User training tools educate your employees on cybersecurity best practices so they can stay on the lookout for potential threats.
IT security involves the infrastructure and processes you have in place to protect your business from breaches and cyberattacks, while IT compliance focuses on meeting regulatory and industry requirements through a compliant IT setup.

What is IT compliance?

The purpose of IT compliance is to keep business operations in line with the law. This means a company can have an IT security plan and still be out of compliance.

For example, your security plan might overlook encryption. But end-to-end encryption is a HIPAA requirement for healthcare providers, so if HIPAA applies to your organization, you could be out of compliance — and at risk of serious fines.

IT compliance involves the steps a business takes to ensure its technology, operations, and work processes follow both legal and industrial requirements. IT compliance looks at the security policies created by the IT security team, ensuring they tick all of the boxes required from a legal and regulatory perspective.

IT compliance rules are usually provided by a third party, such as the US government or governing bodies like the Office for Civil Rights, which enforces the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules.

While the risks of IT security involve data breaches and hacks, the risks are just as high with IT compliance. Without compliance, you could risk:

If you operate a digital-first business, you must comply with relevant regulations. For example, if your website is accessible to European Union users, you must follow GDPR guidelines.

IT compliance centers around adhering to third-party requirements, including:

  1. Industry regulations. Many industries create their own guidelines to ensure safety and performance. If your business needs certification or approval from an industry body, you’ll likely have to meet certain IT compliance standards to retain their approval. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is a great example.
  2. Government policies. Government regulations are the most well-known type of IT compliance requirements. They include common IT compliance standards like the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and payment card industry (PCI) requirements.
  3. Security frameworks. Organizations follow many IT compliance frameworks either by requirement or on a voluntary basis. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and HIPAA are some of the most common frameworks.
  4. Client or customer contractual terms. It isn’t unusual for companies to require their vendors to meet certain IT requirements for compliance reasons. For example, you must sign a business associate agreement (BAA) if you serve healthcare businesses. Even if you don’t work in healthcare, you might find that your customers ask you to adhere to certain requirements to keep their data safe.

Key differences between IT security and IT compliance

IT security is designed to protect your company against theft, loss, and breaches. It ensures that outsiders don’t access your proprietary information and guards you against the financial damages that often come with expensive hacks.

IT compliance, on the other hand, focuses on creating systems that keep your organization compliant with third-party requirements. It touches on all aspects of your business, from your IT setup to data access. The ultimate goal of IT compliance is to reduce risks in your organization so you can avoid the financial and legal nightmares that come with falling out of compliance.

A graphic describes the difference between IT security and IT compliance.

How IT security and IT compliance align

Although they’re two different disciplines, there are several ways that security and compliance align, with the ultimate goal of keeping your organization safe, productive, and compliant.

The shared theme between IT security and IT compliance is risk management. Security and compliance are both extremely important practices in your organization’s risk management toolbox.

Ideally, your security measures and compliance needs will be in alignment, but that isn’t always the case. For example, sometimes security measures are implemented, but they don’t tick all the checkboxes for compliance. Your team might have to go back and reconfigure specific security settings, such as authentication, to meet your compliance obligations.

Turning security tools into a compliant IT system requires more effort because you need to create an alliance between security and compliance — in a systematic and controlled way.

Your organization should adopt some security measures to help protect your business data and use compliance to offer strategies to align your organization with industry best practices and the law. Compliance will help identify gaps in your existing IT security program while helping your organization create a standardized security program.

Is your organization secure and compliant?

IT security and compliance are so often linked together that they’re either confused or interchanged, but compliance doesn’t equal security on its own. Understanding that the two have a symbiotic — not interchangeable — relationship can help organizations remain secure and compliant. At the end of the day, it’s equally important to invest in both IT security and IT compliance to keep your organization productive, efficient, and safe.

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Check out the Adobe Experience Manager overview video or watch the overview video for Cloud Service to get started.