What is the Difference Between Cybersecurity and Compliance?

Cyber Security and Compliance

Words like cybersecurity and compliance are often interchangeable without much care taken with how they differ. But make no mistake: while they are related practices, both are different approaches to a common problem of cybersecurity threats. 

Here we break down the differences and, more importantly, why these differences are important for when you have to meet compliance requirements or undergo audits. 

What is Cybersecurity?

While it seems that cybersecurity is a clear and evident thing, it isn’t for everyone. When it comes to compliance anCyber Security and Complianced standards, cybersecurity can be a deceptively complex undertaking.

Simply put, cybersecurity is the processes and practices that you put into place to protect your IT infrastructure, including data, networks and any cloud assets or applications. 

Now, when we think of security in that regard, we think that means solutions like antivirus or firewall technologies. And it does, in part. But implementing security controls across all of the systems that we mentioned above means that “cybersecurity” is a complex infrastructure in itself, a system of inter-related solutions that can address not only immediate threats but potential threats that come into being simply through the way your different systems interact with each other. 

Consider the SolarWinds hack. For the most part, SolarWinds followed high security standards. But a simple breach of their patching system, along with vulnerabilities in authentication management, meant that the hackers could infiltrate systems used by SolarWinds and their customers. It is often these unforeseen attacks that can make a system vulnerable. 

With that in mind, cybersecurity covers several levels of engagement:

  1. Technical: The bread-and-butter of security. This is all about closing security gaps in software and hardware, implementing upgrades and patches in the face of new threats, hardening potential attack surfaces and so on.
  2. Physical: Access to computer systems can be just as dangerous as a remote hacker attacking a vulnerable server. Physical security covers things like access to data rooms or servers, protections for endpoint devices, protection against theft of data from places like dumpsters and more.
  3. Administrative: Phishing is still one of the biggest security threats mainly because it’s still easy to fool people into giving up security credentials. Administrative security involves training, education and information resources that support best security practices and repercussions for non-compliance or data theft. 

As you may have guessed, cybersecurity can get complicated when juggling threats across all of these different areas. Nonetheless, cybersecurity is not only important but necessary in today’s modern digital landscape. That’s because security provides necessary support across almost every operation of your business, including:

  • Protecting customer and client data against theft
  • Protecting work networks against packet sniffing or re-routing
  • Improving business resiliency against attacks or disasters
  • Building reputation with customers looking for a reliable service partner
  • Maintaining compliance with industry regulations

This last bullet is often the most important catalyst for cybersecurity maintenance for most businesses. 


What is Compliance?

“Compliance” means adherence to cybersecurity regulations put into place by a governing body or certification board to demonstrate a specific level of security. Whereas cybersecurity includes all the tools, processes and operations in place to protect data, compliance is aligning those security systems with one or more required documents.

So, what does that mean for your organization? It means that, depending on your industry, you’ll have to meet one or more compliance standards:

  • For providers in the healthcare industry, you must follow HIPAA compliance. This includes extensive and rigorous security requirements covering data encryption, risk assessment, privacy controls and administrative and physical security practices to maintain the privacy and integrity of patient information. This is true for everyone handling protected data, with no exceptions, and it is enforced by the government.
  • Providers in the federal government space usually will meet some standard based on the area they work in. Cloud providers for non-classified federal agencies must meet NIST 800-53 or FedRAMP requirements for data protection. Providers in the Defense Industrial based (DIB) or working with Department of Defense (DoD) agencies must meet NIST 800-171 and DFARS (soon to be supplemented by or replaced by CMMC). This is also, obviously, enforced by the government.
  • Any organization managing credit card payments will adhere to PCI DSS, which governs how you handle customer credit card data at the point of sale, over data transfers and at rest in a server. This standard is created and maintained by the major credit card providers (Visa, Mastercard and American Express) and as such isn’t governed by a government agency. However, not adhering to these requirements can make it difficult, if not impossible, to accept credit or debit cards as a form of payment.
  • SOC 2 is a security and privacy standard created by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) to promote solid cybersecurity and risk assessment for organizations. SOC 2 is an independent compliance standard that many organizations undertake to demonstrate their commitment to security. 

These are not the only cybersecurity frameworks by a longshot. They are some of the most prominent, however, and demonstrate that compliance can be a mandatory or voluntary practice that organizes your security measures against a specific goal or posture. 


How Is Cybersecurity Different from Compliance?

To understand the difference between the two, it’s important to understand the concept of risk.

Risk (and associated terms like risk management and risk assessment) represents the threats that your IT system faces due to existing threats and gaps in cybersecurity controls. Following this, risk assessment is observing and recording areas where threats could impact the system, and risk management is the practice of strategizing threat remediation against business goals and existing infrastructure. 

Compliance is, in many ways, the art and science of managing risk. No system is impenetrable, but evolving security systems can meet more modern security threats. Compliance standards, therefore, outline blueprints that can help organizations protect important or protected data from these threats. Following that, cybersecurity measures are components of a compliance strategy and configuration. 

More succinctly, cybersecurity measures are on-the-ground factors that address real security threats. This can include encryption algorithms for file transfers, email warnings for incoming emails sent from outside your organization, fingerprint scanners on laptops and everything in between. 

Compliance is the blueprint for how those controls work together to eliminate, as much as possible, the risk of attack across disparate systems. Regulations help you by outlining auditing processes that look at big-picture items like comprehensive Identity Access Management schemas, encryption requirements for the entire data life cycle and audit logging and trail maintenance for diagnostic purposes. 



Compliance and cybersecurity are different, but they play important roles in ensuring the integrity and security of the data you manage every day. Continuum GRC combines industry expertise with automated audits to help you align your existing security infrastructure with compliance and business goals.

Continuum GRC is proactive cybersecurity®. Call 1-888-896-6207 to discuss your organization’s cybersecurity needs and find out how we can help your organization protect its systems and ensure compliance.


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