Compliance vs. SecurityBy Adrian Lane
Reading Bill Brenner’s PCI Security a Devil, ‘Like No Child Left Behind’, I had the impression Brenner’s summary of Joshua Corman’s presentation would be: Joshua was %#!*$ crazy. In a nutshell:
“Organizations have made PCI DSS and compliance in general the basis of their information security policies,” he said. “They’re basing security on sloppy logic from Visa and MasterCard and in the process are ignoring some very bad state-sponsored threats. As a community, we have not evolved at all.”
You have to read the whole article to fully grasp Corman’s nuances, and note that some of the inflammatory additions seem to be Bill’s, rather than direct quotes from Joshua. Still, while there are points I agree with, Corman seems to have connected the dots arbitrarily. Not only do I not see general security policies being based off compliance initiatives, I don’t buy the argument that compliance is at the expense of security. Is there overlap? Absolutely. But the recognized lack of security is motivated by completely different forces. In the presence of evidence that many organizations are doing the absolute minumum to comply with regulations, how can you suppose that they would voluntarily invest in security without compliance requirements? Why would companies take a risk-based approach to spending efficiently, when they really don’t want to spend at all?
To me, companies embody the approach of The Three Wise Monkeys: “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.”
Regulations espouse the ideals of safety, security and efficacy, and companies want tasks performed cheaply, quickly, and easily. Regulation is supposed to alter the way companies do business, providing guidance on how to realize the ideal. Companies often handle compliance as just another task, and try to address it from within the same processes the compliance mandate is designed to reform. If companies could be trusted to come close to the ideals and intentions, we would not have auditors.
Part of Corman’s presentation seems to be a derivative of his 8 Dirty Secrets presentation (summarized), where part 6 discusses how “Compliance Threatens Security”. Do I think that security product vendors are “…offering products that do everything from offer PCI compliance out of the box to ultimate cure-alls for healthcare entities coping with the demands of HIPAA”? Absolutely. But this was the cheapest, fastest and easiest way to comply. Take Sarbanes-Oxley as an example: products like Database Activity Monitoring and Log Management are the only way to achieve some of the required controls over automated financial systems that process millions of transactions a day. The fact that these unique data collection and analysis capabilities came from a security vendor is incidental. The security investment was made to satisfy a compliance mandate, not for the sake of security. The fact that the tools provide security as well is a by-product for many vendors and customers, often considered unimportant or incidental.
If I was going to create my own Dirty Little Secret list, I would say most companies treat security as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Security tools that are bought to fulfill compliance have a bad habit of illuminating threats companies really don’t want to know about. They want to pass their compliance audits and not worry about other problems problems discovered … those just lead to additional expenses. If you doubt my cynical perspective, look at how most firms react when told their corporate network is host to 5,000 bots that just commenced a DDOS attack on another company: they tend to threaten suit for invasion of privacy or libel. Another example we see is that a high percentage of companies have web application firewalls for PCI, but run them as monitors rather than proxies! They need to have WAF to comply with PCI, so they bought one, but no one mandateed they use it effectively. Security professionals really care about security, but the executive management cares precisely as much as legal and finance tells them to.
I think security is a really hard problem, and far too often our attempts at security are flawed. I just don’t see any evidence that risk management is subjugated to compliance.