End(er’s) game: Compliance or Security?

Who do you fear more – The Auditor or The Attacker? The former plays by well-established rules, gives plenty of prior notice before arriving on your doorstep and is usually prepared to accept a Plan of Action with Milestones (POAM) in case of deficiencies. The latter gives no notice, never plays fair and will gleefully exploit any deficiencies. Notwithstanding this, most small enterprises, actually fear the auditor more and will jump through hoops to minimize their interaction. It’s ironic, because the auditor is really there to help; the attacker, obviously is not.

While it is true that 100% compliance is not achievable (or for that matter desirable), it is also true that even the most basic of steps towards compliance go a long way to deterring attackers. The comparison to the merits of physical exercise is an easy one. How often have you heard it said that even mild physical exercise (taking the steps instead of elevator) gives you benefit? You don’t have to be a gym rat, pumping iron for hours every day.

And so, to answer the question: What comes first, Compliance or Security? It’s Security really, because Compliance is a set of guidelines to help you get there with the help of an Auditor. Not convinced? The news is rife with accounts of exploits which in many cases are at organizations that have been certified compliant. Obviously there is no such thing as being completely secure, but will you allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good?

The National Institutes of Standards (NIST) released Rev 4 of its seminal publication 800-53, one that applies to US Government IT systems. As budgets (time, money, people) are always limited, it all begins with risk classification, applying  scarce resources in order of value. There are other guidelines such as the SANS Institute Consensus Audit Guidelines to help you make the most of limited resources.

You may not have trained like Ender Wiggin from a very young age through increasingly difficult games, but it doesn’t take a tactical genius to recognize “Buggers” as attackers and Auditors as the frenemies.

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