Best Practices for Cybersecurity Audits

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What is a cybersecurity audit? 

A cybersecurity audit identifies the security risks present in a company and reviews IT systems along with the policies, procedures, and controls used to keep risks at acceptable levels. Depending on the company’s risk tolerance, the response to the findings of a cybersecurity audit may be to accept, avoid, mitigate, share, or transfer the risk. 

Taking a proactive approach to cybersecurity risk is vital, as the business impact of a security incident can be dire:

Here’s everything you need to know about cybersecurity audit benefits, frequency, scope, and best practices.

Benefits of a cybersecurity audit 

Companies of all sizes and across all industries can benefit from cybersecurity audits. These benefits include:

  • Uncovering security gaps in your IT systems and networks 

  • Guidance for practicing continuous improvement in your cybersecurity posture 

  • Safeguarding customer data, intellectual property, and other sensitive information 

  • Ensuring your software codebase is secure and sustainable in the long term 

  • Keeping up with the quickly evolving global cyber threat landscape 

  • Staying in line with regulatory requirements and changes in the legal landscape 

  • Building trust and credibility among prospects, customers, and business partners 

When should you run a cybersecurity audit? 

It’s important to note that cybersecurity audits are not a “one and done” or “once in a while” security exercise. In today’s rapidly changing and expanding threat landscape, sophisticated threat actors are constantly looking for new gaps and vulnerabilities to exploit. As such, we recommend conducting audits a minimum of twice a year. And they shouldn't only occur after a security incident! It is also important to implement good cybersecurity hygiene.

Other factors that can influence the frequency and/or timing of your cybersecurity audits include: 

  • Your industry may have compliance requirements that stipulate how often you should assess your cybersecurity. 

  • There may be a change in compliance laws such as GDPR or HIPAA, in which case you should conduct a fresh audit.

  • Prior to a merger or acquisition, remediating compliance or vulnerability concerns is often a requirement. This can also be a part of the technical due diligence process.

Cybersecurity audit vs. cybersecurity assessment 

The terms “cybersecurity audit” and “cybersecurity assessment” are frequently used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. 

A cybersecurity audit is a more formal and documented process usually carried out by an organization’s IT security team or a firm that specializes in security audits. In the context of regulatory compliance, a business may also be required to undergo an audit carried out by an independent third-party assessor. 

For example, a cloud solution provider looking to do business with the US government must earn authorization to operate (ATO) status by passing a FedRAMP audit conducted by an accredited third-party assessment organization. 

On the other hand, a cybersecurity assessment is usually an internal pulse check that occurs in between official audits. While not quite as time-intensive and rigorous as an audit, assessments are valuable for ensuring that cybersecurity controls remain effective over time. This combats the dreaded environmental drift that occurs when security issues slowly crop up between audits. 

In a software company, baking cybersecurity assessments directly into daily processes is critical, as there are thousands of opportunities for vulnerabilities to emerge as code is written, deployed, and modified. Infrastructure drift, for instance, is a common circumstance in which the real-time state of infrastructure doesn’t match what’s defined in your infrastructure as code (IaC) configuration. This can result from human error, poor configuration, apps making unwanted changes, and other variables. 

Drift detection addresses such challenges by continuously monitoring for drift and rapidly notifying developers about emerging problems and how to fix them. Embedding ongoing cybersecurity assessments throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC) enables companies to identify misconfiguration issues and enforce security best practices during development as well as after code is pushed to production. 

What is included in a cybersecurity audit? 

A cybersecurity audit includes a careful examination of your company’s information security controls, guidelines, and policies. The audit covers every aspect of cybersecurity: data security, system security, operational security, network security, and physical security. 

A comprehensive cybersecurity audit allows you to identify risk areas, pinpoint vulnerabilities and potential threats, uncover high-risk business practices, and address gaps in security education for staff. With this knowledge in hand, you can go about creating a plan of action and milestones (POA&M), which is a roadmap of steps to take for improving your cybersecurity. A POA&M includes: 

  • The priority order of the tasks you need to accomplish

  • Proposed remediation actions 

  • The employees responsible for each task

  • Milestones that will indicate success 

  • Scheduled completion dates

Using this approach allows you to stay organized in your compliance efforts and share your plan easily across the company. Learn about the three types of cybersecurity audits here.

Best practices for preparing for a cybersecurity audit 

Getting ready for an audit is a gradual process and shouldn’t feel like a stressful scramble. Here are some best practices to prepare for, undergo, and take action after a cybersecurity audit. 

Review relevant compliance standards 

When preparing to undergo a cybersecurity audit, one of the first things you should do is take stock of any compliance regulations you must meet, such as HIPAA, PCI DSS, SOX, or GDPR. Outside of legal obligations, it’s possible you may want to map to a voluntary standard like ISO 27001 to earn a certification for internal peace of mind or to fulfill a contractual requirement for a prospect or customer. 

In either case, compliance standards can serve as a guide to help your business get things in order prior to the audit. Additionally, sharing this information with your auditor will allow them to make more detailed and actionable remediation recommendations for staying compliant in the long term. 

Review your data security policy 

A cybersecurity audit should always necessitate a data security policy review. Essential elements of a data security policy, also known as an information security policy, include: 

  • A high-level description of the policy’s purpose 

  • A definition of the program’s goals and objectives 

  • A thorough outline of the policy’s scope and boundaries 

  • Names and titles of those who own the policies and its updates 

  • A list of regulations that the policy is intended to promote compliance with 

  • Details about minimum security control requirements along with the procedures and processes used to maintain the effectiveness of the controls 

  • Details regarding user education and how staff members will be trained to follow the policy 

It’s a good idea to consult a cybersecurity framework such as NIST CSF or COBIT when developing your data security policy. Following a trusted framework allows your cybersecurity program to stay efficient while maintaining centralized insights into how risk is being managed.

Review personnel, responsibilities, and access 

Another important piece of documentation that goes hand in hand with your data security policy is an inventory of security roles, responsibilities, and access levels. Creating a list of employees directly involved in your cybersecurity program and the activities they are responsible for facilitates greater visibility and accountability. Additionally, it makes it easier for your auditor to understand your cybersecurity architecture and where to send specific feedback.  

Detail your network structure 

Because one of the primary goals of the audit is to help your organization locate network security gaps, it’s a good idea to document the current state of your IT infrastructure with a network diagram. This overview of your network design also helps your auditor understand your network edges, architecture, and how various assets work together. 

Outline your software development process 

As mentioned above, ensuring security throughout the SDLC is one of the most vital elements of cybersecurity for today’s technology companies. Because vulnerabilities become magnified and spread to all users of a given piece of software, it’s essential to discover, mitigate and remediate them as early in the process as possible. 

Outlining your CI/CD pipeline — from the planning phase all the way to deployment — gives you the ability to see if there are opportunities to practice shift left security. There’s no question that fixing a software defect is an order of magnitude more difficult and expensive in the production phase compared to fixing it earlier in the design, implementation, or testing phases.

How Snyk can help your cybersecurity audits 

It’s very likely that, when preparing for a cybersecurity audit or after receiving remediation recommendations from an auditor, you’ll uncover opportunities to improve the security of your SDLC. 

While implementing shift left security may sound complex and daunting, modern developer security operations (DevSecOps) tools make it easier than ever for developers to take on greater responsibility for cybersecurity. Learn more about how Snyk gives developers the ability to integrate security measures into the tools (IDEs, CLIs, Git, etc.) and workflows they already use. 

Up Next

Cybersecurity Hygiene 101

Cybersecurity hygiene is the process of developing healthy habits to guard you against threats online. Use our checklist to implement best practices.

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