Guide To Conducting a Cyber Security Audit
Regular cybersecurity audits are necessary to ensure that security efforts remain effective in foiling cyberattacks.
- Cybercrime is a costly and growing problem that can deliver a blow to corporate profits and reputation.
- Cybersecurity audits offer companies the greatest possible confidence in their security measures.
- Effective audits are best done by outside experts, provided you’re thoroughly prepared.
Is your company prepared to fend off a cyberattack? It isn’t a hypothetical question. Daily headlines about successful data breaches, stealth viruses and email phishing underscore both the prevalence and cost of cyberattacks. Yet many organizations, even those with security plans in place, don’t know how vulnerable they still may be. To find out, experts advocate for thorough and regular cybersecurity audits.
What Is a Cyber Security Audit?
Although sometimes referred to as a checklist, a cybersecurity audit is, in fact, much more than a superficial review. An audit is an exhaustive analysis of your complete IT infrastructure. Its purpose is to find threats to your data and shine spotlights on weak links and high-risk practices. It’s also a powerful tool for ensuring that you’re compliant with applicable regulations, such as the data privacy requirements in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
There are two basic types of cybersecurity audits, each intended to yield these benefits from a different perspective. A Type 1 audit yields a detailed picture of your security protocols, such as two-factor authentication or use of a virtual private network (VPN), at the specific time in which you do the audit. A Type 2 audit looks at those same protocols over an extended period of time, commonly a year.
There are powerful benefits to both types of audit, but be prepared because both are typically time-consuming and expensive. Timeframes vary depending on the complexity of the audit and the maturity of your defenses. Experts say you should expect the process to take at least four weeks and potentially as many as 18. For budgeting purposes, an audit may cost as little as $1,500 — or as much as $50,000. Many variables drive that range, so experts suggest that you make sure you understand the scope of work included in an audit before you sign the contract.
Also, be sure to differentiate between a cybersecurity audit and its cousin, the cybersecurity assessment. In the simplest terms, an audit is designed to determine whether the organization has addressed specific threats. For example, the audit would identify whether a firewall or two-factor authentication protocol were in place. An assessment is intended to figure out how well the barriers to those threats actually work. In other words, is the firewall being breached?
Why Are Cyber Security Audits Necessary?
A cybersecurity breach is not for the faint-hearted. Compromised data can be costly, both immediately (income lost, fines assessed) and over time (a stock price drop, lost future business).
How costly? Estimates vary, but the Cost of a Data Breach Report 2021 cites the average total cost to an organization at $4.24 million, for typical breaches compromising 2,000 to 101,000 records. Bigger breaches carry price tags as much as 100 times higher. For example, a mega-breach (1 million to 65 million records) costs $401 million, on average.
Beyond the monetary cost, a cyberattack can leave your company’s reputation in ruins. In other words, there are powerful incentives to pursue watertight security. Although nothing is foolproof, experts assert that cybersecurity audits offer companies the greatest possible confidence in their security measures.
Best Practices for a Cyber Security Audit
If you can see the cyber audit imperative for your organization, and begin planning one, do you know what a top-notch audit looks like? To start with, although you can conduct an audit internally, experts suggest hiring an outside firm for the job. The primary benefit of that choice is to avoid a conflict of interest; few IT leaders want to report their own shortcomings. Other benefits include drawing on specialized expertise and tools and getting outside perspective on what other firms or industries have done well.
Other audit best practices include:
- Define the scope of the audit. List all of your data-related assets and then determine which need to be audited — and which don’t.
- Before the audit, make sure your security policy is current. A solid policy can help auditors classify your data and then determine the security needed to protect the data.
- Gather all your security policies in one place. Otherwise, auditors will waste time searching for the information they need.
- Provide auditors with a network diagram. It’s easier for auditors to pinpoint weaknesses if they can see the whole network at once.
- Know what you must do to be compliant, and share that with the auditors. That way, auditors can make sure their assessment supports your business needs.
- Create a list of everyone involved in your cybersecurity. Interviews are often a key piece of the audit, and those can be expedited if auditors are armed with names and responsibilities.
- Do a trial audit internally. Even if outside experts do the formal audit, you can do your practice audit first. The trial run will help you identify (and, ideally, correct) any major gaps before the formal audit. That can be much less expensive (and less stressful) than being surprised during the audit that counts.
- When the audit is complete, identify your possible responses to any weaknesses that were uncovered. Then prioritize those responses.
How Often Should You Do a Cyber Security Audit?
Many security experts advise conducting an audit at least once a year, while others advise auditing your security at least twice that often. That said, there is no single “right” answer about how often to schedule an audit.
For one thing, you must first consider any compliance requirements. For example, the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA) stipulates that all federal agencies complete an audit twice a year. That requirement extends to all companies that work with a federal agency. Other factors that can influence the frequency of audits include your budget, legal considerations and whether you have recently installed or upgraded hardware or software.
Benefits of a Cyber Security Audit
The greatest benefit of an effective audit is a stronger defense against an attack. But there are other benefits as well:
- Identify any holes in your defense.
- Determine whether you need to bolster your security efforts.
- Reassure employees, clients and vendors that data is safe.
- Boost the performance of your technology.
Deploy Technology to Streamline Audits
Cybersecurity audits are time consuming and complex, and security is an ever-moving target as new threats are introduced. Various technologies can help you streamline the process. For example, access rights software lets you see all user account permissions on a single dashboard, which spares you having to review them one at a time. Another technology, cloud archiving, can assume the burden of defensible data retention and disposition. Not only do cloud-based archives protect you from the risk that you’re out of compliance, they also ensure that you’re always ready for an audit.
If cybercrime were just a technology issue it wouldn’t be an ever-growing problem. In fact, it’s a human problem — most security breaches start with human error. Security protocols can help limit the possibility for human error, and regular cybersecurity audits help ensure that those protocols are as effective as possible.
The Bottom Line about Cyber Security Audits
Regular, in-depth audits of your complete IT infrastructure are essential to ensuring that your data is secure. Using outside experts to conduct the audit — and planning ahead to make the process as efficient as possible — can help make the audit impartial, accurate and more affordable.
 “Cost of a Data Breach Hits Record High During Pandemic,” IBM and Ponemon Institute
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