As cyberattacks continue to proliferate, it’s clear that organizations must be prepared from both cybersecurity and compliance standpoints. It’s critical, however, to understand that while data security and compliance are both important for risk management and the prevention and mitigation of cyber attacks, the two concepts are definitely not the same.

Data security, or IT security, is the set of processes, controls, and technologies used to secure a company’s sensitive data and assets. For example, data security is the implementation of penetration testing to test the security defenses in place, or the use of firewalls to protect a company’s internal networks from unauthorized external traffic.

Compliance refers to a company’s adherence to regulatory standards and security frameworks to meet its contractual obligations or legal requirements. For example, any retail business that handles customers’ cardholder data must implement the security controls outlined by the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) framework to demonstrate compliance. Businesses handling personal health information must comply with security standards dictated by HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

How do Compliance and Security Differ?

Security and compliance are two sides of the same coin, in that they aim to fulfill the same purpose: manage cyber risk. There are, however, some differences between the two.


  • Implemented solely to protect the data, devices, and users within the corporate IT environment from internal and external cyber threats.
  • Driven by a need to protect critical data assets, intellectual property, and customer data from being compromised by cybercriminals.
  • Must evolve continually and be updated to keep up with the latest cyber attacks and threats; there is no “final version” of effective security.
  • Enforced by the business itself, rather than outside regulatory obligations.
  • Managed by an IT security team that usually reports to a chief information security officer.


  • Implemented to assure the company adheres to relevant industry frameworks and regulations put in place by governing bodies.
  • Driven by the need for a business to operate successfully and to avoid incurring monetary penalties.
  • Achieved as soon as the compliance standards are met. The only caveat is that once the company meets the standards, compliance must be maintained.
  • Enforced by the party that demanded compliance, whether that is a potential customer, a government agency, or some other third party.
  • Managed by one or two compliance managers who may report up to a chief compliance officer.

Any organization that wants to minimize its cyber risk — and therefore its business risk — must manage both IT security and compliance. In some instances, an organization may choose to prioritize compliance over security, although this is not advised.

Rather than choosing the tools and technologies needed to protect against the specific vulnerabilities impacting the business, the security team may use the compliance framework to implement the bare minimum security requirements.

What Is Compliance in Security?

Compliance in security refers to the policies and practices implemented as part of the overall security program to adhere to security frameworks such as HIPAA, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), or the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The frameworks that organizations must comply with depend on the industry, or the type of data they transmit, handle, or store.

What Are the Differences Between Compliance and Non-Compliance?

From an information security standpoint, if an organization is compliant with relevant frameworks, they have fulfilled all the core requirements outlined by the framework.

On the other hand, non-compliance refers to an organization’s lack of adherence to one or more requirements outlined in the framework. This means the company will be found in violation of its compliance obligations and might suffer monetary penalties or other consequences.

It’s important to note that the reason behind non-compliance rarely matters to a regulator. The non-compliance is what matters, period.

What is Non-compliant Security?

Non-compliant security refers to a security program that’s designed in such a way that the organization doesn’t comply with the compliance requirements.

For example, one rule that healthcare organizations must follow under HIPAA is the Breach Notification Rule, which states that if a data breach occurs, covered entities must notify all affected individuals. Even if the covered entity follows all other compliance requirements under HIPAA but doesn’t notify affected individuals after a data breach, the company will be considered non-compliant.

What Is Security and Compliance Management?

Security and compliance management refers to how IT security professionals plan, develop, and maintain a security program to protect data, systems, devices, and networks so that the program aligns with the required compliance standards. Moreover, any processes or policies implemented must be dynamic, since compliance standards are always changing.

For example, PCI DSS has 12 core requirements that a company must comply with, such as installing and maintaining firewalls to protect cardholder data and maintaining a policy that addresses information security for all personnel. So as the security team creates the information security processes and policies, and implements necessary tools and technologies, they must keep those 12 compliance requirements in mind.

Since a company’s security program is created ultimately to reduce cyber risk, its security needs will depend on the specific threats and vulnerabilities affecting whatever industry the company is in. Compliance, however, will play an integral role in the security program as well, since many industry compliance frameworks are rooted in strengthening the security posture of the company.

How Automation Helps Security and Compliance Requirements

ZenGRC’s governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) platform allows you to manage both your security and compliance requirements in one easy-to-use program. Schedule a demo today to learn how it works and how it could transform your business operations.