An IT security audit is a comprehensive examination and assessment of your enterprise’s information security system. Conducting regular audits can help you identify weak spots and vulnerabilities in your IT infrastructure, verify your security controls, ensure regulatory compliance, and more.
Here, we’ve broken down the basics of what IT security audits involve and how they can help your organization achieve its security and compliance goals.
Why Your Company Needs Regular IT Security Audits
First and foremost, a comprehensive IT security audit enables you to verify the security status of all your company’s infrastructure: hardware, software, services, networks and data centers.
An audit can help you answer the following critical questions:
- Are there any weak spots and vulnerabilities in your current security?
- Are there any extraneous tools or processes that don’t perform a useful security function?
- Are you equipped to fend off security threats and recover business capabilities in the event of a system outage or data breach?
- If you have discovered security flaws, what concrete actions can you take to address them?
A thorough audit can also help you remain in compliance with data security laws. Many national and international regulations, such as GDPR and HIPAA, require an IT security audit to ensure that your information systems meet their standards for the collection, usage, retention and destruction of sensitive or personal data.
A compliance audit is typically conducted by a certified security auditor from either the applicable regulatory agency or an independent third-party vendor. In some cases, though, personnel within your company may perform an internal audit to check the company’s regulatory compliance or overall security posture.
If you’re performing an audit for either general cybersecurity or regulatory compliance purposes, follow these steps and best practices to ensure an efficient, effective process.
The Steps in an IT Security Audit
A cyber security audit consists of five steps:
- Define the objectives.
- Plan the audit.
- Perform the auditing work.
- Report the results.
- Take necessary action.
1. Define the Objectives
Lay out the goals that the auditing team aims to achieve by conducting the IT security audit. Make sure to clarify the business value of each objective so that specific goals of the audit align with the larger goals of your company.
Use this list of questions as a starting point for brainstorming and refining your own list of objectives for the audit.
- Which systems and services do you want to test and evaluate?
- Do you want to audit your digital IT infrastructure, your physical equipment and facilities, or both?
- Is disaster recovery on your list of concerns? What specific risks are involved?
- Does the audit need to be geared towards proving compliance with a particular regulation?
2. Plan the Audit
A thoughtful and well-organized plan is crucial to success in an IT security audit.
You’ll want to define the roles and responsibilities of the management team and the IT system administrators assigned to perform the auditing tasks, as well as the schedule and methodology for the process. Identify any monitoring, reporting and data classification tools that the team will use and any logistical issues they may face, like taking equipment offline for evaluation.
Once you’ve decided on all the details, document and circulate the plan to ensure that all staff members have a common understanding of the process before the audit begins.
3. Perform the Auditing Work
The auditing team should conduct the audit according to the plan and methodologies agreed upon during the planning phase. This will typically include running scans on IT resources like file-sharing services, database servers and SaaS applications like Office 365 to assess network security, data access levels, user access rights and other system configurations. It’s also a good idea to physically inspect the data center for resilience to fires, floods and power surges as part of a disaster recovery evaluation.
During this process, interview employees outside the IT team to assess their knowledge of security concerns and adherence to company security policy, so any holes in your company’s security procedures can be addressed moving forward.
Be sure to document all findings uncovered during the audit.
4. Report the Results
Compile all your audit-related documentation into a formal report that can be given to management stakeholders or the regulatory agency. The report should include a list of any security risks and vulnerabilities detected in your systems, as well as actions that IT staff recommend taking to mitigate them.
5. Take Necessary Action
Finally, follow through with the recommendations outlined in your audit report. Examples of security-enhancement actions can include:
- Performing remediation procedures to fix a specific security flaw or weak spot.
- Training employees in data security compliance and security awareness.
- Adopting additional best practices for handling sensitive data and recognizing signs of malware and phishing attacks.
- Acquiring new technologies to harden existing systems and regularly monitor your infrastructure for security risk
What’s the Difference Between a Security Audit and a Risk Assessment?
A security audit and a risk assessment each involve a process of examining and evaluating security risks for your organization. The differences between them have to do with their timing and scope.
A risk assessment is often performed at the start of an IT initiative, before tools and technologies have been deployed. It’s also performed every time the internal or external threat landscape changes — for example, when there is a sudden rise of ransomware attacks or a massive shift to remote working. In organizations with mature security processes, risk assessment is performed on a regular basis to assess new risks and re-evaluate risks that were previously identified. The goal of a risk assessment is to determine how best to build your IT infrastructure to address known security risks. Hence, this activity is focused on outward factors and how they affect your infrastructure.
A security audit, on the other hand, is performed on an existing IT infrastructure to test and evaluate the security of current systems and operations. As a best practice, you should schedule security audits to be performed at regular intervals so that you can evaluate your overall security posture on an ongoing basis.
How to Ensure Successful Security Auditing
To make sure that your security audit is effective in identifying flaws and weaknesses in your system, be sure to follow these best practices.
Establish Clear Objectives
Clearly defining your goals and scope keeps the audit on track to be measurable, actionable and successful. And when all members of your auditing team stick to the defined objectives, they can stay focused on critical tasks and avoid wasting valuable time and resources on irrelevant or unnecessary issues.
Obtain Buy-in from Key Stakeholders
For an infrastructural initiative like a security audit to be successful, you need support and advocacy from the top levels of your organization, including the chief security officer and chief information officer. This management sponsorship will help ensure that the audit gets the time and resources that are required.
Define Clear Action Items Based on the Audit Results
It’s not enough just to publish a report of your findings. The audit should contribute to the security of your organization by providing clear and practical guidelines for making cybersecurity improvements. If there’s a system vulnerability, create a plan for how to remediate it. If a file or data system is out of regulatory compliance, take the necessary measures to bring it into compliance.
Security Audit Solutions
IT security auditing is most useful and effective when conducted regularly. Create a schedule to periodically audit your entire system portfolio to assess your compliance with data regulations and maintain your operational readiness for cyberattacks.
Netwrix offers specialized solutions for both systems monitoring and data classification that can help you perform efficient and effective security audits:
- Netwrix Auditor provides comprehensive monitoring of system events related to user account logins, file access, and data and configuration changes. Detailed event logs enable you to pinpoint the precise source of security gaps and other issues so you can remediate them to improve your cybersecurity resiliency.
- Netwrix Data Classification empowers you to inventory all your data and categorize it according to its level of sensitivity and value to the organization, so you can apply different security policies on a granular level to different levels of data. Data classification also greatly speeds compliance audits.