A security questionnaire is a set of questions designed to help an organization identify potential cybersecurity weaknesses among its third-party and fourth-party vendors, business partners, and service providers.
Organizations use security questionnaires to deliver informed vendor risk assessments. They allow organizations to vet potential vendors and other third parties by ensuring their information security practices and security policies meet both internal and external requirements.
Security questionnaires provide clear, comprehensive insight into the security posture of third-party vendors. Organizations can use them quickly to identify any security gaps present in their vendor ecosystem and request immediate remediation to both begin and continue business relationships.
Why are Security Questionnaires Important?
Security questionnaires are important because they allow your organization to responsibly vet vendors before going forward with the onboarding process and enabling third-party data handling.
When an organization gives a third-party vendor access to its sensitive data, it takes on the risks of that vendor. As such, an organization’s private data will likely become compromised if its third-party vendor suffers a data breach or other security incident.
Failure to manage these risks by performing due diligence and having an effective third-party risk management (TPRM) program in place can leave your organization exposed to regulatory action, financial action, litigation, reputational damage, and can impair your organization's ability to gain new customers or retain existing ones.
Security questionnaires are a crucial element of a robust TPRM program. They ensure your service providers are following appropriate information security practices and can help with incident response planning.
What Topics Does a Security Questionnaire Cover?
Security questionnaires may cover any of the numerous topics which contribute to a third party’s security posture, such as:
- Information Security and Privacy
- Physical and Datacenter Security
- Web Application Security
- Infrastructure Security
- Information Security Policy
- Business Continuity Management
- Operational Resilience
- Incident Response Planning
- Governance, Risk Management, and Compliance
- Threat and Vulnerability Management
- Supply Chain Management
- Access Control
- Data Privacy
Creating an Effective Security Questionnaire
Below are some best practices for how to create an effective security questionnaire. For vendors who want to learn how to respond to a security questionnaire efficiently, click here to skip ahead.
Your organization must create and send security questionnaires to perform effective vendor due diligence when entering new third-party partnerships. Security questionnaires can often be lengthy and tedious and vendors often deprioritize their completion, even when provided with deadlines.
Crucial information like network security and data security practices are only accessible by asking the vendor directly. This knowledge gap means it is even more important that your questionnaires address the right areas.
For vendors, you must ensure your security team can respond to security questionnaires quickly and comprehensively.
The following best practices can help your organization create and send effective vendor security questionnaires.
1. Use an Industry-Standard Questionnaire
It’s common practice to use an industry-standard questionnaire as a template and build upon it as necessary, depending on your organization’s requirements.
Some widely-used industry-standard methodologies include:
- CIS Critical Security Controls (CIS First 5 / CIS Top 20):
CIS’ Top 20 outlines a set of prioritized actions that help protect an organization from cyber attacks on its critical systems and data.
- Consensus Assessments Initiative Questionnaire (CAIQ):
The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) educates and promotes secure cloud computing best practices.
The organization developed CAIQ to document security controls across IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS offerings.
Organizations should use CAIQ when screening cloud providers.
- NIST 800-171
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guides cybersecurity and privacy best practices and standards in the US.
NIST 800-171 helps organizations protect controlled unclassified information (CUI) in nonfederal systems and through 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):
- VSA Questionnaire (VSAQ):
The Vendor Security Alliance (VSA) published VSAQ to further their aim of enhancing Internet security.
VSAQ allows organizations to monitor their supplier’s 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):
ISO 27001 was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).
Organizations across the globe implement ISO27001 to effectively manage data security and information security within their information security management system (ISMS).
2. Cover Industry-Specific Compliance Requirements
Many regulations are applicable across all industries, such as GDPR, CCPA, and LGPD. Sectors like healthcare and financial services are more heavily regulated and have additional compliance requirements, such as HIPAA and PCI DSS, respectively.
It’s important to make sure your team is aware of the unique compliance requirements of each potential vendor to ensure you send all necessary security assessment questionnaires.
3. Create a Custom Questionnaire
While industry-standard questionnaires cover much of the fundamental information you need to gauge your vendors’ security programs, new security risks outside of these standards are emerging daily across your third-party attack surface.
For example, the 2020 SolarWinds breach saw an unprecedented number of organizations affected. Organizations needed to ask vendors specific questions about their relationship with SolarWinds which were not addressable through industry-standard frameworks.
Custom questionnaires allow you to combine questions from existing questionnaires with questions about new threats, specific to the vendor you are asking.
4. Automate the Process
One of the best ways to speed up your vendors’ security questionnaire response time is to create straightforward, user-friendly questionnaires.
How to Answer a Security Questionnaire Efficiently
As a service provider, you will undoubtedly receive many security questionnaires when engaging with potential new clients.
Your infosec team must be prepared to complete any security questionnaires from the moment your sales team responds to a potential client’s request-for-proposal (RFP).
Below are some best practices on how to answer a questionnaire efficiently to build trusting third-party relationships.
1. Be clear, concise, and accurate.
Answer the exact question asked, only including relevant explanation and evidence to help support your answer.
If you are unclear on any questions or need further information about the questionnaire, reach out directly to the client organization for further clarification to avoid unnecessary back and forth due to incorrect or invalid responses.
Providing accurate information helps establish trust with your client. It also gives you a clear indication of the cybersecurity measures you have in place to protect customer data, and highlights any gaps you need to address.
For example, a subject matter expert could discover that not all customer data is encrypted upon filling out a questionnaire and take immediate action to remediate the data leak before a security incident occurs.
2. Keep a record of completed questionnaire responses.
Building a single source of truth for your questionnaire responses will dramatically reduce the amount of time spent answering future questionnaires and ensure consistency across responses.
Update the repository each time you answer a new questionnaire to keep it as accurate as possible. If possible, enable sorting by key information like questionnaire type, date, client organization, etc. for easier and faster reference.
3. Get certified.
Gaining certifications for recognized frameworks, such as SOC2, NIST, HIPAA, GDPR, ISO 27001, and FISMA builds credibility for your organization by demonstrating your security program is up to international standards.
Certifications like SOC2 require significant time and resources to obtain, but once achieved, can often satisfy most client intake needs in place of multiple questionnaires.
4. Create a remediation plan.
Once you have an established repository of security questionnaire responses, you’ll gain a much clearer view of your security gaps. From here, you can not only address these weaknesses but also form a concrete remediation plan.
Client organizations view remediation plans very favorably as they provide assurance that your organization can respond promptly and effectively to a security incident and avoid any major damage if one occurs.
Are Security Questionnaires Enough on Their Own?
Security questionnaires are only one element of the vendor risk assessment process. A comprehensive vendor risk management program consists of a combination of other verification methods, to provide a complete picture of the security posture of each third-party vendor.
A major challenge with security questionnaires is that your organization cannot verify all of the information your vendors provide. Much of the exchange relies on trust and any discrepancies will likely go unnoticed until a data breach or other major security incident occurs.
You should use additional assessment methods to prevent data breaches and gain a better insight into your vendors’ security programs.
Other vendor risk assessment methods that complement security questionnaires are listed below.
Security ratings measure an organizations’ security posture by providing an objective, quantitative score of cybersecurity risk.
Security teams can continuously monitor their vendors’ security postures through security ratings, which use non-intrusive measures to analyze open-source datasets.
Security ratings work well alongside security questionnaires as they are updated frequently, generated automatically. Unlike security questionnaires, security ratings can be verified externally.
They are also easy to understand – not just by CISOs, but also by non-technical stakeholders.
SOC 2 Compliance
Compliance with SOC 2 assures that a vendor’s system and organization controls and whether are suitable and have met the relevant criteria - security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy.
SOC 2 reports cover many of the typical questions asked in security questionnaires and can also verify questionnaire responses.
As vendors can often send their reports instead of responding to a questionnaire, SOC 2 compliance also speeds up the risk assessment process.
Continuous Attack Surface Monitoring
Despite their broad coverage, security questionnaires don’t identify all the potential third-party (and even fourth-party) risks brought on by your vendors.
As self-assessments, you also can’t afford to rely on your vendors’ claims alone.
Investing in an attack surface monitoring tool, like UpGuard Vendor Risk, allows you to monitor your vendors’ security posture accurately by detecting cyber threats in real time.
This visibility enables your security team to quickly request remediation of emerging cybersecurity threats – such as CVE-listed vulnerabilities and exploits, social engineering attempts like phishing and spear phishing, malware, ransomware, email spoofing, typosquatting, domain hijacking, man-in-the-middle attacks, and other cyber threats before they become disastrous.
You can also easily categorize vendors by their risk criticality to prioritize your remediation efforts.