How to Perform a Cybersecurity Audit for Colleges & Universities

Kyle Chin
Kyle Chin
updated Sep 11, 2022

Cybersecurity audits are essential for any organization to review, analyze, and update its current IT infrastructure, information security policies (ISP), and overall cybersecurity risk management protocols. Audits are a critical part of information security and should be performed annually to ensure that new policies are implemented properly, potential vulnerabilities are identified, and the school maintains compliance with regulatory standards.

Because colleges and universities handle large amounts of extremely sensitive data, all higher education institutions perform cybersecurity audits to lower the risk of a cyber attack. By addressing the weaknesses in their cybersecurity infrastructure, schools can better protect themselves against cybersecurity threats and improve their security practices. This article will discuss how colleges and universities can prepare for an audit and best practices to develop a strong security policy.

Benefits of Cybersecurity Audits for Colleges & Universities

The main goal of a cybersecurity audit is to address an organization’s security risks and maintain compliance to improve its overall security posture. Audits should generally be performed by an external third party outside the school to ensure unbiased assessments. However, internal audits may be more cost-effective and efficient for smaller schools (HBCUs, community colleges, etc.).

The main benefits of a cybersecurity audit include:

Learn more about general cybersecurity audits here.

Types of Cybersecurity Audits

There are five main types of cybersecurity audits:

  1. Cyber Risk Assessments - Risk assessments are critical for schools to fill security gaps, identify external threats, and define attack mitigation processes. Risk assessments provide a comprehensive analysis of a school’s security posture and attack surface to help prevent data breaches or data leaks.
  2. Vulnerability Assessment - Vulnerability assessments are different than risk assessments in that they identify specific weaknesses in the school’s network, technology, security infrastructure, and computer systems. Vulnerabilities assessments are internal assessments that identify all attack vectors that need to be remediated.
  3. Compliance Audits - Compliance audits assess whether schools are following mandatory regulations set by local, state, or federal governments. Any violations of cybersecurity compliance regulations could result in significant fines or penalties for the school.
  4. Penetration Tests - Many compliance procedures require penetration tests to ensure that every area of the organization’s IT security can adequately defend against external threats. Ethical hackers attempt to exploit vulnerabilities or discover new ones to gain access to the school’s servers or network. Successful attempts help organizations fill any security gaps that they may have overlooked.
  5. Cyber Maturity Assessments - Maturity audits provide unique insight on what level of cybersecurity competence an organization should be at in relation to their current capabilities (level of technology used, size of IT team, established processes, etc.). Cyber maturity audits can help organizations prioritize areas of investment, compare maturity paths with peers, and determine overall cyber resiliency.

How Colleges & Universities Can Perform a Cybersecurity Audit

Cybersecurity audits can be complicated processes that require preparation beforehand to ensure the audit is performed properly. Whether your school chooses to do internal or external audits, here are a few steps to take to prepare for any assessments or audits needed:

1. Define the Scope of the Audit

The first step to any audit is to determine which audits are required, what assets (both physical and digital) they will cover, who will be performing the audit, and the ultimate goal of the audit (annual checkup, stakeholder updates, a new overhaul of security infrastructure, etc.).

Once the scope is determined, organizations can begin prioritizing areas of highest importance or value to audit. If a particular area of the network is extremely vulnerable, it may hold a higher importance than assets with a lower value.

Some more important areas colleges and universities can focus on are:

2. Gather All Relevant Resources

After determining the scope determine the scope of the audit, the next step is to gather all relevant information regarding:

  • Current security policies, including incident response plans, disaster recovery plans, business continuity plans, rules for personal device use, employee access permissions, authentication processes, network segmentation practices, etc.
  • Related regulatory and compliance standards
  • List of IT-related employees and security personnel
  • List of cyber-related assets
  • Detailed map of network infrastructure
  • Any access requirements

This step is particularly important if the school is planning on hiring a third-party auditor that will not have access to this information beforehand. All related documents and information should be organized and compiled into one larger collection to help give auditors the best insight into the school’s cybersecurity practices.

3. Identify Threats & Attack Vectors

Identifying all potential threats requires the schools to be completely honest about their cyber risks and how they’re currently managing them. This also requires schools to disclose their known security gaps and any measures to secure them. Once the complete list of threats has been established, auditors can determine if sufficient security controls have been put in place to defend against them.

Some common problems that colleges and universities face include:

4. Review Security Protocols & Incident Response Plans

Auditors can use all the gathered information to review the existing security protocols while recommending new ones, if necessary. For newer schools that don’t have solid procedures yet, they can follow existing frameworks, such as the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) framework, to establish working cybersecurity policies.

For schools with outdated policies, it’s important to update existing ones to ensure they are consistent with the current standards and reviewed consistently within a specific timeframe. This also includes staying compliant with regulatory standards and internal rules and protocols.

Finally, incident response plans must be implemented or updated accordingly. Ideally, schools should have multiple response plans to address every type of cyber threat. However, schools should prioritize the cyber threats with the highest risk and most vulnerable areas within the school’s systems.

Incident response plans should include:

Learn more about how to create an incident response plan here.

What To Do After a Cybersecurity Audit for Colleges & Universities

The number one thing every school needs to do after a cybersecurity audit is to continue maintaining and enforcing best cybersecurity practices. Any oversight or failure to uphold the established security protocols by any employee or student can quickly lead to a data breach or malware attack.

Audits should also be performed at least once a year to keep up with changing threat landscapes. Depending on the school size, audits may be needed on a quarterly or biannual basis. Although an audit can be costly and require plenty of time and resources, it’s important to keep up with the most current security standards to prevent even more significant damages should an attack occur.

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