What Is a Security Audit? The Basics You Need to Get Started

What Is a Security Audit? The Basics You Need to Get Started

The COVID-19 pandemic led to radical shifts in global business models — according to a 2021 Gartner report, 41% of employees at companies that went remote in 2020 plan to continue to work remotely. These changes to the global workforce also bring new security threats. Regular security audits will paint a clear picture of your organization’s cybersecurity risk environment and preparation for security threats like social engineering and phishing attacks. So, what is a security audit? Read on to learn about the most common types of security audits and basic steps you can take to start the process. 

What Is a Security Audit? 

A security audit is a comprehensive assessment of your organization’s information system; typically, this assessment measures your information system’s security against an audit checklist of industry best practices, externally established standards, 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 evaluations of information as it travels between different points within, and external of, your organization’s network
  4. the human dimension, including how employees collect, share, and store highly sensitive information. 
The InfoSec Survival Guide: Achieving Continuous Compliance

How Does a Security Audit Work?

A security audit works by testing whether your organization’s information system is adhering to a set of internal or external criteria regulating data security. Internal criteria includes your company’s IT policies and 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). 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. 

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 that deal with individuals’ sensitive and confidential data. 

What Is Security Auditing in Cybersecurity?

A security audit in cybersecurity will ensure that there is adequate protection for your organization’s networks, devices, and data from leaks, data breaches, and criminal interference. Security audits are one of three primary types of cybersecurity assessment strategies — the other two are penetration testing and vulnerability assessment, both of which involve running real-time tests on the strength of firewalls, malware, passwords, and data protection measures. 

What Does a Security Audit Consist of?

So, what is a security audit and are there any 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, and more. The steps are often determined by the compliance strategy your organization needs to take, but there are a few common components: 

1. Select Security Audit Criteria

Determine which external criteria you want or need to meet, and use these to develop your list of security features to analyze and test. Also keep a record of your organization’s internal policies, if your IT team anticipates cybersecurity concerns that external criteria may not cover. 

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 or compliance practices. Plan to train those who still require training. 

3. Monitor Network Logs

Monitor 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. 

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. 

5. Implement Protections

Once you have reviewed the organization’s vulnerabilities and ensured that staff is trained and following the proper protocol, make sure the organization is employing internal 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 anti-virus software has been installed and updated across the entire network. 

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.

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

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. 


How Often Should Security Audits Be Performed?

The frequency of security audits will depend on the size and scope of your organization, as well as how often you are likely to be handling sensitive information. Frequency is also determined by the regulatory requirements of the standards the organization has decided to meet or that 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. The best intervention is prevention, and that 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. 

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