Security Audits: A Comprehensive Overview

Security Audits: A Comprehensive Overview

With global cybercrime costs expected to reach $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, cyberattacks and new vulnerabilities have proven to be a risk that all companies and organizations have to wrestle with. Changes to the global workforce in remote and hybrid working arrangements also bring new security threats. The release of security and privacy regulations, like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, and increased scrutiny around IT systems and controls due to the prevalence of security breaches add another facet to an already challenging problem. So what can an organization do to stay vigilant against security threats and maintain effective, efficient security practices? One tool security, IT, internal audit, and risk professionals can use to evaluate an organization’s security posture is an IT security audit. Regular security audits will paint a clear picture of your organization’s cybersecurity risk environment and preparation level for security threats like social engineering attacks and security vulnerabilities. Read on to learn about the most common types of security audits and the basic steps you can take to start the process. 

What Is a Security Audit? 

A security audit, also known as a cybersecurity audit, is a comprehensive assessment of your organization’s information systems; typically, this assessment measures your information system’s security against an audit checklist of industry best practices, externally established standards, and/or federal regulations. A comprehensive security audit will assess an organization’s security controls relating to the following: 

  1. Physical components of your information system and the environment in which the information system is housed. 
  2. Applications and software, including security patches your systems administrators, have already implemented.
  3. Network vulnerabilities, including public and private access and firewall configurations. 
  4. The human dimension, including how employees collect, share, and store highly sensitive information. 
  5. The organization’s overall security strategy, including security policies, organization charts, and risk assessments.

How Does a Security Audit Work?

A security audit works by testing whether your organization’s information systems are adhering to a set of internal or external criteria regulating data security, network security, and infrastructure security. Internal criteria include your company’s IT policies, procedures, and security controls. External criteria include federal regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), and standards set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or the National Institute for Standards in Technology (NIST). Using a blend of internal and external criteria typically yields the best benefits for organizations performing these types of audits. A security audit compares your organization’s actual IT practices with the standards relevant to your enterprise and will identify areas for remediation and growth. Specifically, auditors will review security controls for adequacy, validate compliance with security policies, identify breaches, and ultimately make recommendations to address their findings.

The audit will result in a report with observations, recommended changes, and other details about your security program. The audit report may describe specific security vulnerabilities or reveal previously undiscovered security breaches. These findings can then be used to inform your cybersecurity risk management approach. Most of the time, auditors will rank their findings in order of priority — it’s up to your organization’s stakeholders to determine if those priorities align with the business’s strategies and objectives.

What Is the Main Purpose of a Security Audit? Why Is It Important?

A security audit will provide a roadmap of your organization’s main information security weaknesses and identify where it is meeting the criteria the organization has set out to follow and where it isn’t. Security audits are crucial to developing risk assessment plans and mitigation strategies for organizations dealing with sensitive and confidential data. 

Successful security audits should give your team a snapshot of your organization’s security posture at that point in time and provide enough detail to give your team a place to start with remediation or improvement activities. Some security-centric audits may also serve as formal compliance audits, completed by a third-party audit team for the purpose of certifying against ISO 27001 or receiving a SOC 2 attestation, for example.

Security audits also provide your organization with a different view of IT security practices and strategy, whether they are conducted by an internal audit function or through an external audit. Having your organization’s security policies scrutinized can provide valuable insights into how to implement better controls or streamline existing processes. With cyber-attacks coming from every angle and some threats originating internally, having a faceted view of cybersecurity amplifies an organization’s capability to respond to security threats.

Security audits are an important tool and method for operating an up-to-date and effective information security program.

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Security Audits VS. Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessments

A security audit covers a broader scope than penetration testing or vulnerability assessments. In fact, a security audit can encompass and include a penetration test or vulnerability assessment. Penetration testing involves having ethical hackers attempt to attack your systems in order to uncover security gaps and vulnerabilities. Vulnerability assessments or scans run over your systems to identify known vulnerabilities. When performed regularly, all three security mechanisms can be effective weapons in an organization’s cybersecurity stack.

Security audits should cover and test the strength of firewall configurations, malware and antivirus protection, password policies, data protection measures, access controls, authentication, change management, and many other categories of controls that contribute to an effective security strategy. Unlike penetration testing or vulnerability assessments, security audits also look at the overall governance of security at the organization, which can have a significant impact on the success of a security program.

What Does a Security Audit Consist of?

Security audits take many forms and can be performed using many different standards — but there are some common steps.  A security audit consists of a complete assessment of all components of your IT infrastructure — this includes operating systems, servers, digital communication and sharing tools, applications, data storage and collection processes, third-party providers, and more. Some of the common steps to take when conducting a security audit are: 

1. Select Security Audit Criteria

Determine which internal and external criteria you want or need to meet, and use these to develop your list of security controls to analyze and test. Keep a record of your organization’s internal policies, especially those related to cybersecurity as they will typically be examined as part of a security audit. 

If your organization is pursuing a security audit that doubles as a compliance audit, like for SOC 2 or ISO 27001, ensure that the right processes are in place to satisfy the standard or criteria.

2. Assess Staff Training

The more people who have access to highly sensitive data, the greater the chance for human error. Make sure there is a record of which staff members have access to sensitive information and which employees have been trained in cybersecurity risk management, IT security, and/or compliance practices. Plan to train those who still require training. 

Most cybersecurity frameworks require a baseline level of security training for all if not most employees.

3. Review Logs and Responses to Events

Review network activity and event logs. Keeping close track of logs will help to ensure only employees with the proper permissions are accessing restricted data, and that those employees are following the proper security measures. Audit logs can provide valuable information for performing incident response and root cause analysis — they should be retained according to the organization’s security policies.

Monitoring logs is not sufficient if an incident or anomalous event occurs. If monitoring personnel or software flags an issue, response teams should be prepared to act. Having templates and standard operating procedures in place for common events can be an easy way to streamline compliance and IT security audits.

4. Identify Vulnerabilities

Before conducting a penetration test or vulnerability assessment, your security audit should uncover some of your most glaring vulnerabilities, like whether a security patch is outdated or employee passwords haven’t been changed in over a year. Regular security audits make penetration tests and vulnerability assessments more efficient and effective. 

Security audits should also identify gaps in policies and security controls, enabling the organization to remediate such findings.

5. Implement Protections

Once you have reviewed the organization’s vulnerabilities and confirmed that staff is trained and following the proper protocol, make sure the organization is employinginternal controls to prevent fraud, like limiting users’ access to sensitive data. Check that wireless networks are secure, encryption tools are up-to-date, and that the proper antivirus software has been installed and updated across the entire network. 

Organizations performing annual security audits will want to review and approve their security policies regularly, and control owners should verify that sufficient documentation is in place to show that controls are working as intended.

Why Do Companies Need Security Audits?

Companies need regular security audits to make sure they are properly protecting their clients’ private information, complying with federal regulations, and avoiding liability and costly fines. To avoid penalties, companies need to keep up with ever-changing federal regulations like HIPAA and SOX. Periodic security audits are necessary to make sure your organization is up to speed with any new requirements. Additionally, certifications like ISO 27001 and attestations like SOC 2 require periodic renewals and accompanying external audits. 

How Do You Perform a Security Audit?

How you perform a security audit depends upon the criteria being used to evaluate your organization’s information systems. A full security audit often involves auditors both internal or external to the organization, and the steps depend on the external security compliance measures your organization must meet

In general, a security audit will involve interviews with stakeholders to understand the sensitive data contained within IT systems (and even physical locations, like data centers), the security controls in place to protect that data, and how the IT infrastructure works together. These interviews might also cover the wider IT environment, including perimeter firewalls, any previous data breaches, and any recent incidents. These interviews are often called “walkthroughs.” Some auditors may also want to observe controls being executed in real-time.

In a security audit, expect the audit team to request certain documents and logs to review, including relevant security policies, checklists, diagrams, and tickets. They will inspect these artifacts to determine if security practices are being carried out according to policy.

Audit practitioners in the cybersecurity space may even opt to run penetration tests or vulnerability scans during the audit, or leverage automated technology to perform certain audit procedures for them. 

There are a number of computer-assisted audit techniques (CAATs) on the market designed to automate your audit process. CAATs regularly run through the steps of an audit, seeking out vulnerabilities and automatically preparing audit reports. However, always have a trained IT manager or professional auditor reviewing these reports.  

Security audits, depending on the organization’s objective, can be performed by an internal audit function or by an external audit firm. When pursuing certifications or attestations, a third-party compliance audit is typically required. There are benefits to the internal and external cybersecurity audit approach. External auditors tend to have an outsider’s point of view and can bring unique insights to the table. Internal auditors, meanwhile, have deep familiarity with the organization, controls, and systems, enabling them to build relationships with key stakeholders and optimize processes.

How Often Should Security Audits Be Performed?

The frequency of security audits will depend on the size and scope of your organization, and by the regulatory requirements of the standards the organization has decided to meet or is required to meet by law. 

The common wisdom is to conduct security audits at least once per year, but many organizations adopt a more frequent schedule — a data breach can have serious consequences to the business, including reputation loss, liability, and even criminal charges, which provides impetus to conduct an ad hoc security audit. The best intervention is prevention, which starts with regular audits. AuditBoard’s compliance management software can help you keep track of computer-generated reports, security audit steps, and updates to any external regulations while retaining your focus, expertise, and energy for catching security threats that might be hidden to the untrained eye.

Frequently Asked Questions About Security Audits

What is a security audit?

A security audit is a comprehensive assessment of your organization’s IT security controls and posture.

How does a security audit work?

A security audit works by testing your organization’s security controls against a set of specified criteria (like a framework or regulation), resulting in a report that outlines any gaps, recommendations, and/or observations. From there, an organization can use the results of the security audit to take action.

What does a security audit consist of?

A security audit consists of, among other things, selecting audit criteria, assessing staff training, reviewing logs, identifying vulnerabilities, and implementing protections.

How do you perform a security audit?

Performing a security audit depends on the criteria your organization is looking to audit against and can be performed by internal audit or external auditors. 


Vice Vicente started their career at EY and has spent the past 10 years in the IT compliance, risk management, and cybersecurity space. Vice has served, audited, or consulted for over 120 clients, implementing security and compliance programs and technologies, performing engagements around SOX 404, SOC 1, SOC 2, PCI DSS, and HIPAA, and guiding companies through security and compliance readiness. Connect with Vice on LinkedIn.