This is a classic chicken/egg question but it’s too often thought to be the same. Take it from Merriam – Webster:
Compliance: (1a) the act or process of complying to a desire, demand, proposal, or regimen or to coercion. (1b) conformity in fulfilling official requirements. (2) a disposition to yield to others.
Security: (1) the quality or state of being secure. (4a) something that secures : protection. (4b1) measures taken to guard against espionage or sabotage, crime, attack, or escape. (4b2) an organization or department whose task is security.
Clearly they are not the same. Compliance means you meet a technical or non-technical requirement and periodically someone verifies that you have met them.
Compliance requirements are established by standards bodies, who obviously do not know your network. They are established for the common good because of industry wide concerns that information is not protected, usually because the security is poor. When you see an emphasis of compliance over security, it’s too often because the organization does not want to take the time to ensure that the network and information is secure, so they rely on compliance requirements to feel better about their security.
The problem with that is that it gives a false sense of hope. It gives the impression that if you check this box; everything is going to be ok. Obviously this is far from true, with examples like Sony, Target, TJMaxx and so many other breaches. Although there are implementations of compliance that will make you more secure, you cannot base your companies’ security policy on a third party’s compliance requirements.
So what comes first? Wrong question! Let’s rephrase – there needs to be a healthy relationship between the two but one cannot substitute one for the other.