How to Perform a Cybersecurity Audit: A 3-Step Guide

Catherine Chipeta
Catherine Chipeta
updated Sep 11, 2022

Large-scale data breaches are flooding headlines, as major security incidents like ransomware and supply chain attacks become more strategic by the day. Organizations that fail to address their cybersecurity blindspots in such a volatile threat landscape will inevitably suffer a data breach.

Gaining complete visibility over your entire cybersecurity program is the most effective way of addressing security gaps, identifying threats, and solidifying prevention and defense measures against cyber attacks.

To access this level of insight, you must perform a cybersecurity audit. Audits assess the effectiveness of your organization’s current cybersecurity program and ensure you’ve implemented or will implement the measures required to improve your security posture.

Cybersecurity audits are a tedious, but necessary task. With the right approach, your organization can achieve a steady cadence of auditing and maintain the visibility required to identify cybersecurity threats before they turn into data breaches. Read on to learn how to conduct an effective cybersecurity audit to manage cyber risk effectively

What is a Cybersecurity Audit?

A cybersecurity audit is an in-depth review of an organization’s security measures and is a vital component of a comprehensive risk management strategy. Performed correctly, a cybersecurity audit should uncover all of an organization’s cybersecurity risks and detail the policies, procedures, and controls in place to manage these risks effectively.

An audit performs helps organizations to:

The detail and coverage of an audit depends on the frequency and purpose of the audit. For example, an annual audit will generally be more detailed than a monthly audit. A compliance audit will focus specifically on the requirements of an industry standard/regulation, e.g., PCI DSS and GDPR, whereas an audit following a data breach will be more thorough. 

A comprehensive cybersecurity audit can reveal the following information about an organization:

  • Data security practices
  • Software and hardware performance
  • Regulatory and legal compliance status
  • Vulnerabilities affecting the ecosystem
  • Effectiveness of existing security policies and procedures
  • The presence of internal and external threats

A more targeted or smaller-scale audit usually covers one particular area of an organization’s security program, such as:

How Often Should I Perform a Cybersecurity Audit?

The recommended frequency and scope of audits depend on several factors, such as:

  • The sensitivity of data stored and accessible through internal systems 
  • The quantity and type of network endpoints
  • The quantity and type of software and hardware
  • The volatility of the current threat landscape
  • Specific regulatory, industry, and legal compliance requirements
  • The availability of resources required to conduct the audit

Why are Cybersecurity Audits Important?

Ongoing digital transformation introduces new cyber threats daily. Organizations must be certain their current cybersecurity program can respond to these threats accordingly. Having no audit plan not only increases cyber risk, but puts an organization at risk of being non-compliant with legal and regulatory requirements

Non-compliance means an organization’s cybersecurity practices are not up to industry standards, increasing the chances of a data breach or other serious security incident. Harsh fines, legal action, and reputational damage follow shortly after the mishandling of sensitive data

Regular cybersecurity audits surface any missing or inadequate protection and defense measures, allowing security teams to implement the required mitigating controls and to prioritize risk remediation.

How to Perform an Internal Cybersecurity Audit

Regular internal cybersecurity audits should be mandated in your information security policy (ISP) and broader enterprise risk management (ERM) framework. Establishing a clear process for audit teams to conduct a cybersecurity assessment, ensures audits should only identify recent and high-risk threats, as opposed to a backlog of outstanding IT security issues. 

The following three steps outline best practices for performing a thorough cybersecurity audit. 

1. Determine Scope

Firstly, you need to detail which topics your audit will cover. An ideal starting point is to identify which elements of your cybersecurity program your audit needs to address, i.e., Why are you performing the audit? Who are the key stakeholders involved? How will you perform the audit?

Specific components you may want to focus on include:

  • IT Infrastructure, including hardware, networking, and software components 
  • Sensitive data storage, transmission, and protection
  • Physical security practices
  • Your cybersecurity policies and procedures
  • Compliance standards

Once you have determined the scope of your audit, ensure you document the requirements of specific audit you are conducting for consistency in future audits.

If you’re performing a compliance audit, you’ll need to know the exact requirements of the cybersecurity framework, standard, or compliance regulation you’re auditing. Note that many of these regulations also require external audits too. 

Learn more about cybersecurity compliance and regulations.

2. Identify Threats

After determining the scope, it’s time to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment. Risk assessments identify the threats affecting the scope of your audit and the current security controls in place to mitigate them.

Common cyber threats in today’s landscape include: 

  • Malware: any program or file that seeks to invade, damage, or disable computer systems. Ransomware is currently one of the most dangerous forms of malware, wherein hackers encrypt an organizations’ sensitive information, demanding a ransom payment before its decryption.
  • SQL Injections: Injecting SQL code into a user’s input in a web application to gain unauthorized access to a database server.
  • Zero-Day Exploits: An unpatched security vulnerability that is unknown to the developer, exploited by hackers to gain unauthorized access to internal systems.

The most effective way to identify all the threats affecting your attack surface is through continuous security monitoring. An automated attack surface management platform, like UpGuard, can detect cyber threats in real time, allowing security teams to remediate them before they’re exploited.

Learn how UpGuard can help your organization detect and respond to threats.

3. Plan Response

Once you’ve identified the threats affecting your organization’s cybersecurity, you must now implement an incident response plan. A comprehensive incident response plan should cover the following:

  • A methodology for prioritizing risks and processes for remediation, such as software patching, strengthening security architecture, and segmenting network structure.
  • A business continuity plan to ensure disaster recovery following all potential security. incidents found during the threat identification process.
  • Documentation of the prevention, detection, and response tools in place to protect security systems.
  • A communication plan, including employee training and awareness resources.

A clear incident response plan will help external auditors streamline the audit process by proactively demonstrating the mitigating measures in place for cybersecurity risk.

Learn how to create an effective incident response plan.

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