I don’t think many people have ever asked themselves what regulatory compliance has in common with immunization, but they should.  The fact of the matter is that these two have more in common than you think and understanding one will help you better understand the other and how to make better educated decisions.  In addition, there are trade-offs — both heath and economic — to the choices one makes in participating in vaccination and immunization programs.  The following addresses a few of these items and opens the doors for further conversation.

Why Comply? Why Vaccinate?

Immunization and vaccination are the process by which an individual or population is treated in order to fortify itself against attack from foreign bodies.  Vaccination against disease can help prevent contracting that pathogen in the future, and preventing multiple individuals in a population from becoming infected helps prevent the widespread outbreak and transmission of diseases such as smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, and anthrax.  By elevating the level of a population that is resistant to such attacks vaccines help protect the entire population from harm.

The problem is that although most all agree that vaccination is positive for the population not everyone agrees that it is positive for the individual.

Since vaccination began in the late 18th century, opponents have claimed that vaccines do not work, that they are or may be dangerous, that individuals should rely on personal hygiene instead, or that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights or religious principles.

Have we not heard similar arguments against regulatory compliance?  Individuals stating that:

  • My environment is already secure
  • I know how to manage risk better than the regulatory bodies
  • My environment is special and unique and does not fit into your Procrustean boxes

I’ve listened to people sing the virtues of regulatory compliance as often as I’ve heard other individual tell me “that sounds good but it’s not for me.”  I feel as if I’m mediating between the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and a troubled parent about why their child should be vaccinated before entering grade school.


Part I

One of the problems with understanding the complexity of the problem is that of perspective.  The CDC and the parent have very different perspectives on vaccines and immunization.  In the same way, the regulatory bodies and those who must comply with them have very different views on how to best apply data security practices.

For example, it is widely known by the payment card industry (PCI) that the majority of small and medium merchants use one of a few brands of payment application.  Many retail merchants use a Micros, VeriFone, or Radiant Aloha (restaurants) point of sale (POS) application.  This high level of homogeneity in a population lends itself to attract attackers (pathogens) who wish to take advantage of any vulnerabilities they can identify in these systems.

The PCI Council, who act as the CDC, along with the card brands mandate that software companies validate their applications against a given security standard (in this case the PA-DSS).  They then introduce these more secure applications into the population and the governing bodies mandate their use over less secure payment applications.

So why not just stop there?  If things were that easy, the CDC would only ever have to worry about one pathogen using one attack vector.  If we secure the retail payment applications, attackers will just move to other industries such as petrol (gas) stations, ski resorts, and florist shops.  To which the industry responds with Dresser Wayne or Gilbarco, SKIDATA, and Teleflora Dove validated payment applications respectively.  The validated payment application program targets to inoculate every industry against the dangers of retaining data most valuable to attackers.

Part II

But what about the individual restaurant owner who says they don’t need a validated payment application?  They claim all the reasons mentioned above from the specialized nature of their business or network to the secure risk management platform they have already implemented.  Why should they comply?

I do not have a good answer to the ‘why’ but I do have one for the ‘how’.  In fact, about 95% of the ‘PCI Wars’ debate going on today try to answer the question of “why” when this is as futile as debating intelligent design vs evolution (because both are based on separate and unequal premises.)  Debating why one should comply is futile as the rules state that everyone who “stores, process or transmits” such data must comply (as per the card brand operating regulations.)

The more interesting question is that of how one should comply.  These examples reference the PCI standards but could apply to just about any regulatory compliance mandate.  The way in which one complies can be taken at a high level.  For the PCI standards it implies preventing the paper and electronic theft of payment card data.  In fact, any way that your company decides to do this implies compliance with the standard.

If parents didn’t mind sending their children to school in hermetically sealed bubbles, then there would be less of a public policy need for them to be vaccinate against disease.  In this way, the parent and child could make their own decision about data security without harming or posing a risk to the rest of the population of school children and their parents.  If your company can, via whatever means at your disposal, hermetically seal itself against attacks then the matter of compliance is simply an exercise for the user in creative documentation, reporting, and compensating controls.  The problem is, many companies over estimate their security controls and thus cause a break in the structure of data security.

Economics of Immunization and Compliance

When approaching the economics of immunization one cannot ignore the population at hand.  For example, a poorer population will benefit more strongly from an immunization program than one that maintains a high level of sanitation, health care, and treatment programs.  To the same degree a more vulnerable population (e.g. retail, restaurants, higher education, e-commerce, etc.) will benefit more from regulatory compliance than one that is more highly secure (e.g. government systems).

In fact, one of the primary catalysts for regulatory compliance is the build up of problems (e.g. data breaches) within an industry followed by the punctuated equilibrium that brings about a response founded in legislative and regulatory action.

The cost of making a population more secure is relatively simple: require them to use more secure applications and systems.  The cost to the individual can vary along with the benefits.  The same applies to vaccines.

One could go their entire professional life without contracting the flu but this is rather rare in my experience.  Instead many people will get the flu vaccine each year on the off chance they will come in contact with the virus because being bed ridden for 1-2 weeks can be both painful and detrimental to the company.

So what!

The cause of action to vaccinate a population is to immunize them from each other.  The process involves a uniform across the board preemptive treatment that is meant to mitigate risks, not prevent them entirely.  In the same way, regulatory bodies craft legislation as a one-size-fits all in order to protect the population from each other.  The individual implementation should see this as guidance and not a rule without exceptions.

The details of how one protects themselves against attack and infection may be unique to each individual, but they still must comply with the overarching industry agreement to protect themselves and thus the population against attacks.  The implementation will vary, of course it will.  One size does not fit all.  But the industry needs a standard, a baseline, against which it can measure risk.  As new infections and outbreaks occur, the industry will change the baseline to match the new attacks.

Those who can visualize the various perspectives will have a greater visibility into how they can better fortify their individual organizations to both validate against industry mandates and manage risk based on their specific organizational behavior.