Compliance rates between audits increased substantially across all PCI DSS requirements except for security testing, according to a report released Wednesday by Verizon.
The average increase was 18 percentage points, the report said, with 20 percent of companies validated as compliant in their interim reports, up from just 11 percent in 2013 and 7.5 percent in 2012.
However, this means that 80 percent of companies are out of compliance between audits.
"While the trend is improving, it is still definitely low," said Rodolphe Simonetti, Verizon's managing director for governance risk and compliance consulting services.
In particular, the ratio of companies compliant on Requirement 11, testing security systems, dropped from 40 to 33 percent.
"Checking your security, having a regular scan, penetration testing -- these should be security 101 for many companies," Simonetti said.
Companies were most likely to be in compliance with Requirement 7, restricting access, where 89 percent of companies were compliant between audits, last year, up from 60 percent in 2013.
The biggest improvement was in Requirement 8, authenticating access, where compliance more than doubled from 33 percent to 69 percent.
This year, Verizon compared the compliance results to its statistics about breached companies.
"We checked all the organizations that had data breaches," said Simonetti. "When we dug into the details, PCI DSS compliance in breached companies was 36 percentage points lower than average. That's a huge difference. And when we do forensic investigations, over the past ten years, not a single organization was found to be PCI compliant at the time of the breach."
Verizon is the world's biggest forensic investigator of breaches, he said.
"The more compliant you are, the less likely you are to suffer a breach," he said.
However, he added that PCI compliance does not guarantee perfect security.
"PCI is a baseline," he said. "It is the floor, not the ceiling."
Scope and sustainability
According to Simonetti, companies still have quite a bit of work to do in terms of narrowing the focus of their PCI DSS program, and making it an ongoing process.
"We still feel that a lot of companies are trying to apply the PCI DSS requirements across the entire organization," he said.
This makes compliance unnecessarily expensive and difficult to achieve.
The requirements only apply to the people, processes and technology that touch, store or transmit cardholder data or that can affect its security.
Making the scope of compliance smaller reduces risk, workload, and costs.
This is an opportunity for companies to improve their processes, Simonetti added.
"If you store less cardholder data in fewer places, it reduces the opportunities for breaches to occur and limits the damage that a breach can cause," said the report.
In addition, every system that can be taken out of scope is one less system that needs to be validated for compliance, which reduces both the amount of work required, and its cost.
"Working on scoping before checking on the actual compliance is critical," said Simonetti.
Scoping can also make help companies make compliance an ongoing, regular part of doing business.
"Do not approach compliance as a firedrill -- it is not an annual exercise," he said.