This article was written for the ISACA GWDC by Caroline Li, Content Executive for Reciprocity.
As the number of reported cyberattacks continues to grow, criminals are finding new ways to breach networks and access sensitive data. In today’s interconnected world, cybersecurity is a grave concern. The more complex your IT environment is, the more vulnerable it is to cyber-attacks. There’s no better way to protect yourself than to conduct a security audit to evaluate your organization’s security posture and expose vulnerabilities. Hackers often leverage these vulnerabilities to intrude on networks and steal data.
A cybersecurity audit is a comprehensive assessment of your organization’s digital assets to ascertain whether your cybersecurity framework is being followed. Security audits help you identify gaps in your cybersecurity framework while highlighting new focus areas. It’s akin to cross-checking your grocery list after visiting a store to ascertain you bought everything you needed.
Why Are Security Audits Necessary?
When you embark on a security audit, the end goal should be to evaluate our organization’s data security stature and how it conforms to regulations such as the California Security Breach Information Act and the General Data Protection Regulation. These are among the regulations that specify how your organization should handle data in its possession.
The exercise should be guided by a cybersecurity audit checklist and needs to compare your organization’s IT practices with standards relevant to businesses in your industry. Likewise, it should pinpoint potential areas for remediation and improvement. Audits also play a significant role in developing a risk assessment and mitigation plan. They fall under two categories:
- Internal Audits – These entail a business using its resources to perform audits internally. Typically, these audits are performed by the internal audit department and help you to validate your cybersecurity policies.
- External Audits – As the name suggests, these involve bringing in experts to audit your networks. External audits are often performed when an organization needs to ascertain that its data handling practices conform to industry standards and government regulations.
How to Perform a Security Audit
Performing a cybersecurity audit can be difficult, especially for a first-timer. Although organizations differ, here are the general steps to follow when performing an audit:
Select the Relevant Audit Criteria
Before starting an audit, you should first identify the security criteria you need or want to meet. If you need to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, for instance, use its requirements to develop the list of features that need to get analyzed and tested.
It’s equally important to maintain a record of the internal cybersecurity policies you have in place. If your team anticipates data security concerns that external criteria might not cover, record that too. Aligning your internal policies with industry regulations will make your audits more effective.
Assess Your Assets
Before you undertake a security audit, you need to define its scope. An easy way to do so is by listing down all your digital assets. In doing so, you’ll know which ones need to get audited and which ones won’t. Some of the digital assets that you need to evaluate include:
- Computers and other tech equipment
- Critical internal documentation
- Sensitive customer and company data
A cybersecurity audit needs to uncover the most glaring vulnerabilities within your network, which hackers could leverage to compromise you. After assessing your digital assets and determining what needs to be audited, list the potential threats that each faces.
Remember that a threat is any activity, behavior, occasion, or thing that could cause financial or reputational damage. Thus, your audit should highlight your most evident vulnerabilities. This could be outdated security patches or employee passwords that haven’t been changed for long. Regular cybersecurity audits make vulnerability assessments and penetration tests more effective and efficient.
Evaluate Your Current Cybersecurity Posture
After identifying your cybersecurity vulnerabilities, you need to evaluate your current cybersecurity posture. Essentially, this entails being candid about your organization’s ability to protect its digital assets. Evaluate how you’d act after a cyberattack to minimize its impact on your operations, finances, and reputation.
Evaluating your current security posture should be done with the utmost objectivity. For instance, if your IT team could be doing an excellent job monitoring your organization’s network and identifying threats, but it’s been a long time since employees underwent cybersecurity training. In this case, you need to think of ways to foster a strong culture of cyber security among all employees and not just the IT team.
Assign Risk Scores
Ranking the vulnerabilities you identified earlier is a critical step, but how do you go about it? Well, the easy way to go about it is by considering these three pertinent factors:
- The likelihood of a threat event happening
- The potential damage
- Your organization’s ability to handle the aftermath of a threat event
When Should Security Audits Be Conducted?
Security audits should be an ongoing activity. The rule of thumb is to perform an audit at least once annually. However, most organizations have more frequent schedules because they are cognizant of the fact that audits are a prevention measure. Performing them regularly helps to catch security threats and vulnerabilities before they morph into costly incidents.
Some situations call for audits beyond the usual timeline, including:
- After experiencing a cyber-attack, or a significant third-party vendor experiences a data breach
- After upgrading your network or system
- When implementing a new regulation relating to data security
- New software/system implementation (ERP, CRM, CMS, etc.)
- When undertaking significant workforce expansions, especially those that involve the IT department
These are just some of the instances when new vulnerabilities might get introduced into your network. Performing security audits after rapid growth cycles or significant changes will go a long way in helping you to identify and mitigate cybersecurity threats.
Performing security audits is a critical step towards protecting your organization against cyber-attacks. Since hackers continually evolve their attack mechanisms, documenting each audit will help you measure your improvements over time. The results of previous audits should form the baseline for future audits. Do not forget to implement cybersecurity best practices to protect your data environment even as you perform these audits.
If you’re interested in cloud audit, check out our cloud audit certificate course coming up on March 16th, 2022.