The Republicans may have fallen short in the elections this week, but that didn't stop conservative Newt Gingrich from making news: The erstwhile antiregulator is now calling for the repeal of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.Gingrich's rationale seems cogent. With the downturn in the economy, he reasons, the cost of SOX compliance has become too high, essentially levying an unseen "tax" on companies that are publicly traded or thinking about an IPO. Recent studies would seem to bear out Gingrich's thinking, indicating that the cost of compliance is going up, not down.
I would argue, however, that Gingrich's argument focuses too heavily on the "cost" side of the equation and not enough on the benefit side. Yes, compliance is expensive, and from a security pro's perspective, it's a royal pain in the ass. But for the past several years, it has also been a boon, both to the security department and to the IT security industry as a whole.
SOX, and other compliance efforts like it, has done something that has never been done before: It forced upper management to pay attention to security. No matter how good your business case, there's nothing like a legal requirement to motivate the top brass to fund security initiatives. For several years now, SOX has been a primary driver behind security spending, and it has clearly made an impact on security initiatives in most large companies.
Now, don't get me wrong. If we've learned nothing else in the past few years, it's that compliance does not equal security. A lot of compliance dollars are misspent, and, quite honestly, some are a complete waste of money. The vagueness of compliance requirements and the whims of auditors and consultants have done a good deal to widen that rathole.
But smart enterprises have used the additional dollars -- and the attention of top management -- as a lever to expand their security efforts and shore up vulnerabilities that they might never have been able to address without SOX. By itself, compliance may not be worth its cost. But as a motivator to expand security efforts, it has been invaluable.
Of course, the security benefits are only part of the equation. Compliance also has caused many enteprises to rethink their approach to auditing, risk management, and IT governance. It has forced them to look at the question of what might happen in their organizations. And, of course, it quite likely has done what it set out to do -- discouraged insiders from cooking the book a la Enron and Worldcom.
I don't think there's any company that likes compliance or doesn't see it as a burden. But while it might relieve some short-term costs, a complete repeal of SOX could, in Gingrich's words, do more harm than good. Before regulators consider his proposal, they would do well to look at the benefit side of the equation, as well as the cost. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio