The only way to know that your organization can meet the challenge of cybersecurity risk is to perform a cybersecurity audit. Such an audit measures every aspect of your cybersecurity program — including those parts of the program found to be lacking.

A cybersecurity audit lets you understand how well your technologies, policies, and people work together to reduce risks from cyberattacks. Moreover, an audit helps to assure business continuity when cyberattacks inevitably do occur. It can provide the foundation you need when planning a cybersecurity risk management program.

Let’s also be honest, however: audits are few people’s idea of a good time. It’s a necessarily tedious process, and can be daunting. This guide will help to keep you on the right path through that journey. You’ll learn what to consider before beginning, and all the steps needed to reach a successful end.

What Is a Cybersecurity Audit?

Cybersecurity is an integral part of risk management. A cybersecurity audit is a review of the cybersecurity risks your organization faces, as well as the policies, procedures, and controls your organization uses to keep those risks at acceptable levels.

More broadly, one could say that a cybersecurity audit is an opportunity to review your IT systems, find weaknesses, and implement remediation measures to make your cybersecurity stronger.

An audit will examine cybersecurity processes, software, and hardware. Audits assure that those things are implemented properly, or catalog the ways in which they aren’t.

Not all audits are equal. If you recently experienced a data breach or loss, a more in-depth assessment with more sophisticated tools is warranted. Research firm Gartner has found that companies tend to focus their audits only on compliance issues, but focusing on risk is more important. When you focus on reducing risk, you’re in a much better position to achieve compliance.

A detailed cybersecurity audit will do the following for your organization:

  • Evaluate overall data security
  • Determine whether your software and hardware work the way they should
  • Demonstrate compliance with legal and industry regulations
  • Discover unknown vulnerabilities
  • Uncover inefficiencies in your software or hardware
  • Determine the adequacy of existing policies and training
  • Gauge employee compliance or threats

A less detailed audit — which, under certain circumstances, could be all you need — might only look at the following:

  • Whether your software is up-to-date
  • Whether cybersecurity roles are adequately staffed
  • Run a vulnerabilities scan

You should perform all regularly scheduled audits. The frequency of audits that need to be performed, however, depends on the nature of your business. Consider the following factors to determine how often you should conduct audits:

  • The types of information stored on (or accessible through) your systems
  • The number of hardware and devices connected to your network
  • The number and types of software systems used
  • Current trends in cyberattacks
  • How much an audit will disrupt your day-to-day business

Here is an example of a simple monthly audit:

  1. Check that all software is up-to-date.
  2. Review personnel and responsibilities.
  3. Assure hardware, databases, and service are connected to a secure network.

Your industry might also have compliance requirements that stipulate how often you should assess your cybersecurity. Whenever there is a change in compliance laws such as GDPR or HIPAA, you should conduct a fresh audit.

For companies subject to PCI DSS regulations (which govern the security of credit card data), the large credit card issuers determine the frequency of cybersecurity audits. That frequency ranges from quarterly to annually, and depends on how many credit card payments your organization processes each year.

Who Needs a Cybersecurity Audit?

Everyone. In today’s world, every organization needs a regular cybersecurity audit.

Even the smallest and simplest businesses should take a comprehensive look at its cybersecurity. An audit is critical if you haven’t specified a plan for information security versus cybersecurity, as there are notable differences between the two.

Cybersecurity should be of particular concern to organizations that handle sensitive information. Some organizations are also required to do cybersecurity audits by certain federal regulations or industry guidelines.

Cybersecurity audits are not explicitly required by all major federal regulations and industry guidelines. Many of the elements of a thorough cybersecurity audit, however, are also important requirements for compliance.

Here are some compliance frameworks whose requirements are met in part through a cybersecurity audit:

FISMA

  • Continuous monitoring of certain controls, with documentation and reports
  • Annual evaluation of information security controls
  • Security controls implementation
  • Learn more about FISMA compliance management software

NIST

  • Detailed network mapping of sensitive data
  • Listing of third-party access to sensitive information
  • Risk prioritization
  • Detailed documentation of password and malware/antivirus protection
  • Learn more about NIST compliance management software

PCI DSS

Risks of Poor Cybersecurity

Poor cybersecurity brings numerous consequences for organizations. For example, the expense of paying money to ransomware attackers has climbed into the millions of dollars for some companies. Even small mom-and-pop companies have been forced to shell out tens of thousands in payments after ransomware has paralyzed their businesses.

Cybersecurity lapses can also cause immeasurable damage to an organization’s reputation. Fair or not, being the victim of avoidable cybercrime often makes the public skeptical of how well an organization is run. When customers are affected by breaches, they lose trust, and often take their business elsewhere.

Are Your Security Measures Working?

If it’s been a while since you put significant attention toward cybersecurity, it might be time to reconfirm that your measures are working.

Here are some signs that you need a cybersecurity audit:

  • You are experiencing unexplained hardware or software problems
  • Firewall protections are incomplete or disorganized
  • You don’t have a clear cybersecurity policy
  • You lack existing benchmarks for cybersecurity performance
  • It’s unclear who is in charge of various aspects of cybersecurity
  • You lack an incident management and business continuity plan
  • Your personnel have low levels of cybersecurity awareness
  • You’ve made recent changes to your network, including hardware or software
  • Businesses similar to yours have recently experienced cyberattacks

The only way to know for certain how effective your network security measures are is to conduct an audit, which will help you identify any risks to your cybersecurity.

Common Threats to Business Cybersecurity

As technology evolves, so do cybersecurity threats. Each type of threat has the potential to throw your business into disarray or hurt your customers. Common cybersecurity risks include:

  • BYOD (bring your own device). Employees’ use of personal computers, or employees with low levels of security awareness, can introduce malicious software or access to your systems.
  • DDoS. Your web host might shut down the site or severely slow its performance.
  • Malware. Attackers can siphon and use sensitive information without being detected.
  • Password theft. Cybercriminals can access sensitive information.
  • Remote work. Introduces a higher risk of social engineering and increases the vulnerability of mobile connections, password security, and information control.
  • Social engineering. With a cleverly deceptive invitation from attackers, employees can accidentally give unauthorized access or information that puts your organization or customers in danger.
  • SQL injection. Malicious third parties can retrieve sensitive information.
  • Zero-Day exploits. These are new, unknown weaknesses that hackers can use to damage data and steal information.

Internal vs. External Security Audits

Should you use a third-party auditor, or can you handle the work internally? The answer will depend on how complex your organization is and how robust your security staffing is. Whether internal or external, your audit team must be able to:

  • Determine and conduct appropriate tests
  • Understand the data
  • Prioritize threats
  • Set benchmarks
  • Create a plan based on audit findings

Internal Audit Pros and Cons

If you have a simple business and sufficiently skilled IT or risk management employees, then an internal audit may be the best choice for you.

Pros

  • Usually much less expensive
  • More control over the process
  • Can be tailored to your organization

Cons

  • Personnel time costs
  • Might not be sufficient for regulatory or industry compliance
  • Possible learning curve, depending on your security staffing
  • Decisions might be affected by internal biases
  • Might not have the experience to determine the appropriate scope

External Audit Pros and Cons

A complex system with lots of vulnerabilities and sensitive data might require highly trained auditors. If your organization operates under certain regulations, your auditors might even be required to hold specific certifications.

Generic auditing packages might do the trick, but it’s likely that they won’t address all the needs specific to your organization. Plus, whoever is evaluating an off-the-shelf option will still need to have a suitable level of expertise.

For these reasons, many companies outsource their audits to save time and assure that it gets done right. If you decide this is the best route for you, you’ll still need to invest time finding a reputable auditor to conduct the audit. An independent auditor helps to assure that the process is objective and avoids any conflicts of interest.

You’ll want to be sure that whoever conducts the audit has a solid track record and experience. It’s good to ask for referrals from trusted peers and to search the audit firm’s online reputation.

Pros

  • Experienced professionals with formal training
  • Unbiased
  • May be more efficient
  • Can assure compliance with regulatory and industry standards

Cons

  • Might take longer
  • Expense might be too much for smaller organizations
  • More complex to coordinate with external auditors

Cybersecurity Audit vs. Cybersecurity Assessment

The main difference between a cybersecurity audit and a cybersecurity assessment comes down to detail.

Audits are exacting exercises that help you to find weak processes or controls and then improve what you’re doing; they also help a company to police against future threats. Assessments are a lesser review that only gauge how well your controls are working; that’s all. (A thorough risk assessment, however, can lay the groundwork that makes the audit process much smoother.)

An audit will examine every detail of your cybersecurity, from hardware to software to personnel. An assessment will look at fewer details, giving you less information.

Other differences include:

  • Audits are comprehensive; assessments are more focused.
  • Audits can tell you what exists and what doesn’t. Assessments tell you what is effective.
  • Audits often require an independent third party. Assessments do not.
  • Audits can help you determine what needs further assessment.

Both audits and assessments should help guide your cybersecurity plan. Sometimes you don’t need to do a full audit, and an assessment might fulfill your needs. It really depends on how big a problem you are trying to solve.

Best Practices for Internal Cybersecurity Audits

An internal audit might seem like the best option after you look at your needs and your team’s capabilities. If so, you’ll need to assure that you can cover all issues as well as an external auditor would. Auditors must have up-to-date training on the software and systems that will be evaluated. You’ll need to assure a high level of objectivity throughout the process.

Also remember to consider the effect the audit will have on your business as the audit happens; some disruptions will be inevitable. Be sure everyone who will be affected knows when and how that will happen, as well as what roles they might have to play.

Scope

You’ll first need to determine the scope of your audit. For example, do you want a comprehensive picture of everything related to cybersecurity? Or do you need to focus only on certain parts of your business? Ideally, you’ll examine the entire cybersecurity framework, not just certain technologies or departments.

You might need to look at any or all of the following types of assets:

  • Hardware such as computers, peripherals, servers, and personal devices
  • Sensitive company information
  • Sensitive customer information
  • Important internal documentation

Threats

Once you’ve decided the scope, identify the threats specific to each of those areas. You will need to make an honest assessment of your organization’s ability to defend against each one. Depending on your business, those threats can include the following:

  • BYOD. Employees allowed to “bring your own device” can introduce threats through those devices.
  • DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service). Attackers overload servers with bogus user traffic, preventing genuine users from accessing your systems.
  • Malware. Malicious software can incapacitate your systems or remain undetected for days, weeks, or even months.
  • Password theft. Cybercriminals steal or guess passwords so they can access sensitive information.
  • Social engineering. Employees are approached through phone calls, fake news sites, text messages, and social media, to be duped into taking dangerous activity.
  • SQL injection. Attackers manipulate SQL “queries” (the typical string of code requests sent to a service or server) to retrieve sensitive information.
  • Zero-Day exploits. A targeted attack against a system, network, or software that takes advantage of an overlooked security problem.

Response

The last part of your audit is to plan the response. This part needs to be as granular and specific as the rest of the process; every threat will need a corresponding response. Which actions to take first will depend on how you prioritized risk.

Some threats will have quick fixes, such as software updates and data backups. Others might take months to address fully — such as sourcing new tools or changing people’s attitudes and behaviors. You might discover that you have a great deal of capability to respond to some threats. You might also find threats that require outside help to address.

Either way, specificity about how each threat should be treated is crucial to combating those threats, and to making the audit process worth all the effort.

Keep in mind, “internal” doesn’t mean no help at all. Software is available to help you streamline your internal audit process. Reciprocity’s audit solutions can make it easier to gather data, understand that data in a clear visual format, and share it across teams.

Cybersecurity Audit Checklist

Your cybersecurity audit will occur in three phases and cover multiple subjects. To help you in your planning, we’ll list those phases first, followed by the subjects you’ll cover.

Phases of the Audit

  1. Prepare

    • All necessary stakeholders are involved.
    • Scope is clearly defined.
    • Possible business disruptions caused by the audit have been identified.
    • Auditors are sufficiently trained and equipped.
  2. Conduct

    • All threats are identified.
    • Measure against standards specific to the technology in use.
    • Measure against standards specific to your industry.
    • Know all pertinent compliance requirements.
  3. Respond

    • Plan next steps based on audit findings.
    • Actions are specific to each threat.

Subjects of the Audit

Each of the following subjects can be broken down into an even more detailed audit checklist, but every audit should cover the following:

  • Management
  • Employees
  • Business practices
  • IT staff
  • Physical security
  • Secure data
  • Active monitoring and testing

Preparing for an External Cybersecurity Audit

Considering all the resources necessary for a thorough cybersecurity audit, you might decide to hire an external auditor for the job. That will probably save you headaches, but you’ll still need to undertake some of the same preparations to make the audit a seamless process. Here are the important areas to review before beginning.

Having the following information documented and accessible will remove friction from an external audit process:

  • Security personnel. Make a list of relevant employees and their responsibilities. This will allow your auditors to understand your security architecture quickly, and to contact easily the people they need throughout the audit process.
  • Network architecture. Create a visual map of all the assets on your network, how they’re connected, and how they work together. This will help auditors identify gaps.
  • Security policies. Larger organizations may have several policies that affect cybersecurity. These include network access controls, remote work rules, disaster recovery/business continuity plans, and internet use policies. Together, these documents will give auditors deeper insight into your security practices.
  • Compliance requirements. Give auditors a list of legal or industry compliance obligations that address cybersecurity. This will help the auditors determine the scope of the audit, and how well your organization is meeting compliance standards. Include any solutions for compliance you might already use.

After the Audit: Securing Your Business Data

After the audit you’ll have a keen understanding of your organization’s security weaknesses. Now you need a plan of action.

The next step, then, is to determine which of the risks uncovered in the audit need the most urgent attention. As mentioned above, each threat will require a specific response. Some solutions will be technological; others will have more to do with policies or organizational culture.

How to Prioritize Risks

Any risks you uncover should be prioritized based on the likelihood of the risk (probability), how damaging it would be (impact), and how prepared you are to address it (capabilities).

Prioritization is an area where objectivity is incredibly important. Here’s an easy formula to help you figure out which risks are the most urgent. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate each of the items listed in the previous paragraph. Add those three numbers, then divide that sum by 3 to get the risk score.

(Probability + impact + capabilities) /3 = risk score

To help you assign these scores, consider the broader contexts that define your threat landscape. For example, certain types of attacks might have recently become more popular or sophisticated. Perhaps certain trends exist in your specific industry. A highly regulated business will need to consider compliance requirements when calculating the impact of each threat as well.

Finally, make sure threats are measured against standards that are specific to each technology you’re evaluating. For example, you’ll want to measure your third-party access risks against NIST standards, and your payment processing software against PCI DSS standards. This is an area where auditors’ training and experience are important.

Remediating Security Threats

Once you’ve determined your security threats, it’s time to remediate them.

It’s very likely that the audit will leave you and your cybersecurity team with several follow-up actions. They will fall into three areas: systems, people, and policies.

Here are some possible protections against the common threats we’ve already discussed, and the category into which they fall. Keep in mind that the best solution might differ from one organization to the next.

  • BYOD. Update rules on allowable use and educate employees (policies, people).
  • DDoS. Outsource additional cloud-based mitigation services (systems).
  • Malware. Survey employees about cybersecurity awareness (people); schedule frequent network
  • scans (systems).

  • Password theft. Require multi-factor authentication (systems).
  • Social engineering. Create or enhance an employee awareness program (people).
  • SQL injection. Prevent user-supplied input into web forms (systems).
  • Zero-Day exploits. Implement network access control (systems) and educate employees (people).

Compliance requirements may also overlap with your cyber threat response. If so, software solutions like ZenGRC can help you stay secure and in accordance with different frameworks.

Create Training for Employees

For most organizations, one of the biggest threats is employees who don’t understand — or respond to — the risks inherent in their work environments. If an audit reveals that many of your vulnerabilities are due to user error, you can look to existing best practices in security awareness to address your “people” problems.

The best way to eliminate such threats is to update policies and educate your employees. All personnel should know:

  • What kinds of materials, processes, and environments present potential threats
  • What risks can be posed by outside contractors or vendors
  • Which of employees’ own behaviors pose significant risks
  • The risks of social engineering
  • How policies help to thwart specific threats

It’s important to find effective ways to communicate the issues raised in your cybersecurity audit. A wholesale information dump won’t be enough. It will take various, engaging forms of education and information to make clear that your organization’s leaders have made cybersecurity a priority.

Cybersecurity Audits Made Easy

It’s clear that the path to a secure cyber environment takes many steps. From an initial assessment to a detailed audit to your follow-up, you now have all the information you need to chart that course successfully.

ZenGRC takes some headaches out of auditing and supports ongoing cybersecurity by:

  • Gathering customized evidence and reports
  • Making third-party risks more visible
  • Increasing visibility to address gaps and respond to incidents
  • Automating routine cybersecurity compliance activities

Integrating compliance management software lets you tackle compliance while enabling a smoother cybersecurity audit process. Automation gives you a clearer understanding of your IT security and the ability to share that information with your audit team and stakeholders.

To learn more about how ZenGRC can help with the auditing process, schedule a demo with our team today.