SOC 2 Audit Guide: Key Challenges and Best Practices

SOC 2 Audit Guide: Key Challenges and Best Practices

In today’s digital world, ensuring the security and privacy of your company’s data has become a top priority. This is where SOC 2 audits come into play, offering a comprehensive evaluation of your organization’s information systems and controls. However, understanding the complexities of SOC 2 audits, their need, and how to navigate their challenges is essential. That’s why we have created this guide to help you navigate the key challenges and best practices of SOC 2 audits. With the right knowledge and strategies, you can successfully implement these audits and create impactful audit reports that demonstrate your commitment to data security and compliance. 

What is a SOC 2 Audit?

For many organizations, the terms SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3 might seem like an alphabet soup of acronyms, but they represent distinct audit processes outlined by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Each type of SOC (System and Organization Controls – formerly Service Organization Controls) audit serves a unique purpose and focuses on different areas within an organization’s controls. SOC 1 is concerned primarily with financial reporting, whereas SOC 3, which are Type II reports, provides a general-use high-level summary of a SOC 2 attestation report and is intended for public consumption. SOC 3 reports do not include confidential information or the details of a SOC 2 report.

In contrast, a SOC 2 audit specifically evaluates the controls in a service organization related to security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. The importance of a SOC 2 audit cannot be overstated for any service organization, particularly those dealing with customer data and cloud services. It’s not just a regulatory requirement but a testament to your company’s commitment to protecting client information and maintaining operational integrity. 

This is especially crucial in an era where data breaches and information security concerns are a day-to-day reality. An effective SOC 2 audit, conducted by a CPA, provides independent assurance that your organization’s controls are designed correctly and functioning over a specified period. It’s a key tool for demonstrating to stakeholders – from business partners, vendors, customers to potential investors – that your company is serious about managing and mitigating risk.

To fully appreciate the significance of the SOC 2 audit process, it’s important to consider it as more than just a compliance exercise. When done right, it offers critical insights into your operational efficiency and can serve as a roadmap for continuous improvement and business excellence.

The Need for SOC 2 Auditing in Service Organizations

As the digital landscape continues to expand, the need for SOC 2 compliance in service organizations is growing exponentially. Particularly, SaaS (Software as a Service) providers and data centers stand to benefit enormously from conducting a SOC 2 audit. This is because these types of organizations are often custodians of a vast amount of customer data, including sensitive information, which presents a rich target for potential data breaches. At the heart of SOC 2 auditing is the objective of assessing a service organization’s operational effectiveness and information security controls. 

This includes examining functionality, processing integrity, and data security program measures. These factors are especially significant in a SaaS context, where services are accessed remotely, and the provider’s systems are integral to the service delivery. Without robust controls, the risks of unauthorized access, data corruption, or even data loss are dramatically increased.

For data centers, a SOC 2 audit plays a similarly critical role. It assesses how well the data center is managed and safeguarded. It evaluates the extent to which the data center can protect the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of the data it hosts. Considering that data centers are typically repositories of large volumes of sensitive data, they must be able to demonstrate a high level of security and reliability. In short, SOC 2 auditing in service organizations is essential in today’s business landscape. It provides a comprehensive review of an organization’s internal controls, thereby building trust with clients and stakeholders, and assuring them that their data is being handled with utmost care.

SOC 2 Audit Types Unraveled

In the world of SOC 2 audits, we encounter three key players: Type I, Type II, and the SOC 2+ audit. Understanding their distinct roles is essential to determining which audit type best serves your organization’s needs. Starting with SOC 2 Type 1, think of this as a snapshot of your organization’s security controls at a specific time. Conducted by a licensed CPA firm, this audit type assesses whether your system is designed appropriately to meet the Trust Service Criteria (TSC). This assessment, however, does not evaluate the operational effectiveness of the controls.

Then we move on to the SOC 2 Type II audit, the stalwart of the lot. Commonly perceived as the most advantageous, this audit provides a comprehensive attestation of your security controls over a set duration, generally six months to a year. Visualize it as a perpetual readiness assessment, probing not just the design but also how effective the controls are when put into operation. It even identifies areas of risk and provides recommendations to bolster your security posture. In this manner, acquiring a Type II audit offers an elevated level of assurance to your clients and stakeholders, especially in cases where handling sensitive data and cloud services are involved.

Lastly, we arrive at the SOC 2+ audit. This audit stretches beyond the traditional SOC 2 framework by including extra standards like HITRUST, ISO 27001, or PCI DSS. This form of audit can be seen as a blend of standards, each carefully selected to fulfill specific industry norms and regulations.

While Type II may seem like the default choice, undertaking it requires rigorous planning and resource commitment due to its expansive coverage and lengthy period. Therefore, a strategic preparation approach is paramount to meet the stringent criteria set out by this audit type. Remember, the choice between these audit types depends on your unique circumstances. Service providers dealing with sensitive data, for instance, may benefit more from a Type II audit. The final reports, or SOC reports, provide your clients with comprehensive insights into your organization’s control environment, establishing you as a trustworthy player in the realm of data security.

What Is The SOC 2 Audit Process?

The SOC 2 audit process is a well-structured approach governed by the AICPA. It initiates with a stage of defining the scope of the audit. This initial phase outlines the exact timeline of the audit process and selects the relevant TSC for the industry of the audited organization. The audit orbits around five Trust Service Principles that serve as the core pillars of data security: security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy.  To put it in perspective, a healthcare service provider may want to focus more on privacy and security considerations, aligning it with the HIPAA standards.

Once the scope is defined, the next essential step is identifying the cybersecurity controls currently established within the organization and meticulously gathering supporting documentation. Following this, a Gap Analysis is performed – a systematic study to identify any potential areas where the organization may be falling short of compliance.

A Readiness Assessment subsequently follows the gap analysis. It is undertaken by an experienced CPA firm. This particular phase allows auditors to answer any lingering queries and make sure all involved parties are well-versed with the TSC. Non-CPA individuals with relevant IT and security capabilities may be hired to prepare for a SOC audit, but the final report must be delivered and issued by a CPA.

Choosing a competent auditing firm becomes a paramount decision at this stage, where factors like industry experience, reputation, and previous work should be heavily weighted. Once chosen, the audit process launches with a security questionnaire, continuing with the collection of evidence, an in-depth evaluation of the controls, and final discussions.

Depending on the conclusions drawn from the findings, the company may need to adopt corrective measures. The audit journey concludes with an exhaustive SOC 2 report. This could either be a SOC 2 Type I or a SOC 2 Type II report, which is instrumental in assuring the operational effectiveness and strength of internal controls. This intensive risk management assessment ultimately culminates in a detailed audit report, presenting your organization’s commitment to maintaining a secure and reliable service environment.

SOC 2 Challenges and Best Practices

Navigating through the labyrinth of complexities associated with a SOC 2 audit presents a variety of challenges that service organizations often grapple with. Let’s examine these hurdles in detail.

The first hurdle is that of understanding and interpreting the Trust Services Criteria (TSC). The nature and degree of these criteria can often seem convoluted to many. Different organizations perceive and implement the TSC requirements in different ways. This often results in a lack of consistency, leading to gaps in execution and monitoring. Best practice calls for detailed planning and continual reviews and clarifications about the TSC. Understanding these criteria inside out and ensuring the same level of comprehension across the organization is crucial in managing the complexities of a SOC 2 audit.

Maintaining detailed and timely documentation of all processes and controls is the second significant challenge. Exhibiting the operational effectiveness of these controls over an expanded period might present numerous difficulties. Investing in quality documentation, systematic gathering of evidence, and controls testing becomes paramount to substantiate the processing integrity of an organization’s controls and bolster its overall information security posture.

The next key challenge revolves around the constraints of internal resources. This is particularly relevant for smaller organizations where expertise and resources are scarce. Balancing daily operations while meeting stringent audit requirements often becomes a juggling act. Technology plays a critical role here, where the use of automation to streamline processes, manage workflows, and handle control checks comes in handy. The utilization of SOC 2 consultancy and management platforms that assist in the smooth navigation of the SOC 2 journey becomes vital in these cases.

The final hurdle to address is Vendor Management. Checking third-party vendors’ adherence to SOC 2 is no less than a herculean task. Ensuring vendors’ controls are in sync with the organization’s SOC 2 objectives is essential to avoid unauthorized access and potential breaches. Due diligence in conducting checks against globally recognized standards like PCI DSS and ISO 27001 ensures the robustness of vendor access controls.

By adhering to these best practices, organizations can confidently overcome the challenges posed by SOC 2 audit, further reinforcing their commitment to maintaining robust internal controls, thereby strengthening trust amongst stakeholders.

How Can You Prepare for a SOC 2 Audit?

As we near the finish line of this insightful journey, it’s time to gear up and embrace the challenge of SOC 2 audit preparation. It all begins with a keen understanding of the Trust Service Principles and the role they play in defining your audit’s scope. Arming yourself with this knowledge is akin to having a compass that guides your preparation efforts in the right direction.

As crucial as it is to know where you’re headed, it’s equally important to know where you currently stand. That’s where the mighty power of documentation steps in. Detailed documentation of your internal controls, security measures, and privacy practices acts as a clear reflection of your organization’s existing data security stance. It’s this documented evidence that offers invaluable insights, shedding light on your current strengths and potential areas of improvement.

The final, but arguably the most critical step in your SOC 2 audit preparation, is the gap analysis. This analysis is much like a dress rehearsal before the grand performance. It allows you to identify and provide remediation in your compliance efforts, ensuring that when the curtain rises for the final audit, you’re well-prepared to shine. These challenges and best practices can be overcome by utilizing compliance management software that can track your frameworks, gaps, assessment periods, and current status.


Ultimately, remember that a SOC 2 audit is not merely a regulatory hoop to jump through. It is a commitment, a pledge to protect your clients’ data from unauthorized access, security incidents, and other vulnerabilities with the utmost diligence. By preparing for and completing a SOC 2 audit, you’re not just ticking a box on a compliance checklist. Instead, you’re showcasing your dedication to data protection, creating a trust-driven environment that not only wins over your clients –  but also builds lasting partnerships.


Leann Lindner, CPA, CISA, is a Senior Manager of Implementation at AuditBoard. Leann started her career in audit at PwC and expanded her experience to include the management and implementation of financial systems at a renewable energy company. Connect with Leann on LinkedIn.