Digital security compliance programs and policies serve as powerful tools for protecting organizations' intellectual property, sensitive resources, customers, and employees through mandated security controls. Organizations place a significant emphasis on compliance and often conflate high compliance audit scores with strong security; however, no compliance standard has been systemically evaluated for security concerns that may exist even within fully-compliant organizations. In this study, we describe our approach for auditing three exemplar compliance standards that affect nearly every person within the United States: standards for federal tax information, credit card transactions, and the electric grid. We partner with organizations that use these standards to validate our findings within enterprise environments and provide first-hand narratives describing impact.
We find that when compliance standards are used literally as checklists --- a common occurrence, as confirmed by compliance experts --- their technical controls and processes are not always sufficient. Security concerns can exist even with perfect compliance. We identified 148 issues of varying severity across three standards; our expert partners assessed 49 of these issues and validated that 36 were present in their own environments and 10 could plausibly occur elsewhere. We also discovered that no clearly-defined process exists for reporting security concerns associated with compliance standards; we report on our varying levels of success in responsibly disclosing our findings and influencing revisions to the affected standards. Overall, our results suggest that auditing compliance standards can provide valuable benefits to the security posture of compliant organizations.