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How to Answer a Security Questionnaire: A 4-Step Guide

How to Answer a Security Questionnaire: A 4-Step Guide

Catherine Chipeta
Catherine Chipeta
updated May 01, 2022

A security questionnaire is a crucial part of an organization’s vendor risk assessment process. Client organizations use security questionnaires to gather insights into the security posture of their third-party vendors, such as their information security policies and practices. 

Ensuring that vendors’ cybersecurity measures align with both internal and external requirements allows organizations to identify third-party risk, and even fourth-party risk, across the entire supply chain attack surface.

Organizations can also use vendor security questionnaire responses to identify security gaps that their potential vendors must address before moving forward with new partnerships. 

Why Did I Receive a Security Questionnaire?

Your organization likely received a security questionnaire because a potential client/customer is interested in engaging your services. 

Client organizations send security questionnaires to vet third parties before onboarding them as part of the vendor due diligence process and at other crucial stages of the lifecycle. 

Why are Security Questionnaires Important?

Security questionnaires are an important element of organizations’ third-party risk management (TPRM) programs because it helps them perform vendor due diligence. 

When an organization provides a third party access to its sensitive data, it adopts all cybersecurity risks associated with that vendor. As such, if a third party suffers a data breach or other security incident, the client organization’s sensitive data is also at risk of compromise. 

The repercussions for exposing private data, such as customers’ personally identifiable information (PII) can result in regulatory action, financial action, litigation, and reputational damage.

Security questionnaires not only ensure service providers are following appropriate information security practices, but also help vendors enhance their incident response plans by addressing security gaps in their current cybersecurity programs.

What Topics Does a Security Questionnaire Cover?

Security questionnaires often cover one or more of the following cybersecurity topics:

Organizations will often use industry-standard frameworks as questionnaire templates for assessing third parties on the above topics. 

Industry-Standard Questionnaires

Some of the most popular industry-standard security questionnaire methodologies are listed below. 

CIS Critical Security Controls (CIS Top 18):

The Center for Internet Security (CIS) created the Critical Security Controls to help organizations defend themselves against cyber threats.

The CIS Top 18 prioritizes a list of actions that allow an organization to protect itself from cyber attacks on its critical systems and data.

The security controls map to most popular security frameworks, including the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, NIST 800-53, ISO 27000 series, and regulations like PCI DSS, HIPAA, NERC CIP, and FISMA.

Consensus Assessments Initiative Questionnaire (CAIQ) 

The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) created the Consensus Initiative Questionnaire (CAIQ) to further its aim of promoting secure cloud computing best practices.

CAIQ allows organizations to assess the security controls of IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS cloud providers.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST Special Publication) 800-171

NIST helps US organizations implement cybersecurity and privacy best practices and standards. 

NIST SP 800-171 is designed to protect controlled unclassified information (CUI) in nonfederal systems. The framework has 14 specific security objectives with a variety of controls and maps to NIST 800-53 and ISO 27001

Any organizations that offer products, solutions, or services to the Department of Defense (DoD), General Services Administration (GSA), or National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) must comply with NIST 800-171

Standardized Information Gathering Questionnaire (SIG / SIG-Lite)

SIG and SIG-Lite were published by the Shared Assessments Program, a global third-party risk management network that provides resources for managing vendor risk. 

The SIG questionnaire assesses cybersecurity, IT, privacy, data security, and business resiliency. SIG-Lite consists of higher-level questions adopted from SIG and is suitable for low-risk vendors.

Vendor Security Alliance Questionnaire (VSAQ)

VSA published VSAQ to achieve the organization’s goal of enhancing Internet security.

VSAQ assesses vendors’ security practices across six different areas – data protection, security policy, preventative and reactive security measures, supply chain management, and compliance. 

ISO/IEC 27001 (ISO 27001) 

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) developed ISO 27001 to help global organizations effectively manage data security and information security.  

ISO27001 implementation clearly indicates to an organization that a vendor has an effective information security management system (ISMS) in place.

Best Practices for Answering a Security Questionnaire in 2022

Below are some best practices on how to answer a questionnaire efficiently to build trusting third-party relationships. 

All service providers will receive a security assessment questionnaire from potential customers during the sales process. 

Your security teams must be prepared to answer each security question they are asked promptly and effectively as soon as your sales team responds to a request-for-proposal (RFP).

The following steps will help you streamline the response process, building a stronger level of trust with potential customers. 

Step 1. Provide Relevant Answers

Your security questionnaire responses should clearly answer the question being asked, including only relevant details and evidence. 

Always request further explanation from the client organization for any ambiguous questions rather than assuming the answer. Doing so will likely result in incorrect or invalid responses and additional communication between both parties, delaying the response process. 

Accurate answers with evidence are a crucial way of establishing trust with your customer. They also help you identify any gaps you may have in protecting customers’ sensitive information. 

For example, if a subject matter expert (SME) discovers that not all customer data is encrypted upon filling out a questionnaire, they can take immediate action to remediate the data leak before a security incident occurs. 

Step 2. Create a Knowledge Base

Building a single source of truth for your completed questionnaire responses will dramatically reduce the amount of time spent answering future questionnaires and ensure consistency across responses.

Your organization can streamline the response process for future questionnaires by building a single source of truth for completed questionnaire responses. Such a repository can help identify and access relevant information much faster – e.g. a spreadsheet can be used to record all answers, allowing responses to be sorted by questionnaire type, date, client organization.

However, it must be manually updated with the most recent and accurate information regularly, which can be a time-consuming task. 

Alternatively, the use of third-party risk management automation can entirely bypass the need to manually input and update questionnaire responses. 

For example, UpGuard’s Shared Profile feature allows vendors to proactively share their completed questionnaires with client organizations. 

Shared Profile streamlines both the vendor response and customer/prospect risk assessment processes by dramatically reducing the amount of time they require to complete.

Step 3. Gain Certifications 

While gaining certification for popular security frameworks, such as SOC2, NIST, HIPAA, GDPR, ISO 27001, and FISMA is a time-consuming and cost-intensive process, there is a significant return-on-investment.

Framework certification shows that your organization’s security program meets international standards and can often be used in lieu of answering multiple questions. Compliance with such frameworks is especially important in heavily-regulated industries, such as finance and healthcare.

Keeping an organized record of all certifications and supporting documentation ensures you have these available upon request for customers and prospects and can readily address any compliance gaps. 

UpGuard Vendor Risk provides a centralized platform for assessing and proving framework compliance.

The Compliance Reporting feature maps vendors’ responses to security questionnaires against these frameworks, such as ISO 27001, NIST Cybersecurity Framework, PCI DSS, NIST SP 800-53, GDPR, to identify areas of compliance and non-compliance, allowing faster remediation.

Step 4. Create a Remediation Plan

Building an up-to-date repository of questionnaire responses provides detailed insight into your organization’s security gaps. The next step is to remediate any identified issues and develop a remediation plan in the unfortunate event a vulnerability is exploited. 

Customers and prospects value remediation plans as they show your organization is serious about protecting sensitive data and mitigating security threats..The key to building credibility with clients and prospects is to remain on top of any arising vulnerabilities and maintain a healthy security posture on top of your remediation plan. 

A complete attack surface management solution, like UpGuard, can identify cybersecurity issues across the third-party attack surface in real time and speed up the remediation process through fully-automated workflows. 

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