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Stop Letting Security Audits Go to Waste–They’re More Than Just a Checkbox Exercise

Jun 18 2024

Over the past two decades, data has become a critical asset for nearly every organisation. Consequently, a variety of regulations and industry standards now govern business operations. In today’s data-driven age, certification through security audits serves as a testament to an organisation’s adherence to industry standards, regulations, and security measures.

However, despite their importance, organisations often fall into the trap of treating these audits merely as a procedural checkbox exercise, rather than recognising it as an opportunity to set in place the best practices that are designed to protect an organisation’s data. 

The value of security audits 

In today’s corporate landscape, the majority of organisations undergo certification by auditors, with this stamp of approval proving to customers, partners, and the broader market that the organisation operates at a level of quality, security, and compliance in line with industry standards and regulatory mandates.

Obtaining these certificates & reports comes at a significant cost–the average security audit can cost an organisation between $1,500 and $100,000, depending on factors like company size, number of servers, the number of certifications being assessed, and other bespoke considerations. Given the considerable investment involved, organisations should be wary that they don’t let auditors’ recommendations sit idly, but instead strive to extract value from their investment by using it as an opportunity to identify areas of vulnerability before a threat actor does. Audits are intricately designed to evaluate compliance with regulations–it’s essential to understand the intent of the regulation and use that to frame discussions on how you should approach these subjects within your organisation. 

Embracing auditors’ recommendations

Certain certification security audits such as ISO 27001 typically follow a three-year cycle, beginning with an assessment of controls in the initial year. In subsequent years, auditors look to sample these controls to verify that they remain effective. However a typical SOC 2 Type 2 audit would have the auditor assessing all the controls every year.

For example, in the first year, a CISO may be asked to demonstrate that there is a cybersecurity education and awareness programme in place, which the auditor will then provide recommendations to improve. The CISO will point to the 99% completion rate for the annual employee cyber training and receive a tick from the auditor. However, upon further visits in years two and three, there is an expectation to find that the controls are in place and effective, looking to see evidence of the programme’s impact–including, for example, an increase in reported spam emails because of this education programme. Additionally, such a robust awareness program may also see a reduction in DLP alerts as users take more care in data handling. 

However, it’s common that auditors return in later years only to discover that the recommendations they’ve made have not been actioned adequately, or that new standards introduced in the interim have not been implemented since the previous audit. Such oversights can significantly affect a business’s evaluation and ultimately impact its reputation and operational capacity. 

To give a more specific example, there has been a wave of new requirements under the 2022 revisions to ISO 27001 Standards which added 11 new controls, including Data Loss Prevention/Protection (DLP) and Threat intelligence.

CISOs should expect auditors to assess the implementation of DLP tools in upcoming audits and inquire where applicable about preparations for NIS2 and DORA compliance. Organisations should view audits as opportunities to not only integrate DLP tools, but also use them effectively to safeguard critical data and mitigate risks of unauthorised access or breaches. Auditors will request tangible evidence of compliance, emphasising the importance of demonstrable actions over mere assertions. Tools like security service edge (SSE), for example, can provide invaluable insight into AI application usage, aiding in compliance efforts for the EU’s new AI Act.

Proactive investment into prevention culture 

To demonstrate the adoption of these recommendations there will need to be conversations around budgets for cybersecurity initiatives. Compliance requirements can prove a significant weapon in the arsenal for CISOs when negotiating additional budgets from frugal CEOs, CFOs, and boards. CISOs should make an effort to link these certifications both with the preventative effort–risk mitigation, reduction of data loss, avoiding financial punishments through fines–as well as the empowering nature of compliance for the business through new sales opportunities opened up and reputation within the market. 

Effective preparation for, and learnings from audits are indispensable for maintaining good cybersecurity hygiene–remember auditors come in many forms and assess various aspects of a business, necessitating comprehensive scrutiny and proactive measures.

Organisations should not view certification as a procedural obligation; rather, security audits should be recognised for their added business value. The organisations that refine their security programmes based on auditor feedback will be proactively protecting their data to the highest possible standards. 

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Scott Bullock
Scott Bullock is a seasoned information security professional with over 20 years experience in computer security audit, SDLC, incident response, compliance and security program management bolstered by over 30 years of practical experience in network and systems project management as well as software development.

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