October 17, 2023

There are many reasons for an enterprise to prioritize a cybersecurity audit. Conducting a cybersecurity audit helps organizations identify and remediate issues that could result in a costly compliance violation, a data breach, or another serious cybersecurity incident. A cybersecurity audit identifies vulnerabilities, threats, risky practices, and weak links in cybersecurity processes and systems. 

What is a cybersecurity audit?

A cybersecurity audit is a comprehensive assessment and analysis of an organization’s cybersecurity and cyber risks.  

The objective of a cybersecurity audit is to proactively identify vulnerabilities, threats, and associated mitigation options to prevent weaknesses from being exploited. 

Cybersecurity audits use a variety of technologies, processes, and controls to evaluate how well an organization’s networks, programs, devices, and data are protected against risks and threats. They are performed regularly, with results measured against established internal baselines, industry standards, and cybersecurity best practices. These audits can be conducted by internal IT and security teams or external, third-party organizations.  

While there are many kinds of cybersecurity audits that take different approaches depending on the type and size of an organization, the general objective is to help reduce cyber risk and improve the organization’s security posture.  Benefits of a cybersecurity audit include: 

  • Avoiding penalties related to violations of laws and regulations. 
  • Catching security and system vulnerabilities proactively.   
  • Confirming that adequate cybersecurity control mechanisms are in place to enforce policies and procedures. 
  • Ensuring that sensitive data is protected from unauthorized access. 
  • Identifying and remediating cybersecurity risks.  
  • Improving security systems and processes. 
  • Increasing incident response preparedness. 
  • Maintaining security and risk baselines and minimum thresholds. 
  • Meeting requirements for internal and external compliance rules. 
  • Optimizing security training and education programs. 
  • Reinforcing trust and credibility with customers, employees, and partners. 
  • Validating security policies and procedures. 
  • Verifying that all people and systems are following security policies.  

Preparing the enterprise for cybersecurity risks

Cybersecurity plans are complemented by cybersecurity audits. Questions to ask and areas to evaluate as part of a cybersecurity audit include: 

  • How current are cyber risk management plans? 
  • Do plans take into account recent incidents and new known threats? 
  • Have all departments been contacted to confirm that the cyber risk management plan meets their current requirements? 
  • Have out-of-date technology tools been replaced by current solutions? 
  • Are updates and patches being applied on a regular basis? 

The scope of a cybersecurity audit

A number of variables dictate the scope of cybersecurity audits. However, regardless of the scale of the audit, the following are usually included in the examination for vulnerabilities.    

Data security

  • Access controls  
  • Encryption use 
  • Protections for data at rest and in transit  
  • Sensitive information handling 

Network security 

  • Access points   
  • Anti-virus configurations 
  • Availability  
  • Network traffic monitoring (e.g., email, instant messaging, and files) 
  • Weaknesses in any network component 

Operational security

  • Assessment of how closely users follow policies and procedures  
  • Information and system safeguards  
  • Security policies, procedures, and controls 

Physical security

  • Alarm systems 
  • Building access controls 
  • Storage protections for physical devices (e.g., locked doors, screen locks, and disk encryption)  
  • Surveillance capabilities 

Software systems

  • Data processing 
  • Protection for applications 
  • Security solutions 
  • Software development   

System security

Internal vs external cybersecurity audits

Cybersecurity audits can be conducted by either external cybersecurity services groups or internal IT and security teams.  

The type and detail of the cybersecurity audit is dictated by the purpose of the audit, the size of the organization, and the kind of information that is collected, processed, and stored.

Types of cybersecurity audits used by both external and internal teams include the following. 

Compliance audits 
A compliance cybersecurity audit is the most common, since so many regulations and laws affect many organizations. This audit focuses on determining the requirements and mapping them to existing security solutions to identify gaps. While it is not a comprehensive cybersecurity audit, the compliance audit does help identify vulnerabilities and gaps in protection systems that could be exploited. 

Penetration audits 
Penetration testing is another type of cybersecurity audit. Systems are tested with attack simulation to find weaknesses.  

Some penetration testing can be conducted using automated tools. More sophisticated penetration cybersecurity audits combine automation with human attack vectors to dig in to find hidden vulnerabilities.   

Risk assessment audits 
While more complex, time-consuming, and expensive than other types of audits, risk assessment cybersecurity audits do not provide a holistic view of an organization’s security posture. A risk assessment audit focuses on potential threats, the likelihood they will occur, and the implications if they do occur. Through this process, vulnerabilities are uncovered, but the health and efficacy of security systems are not a priority for the discovery efforts. 

External cybersecurity audits

External cybersecurity audits are performed by third parties who offer professional security audit services. These consultants or groups provide extensive cybersecurity audit experience along with a suite of advanced tools and processes to identify gaps and vulnerabilities in security programs and protocols.  

Advantages to using an external party for a cybersecurity audit include: 

  • Deep understanding of compliance requirements 
  • Independence    
  • Lack of internal bias or conflicts of interest  
  • Specialized experience 

While external cybersecurity audits have a number of benefits, they are more expensive and time-consuming. Tips for simplifying and expediting a cybersecurity audit by a third party are to:  

  • Find a group that offers services at a level that fits the organization’s needs. 
  • Gather and organize all relevant information.    
  • Set parameters for the scale of the audit. 

Internal cybersecurity audits

Internal cybersecurity audits are conducted by members of internal groups, including IT, security, risk, and compliance teams. For these audits, the organization uses its own tools and processes to evaluate the efficacy of security systems and adherence to regulatory requirements.  

Among the advantages of an internal cybersecurity audit are that those performing the audit can: 

  • Directly access to internal systems and processes. 
  • Do the work more cost-effectively. 
  • Perform reviews more frequently.  
  • Possess in-depth knowledge of security and compliance systems and protocols. 

Potential downsides of an internal cybersecurity audit include: 

  • Lack of objectivity 
  • Limited access to specialized technology 
  • Potential for bias and conflict of interest 

Cybersecurity audit frequency

The answer to the oft-asked question of how frequently a cybersecurity audit should be performed is “it depends.” Based on the factors noted below, organizations conduct audits monthly, quarterly, annually, or more infrequently.  

The frequency of a cybersecurity audit is driven by a number of factors, including: 

  • Significant changes made to the IT and/or security infrastructure 
  • The availability of resources required to conduct the audit 
  • The importance and value of information held 
  • The industry that the organization is associated with and the related compliance requirements 
  • The level of cybersecurity risks the organization faces 
  • The occurrence of a significant cybersecurity incident 
  • The sensitivity of data collected and stored 
  • The size of the organization’s IT infrastructure 

Cybersecurity audit best practices 

Cybersecurity best practices to consider include the following.  

Determine the scope of the cybersecurity audit and establish clear objectives.  
Before starting a cybersecurity audit, determine what the objectives are and what needs to be covered to achieve those objectives as well as who the key stakeholders are and who will be involved. It is also important to determine how the audit will be conducted and what will be assessed.  

Areas commonly considered in a cybersecurity audit include: 

  • Compliance requirements 
  • Data storage, transmission, and protection systems for sensitive information 
  • Education and training programs 
  • Incident response plan
  • IT Infrastructure (e.g., hardware, networking, and software) 
  • Overall policies and procedures 
  • Physical security practices 

Take advantage of cybersecurity and cyber risk frameworks. 
Cybersecurity and cyber risk frameworks help organizations effectively identify and assess vulnerabilities as part of an audit. Examples of these frameworks include: 

  • The Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology (COBIT)   
  • The Center for Internet Security Risk Assessment Method (CIS RAM) 
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) Risk Management Framework (RMF)  
  • The Factor Analysis of Information Risk (FAIR) 
  • The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ISO/IEC 270001, created in partnership with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) 
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF)  

Conduct a comprehensive risk and threat assessment. 
Analyze details such as:  

  • the value and sensitivity of data (e.g., intellectual property, financial data, or customer information) 
  • the potential impact of a data breach 
  • which areas have which types of risk 
  • the types of threats facing the organization (e.g., Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks, malware, shadow IT, access control compromises, accidental and malicious insiders, zero-day exploits, or phishing

This should also include interviews and site visits to gain in-depth visibility. Understanding the risks and threats helps focus the cybersecurity audit objectives and resource allocation.  

Understand compliance requirements. 
Laws and industry regulations, such as the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), have strict security and privacy requirements that should be taken into account during a cybersecurity audit. 

Assess security policies, procedures, and controls against baselines. 
A review of security policies, procedures, and controls should be conducted to determine what is in place to protect against specific threats as well as the effectiveness of those measures. This is also an opportunity to identify any gaps.  

Established internal baselines, external best practices and frameworks, and regulatory requirements are utilized to measure an organization’s existing security policies, procedures, and controls to ensure they align with industry best practices and regulations. 

This part of a cybersecurity audit should examine key areas, including:  

  • Access control mechanisms 
  • Business processes 
  • Data access and handling rules 
  • Data classification systems and controls 
  • Data encryption protocols 
  • Password policies 
  • Technology usage 
  • User account provisioning and de-provisioning processes 

Perform active technical tests. 
Conduct technical tests, such as configuration reviews (e.g., firewalls and access control lists), penetration testing to evaluate the efficacy of security controls, and vulnerability scanning on network devices, servers, and applications to identify IT infrastructure vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Analyze the results to find areas for improvement and detect potential entry points for attackers. 

Review security logs, application data, and user activity reports to find and analyze incidents. 
As part of a cybersecurity audit, security logs, application data, and user activity reports should be culled to find and analyze incidents. These reviews should include information from all available sources that may hold clues about suspicious activities or indicators of compromise. This analysis of information can facilitate the detection of ongoing and future attacks, policy violations, and unauthorized access attempts. 

Record all findings and recommendations. 
During and after a cybersecurity audit, it is important to document all findings, such as identified vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and suggestions for mitigation or repair. Recommendations should be prioritized based on the potential impact, and the information should be used to establish or update internal baselines.  

Commonly listed recommendations included in cybersecurity audits include: 

  • Documentation of the prevention, detection, and response tools in place to protect security systems 
  • An incident response plan to minimize operations downtime and disruption in the event of a security issue or natural disaster 
  • Processes and procedures for vulnerability remediation, such as patch management, network segmentation, and improvements to the security architecture 
  • Security awareness and response training and educational resources 

Continuously monitor security systems. 
After the recommendations from the cybersecurity audit have been implemented, all systems should be continuously monitored in the periods between subsequent audits.   

Cybersecurity audits offer proactive protection

Knowing that every organization is vulnerable to cyber threats from external and internal sources, prioritizing cybersecurity audits makes sense. Audit flexibility of and options enable the performance of these audits on a regular basis.  

The time and resources required to perform a cybersecurity audit are an important investment that will ensure that the organization has done its best to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities that could result in a cyber attack. Depending on the scale, a cyber attack is disruptive at best and devastating at worst, with losses ranging from financial to reputational. Taking care to select the right type of audit, organizations can use cybersecurity audits to enable protection from unauthorized access and tampering for networks, devices, and data.   

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