‘Compliance fatigue’ sets in

Yes, compliance with multiple security frameworks is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But those who defend it point out that being breached causes much worse headaches

Luca Sartoni (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Compliance with information security regulations is supposed to be, as the most recent iteration of the PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) puts it, “business as usual.”

But many organizations feel like they are drowning in such a sea of regulations that constant compliance with them all doesn’t give them much time to run their usual business.

Indeed the number of compliance frameworks, most aimed at specific industries but sometimes overlapping, amount to an alphabet soup that could make an IT manager’s eyes glaze over before even starting to look at the fine print.

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The best known, because it affects credit card security (and there have been so many high-profile breaches in the retail sector), is the PCI DSS. But the list goes on … and on.

There is SOX (Sarbanes Oxley), aimed at protecting investors from accounting fraud; HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) to protect personally identifiable information (PII) within healthcare; NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), overseeing industry; NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation) for energy suppliers; FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act), which applies to federal agencies; FACTA (Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act), aimed at protecting against identity theft; ISO 27K, which provides best-practice recommendations on information security management; and more.

To the surprise of no one in the industry, a lot of organizations aren’t keeping up.

Verizon’s “2015 Compliance and Security Report," released earlier this month, did report some good news – that compliance rates between audits increased by an average of 18% across 11 of the 12 requirements.

But in a number of cases, it meant starting from a very low bar. The percentage of companies validated as compliant in their interim reports increased 9%, but that improvement raised it to only 20%.

Other surveys showed similar gaps between goals and reality. A DataMotion survey found that about three-quarters of the respondents said their employees occasionally violate their compliance and security policies, many of them doing so knowingly so they can get their jobs done.

Another survey, by Proficio, found only 43% of respondents saying they met PCI DSS 3.0 standards when they became mandatory on Jan. 1, although 90 percent believed they would be compliant within six months.

Why the gap? Some call it compliance fatigue. According to Craig Isaacs, CEO of Unified Compliance Framework, “compliance is already out of control, and we expect security regulations and standards to become increasingly stringent in the year ahead. Most organizations have no idea what is actually required of them because they have no way of seeing all the requirements at once,” he said.

Rich Mogull, analyst and CEO at Securosis, says this is nothing new. “It’s been this way for at least 10 years, maybe longer,” he said. “People have been grumbling about it since SOX hit (in 2002), and some CISOs spend 30% or more of their time dealing with compliance issues.”

And many smaller organizations are only dimly aware of PCI DSS or not at all. Troy Leach, CTO of the PCI SSC (Security Standards Council) told Politico last fall that regional resellers of Point of Sale (PoS) systems that have suffered multiple breaches, “when asked about PCI compliance, have never heard of the organization.”

Where the fault lies for the lack of compliance is a matter of some dispute. Mogull, who has been scathing in his criticism of PCI DSS in the past, calls the framework, “a way for the card brands to push risk onto the merchants and payment processors.

“Small businesses shouldn’t have to understand it,” he said, “especially since most of them totally outsource their payment systems. Those providers are the ones that matter and need to know about it.”

But others argue that credit card providers are only one player in the system, and improving security requires an investment from everybody, at all levels.

“Many merchants want the card companies to ‘fix the system,’ whatever that means,” said Anton Chuvakin, research director, security and risk management at Gartner for Technical Professionals. “So my question is: ‘OK, will you, merchants, be willing to chip in? After all, you are as much of a stakeholder in this.’ Until now, the answer was ‘no,’ in my experience.”

Julie Conroy, analyst with Aite Group, said the frustration with compliance is understandable. “It’s expensive, unsexy, and produces no revenue,” she said. “On the business side, many still consider security considerations a tiresome obstacle to quick time to market.”

But she added that while merchants don’t like the blame being placed on them for breaches, “the reality is that the merchant is where the data resides in the current model, and where the compromises are taking place.”

She and others also say the headaches of compliance are minor compared with those that would be caused by a major breach. She offers an example from one of the biggest players in the business – Apple.

“I’ve spoken with banks whose security guys were not brought into the discussion about the Apple Pay launch until the 11th hour. The result: fraud rates that are nearly 80 times the industry average,” she said.

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