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An In-Depth Guide to Conducting a Data Security Audit

Data breaches and hacks can cost companies millions. To protect sensitive data, you have to ensure that your entire system is compliant with data security standards and regulations. To properly evaluate your level of compliance, you need to conduct a data security audit. 

In this post, we’ll look at how to conduct a data security audit. You'll learn about the different types of audits, and the steps to take when conducting an audit. Then we'll cover the scope of a data security audit and some best practices. 

What Is a Data Security Audit?

A data security audit is an evaluation of a company's entire security system to identify areas of vulnerability. It's a preventive measure to protect your customers' and employees' sensitive information against breaches of any kind. 

A security audit also shows your company whether it's compliant with governmental and organizational data security regulations. 

Types of Data Security Audits

Now that you know what a data security audit is, let's look at the two types of security audits: internal and external. 

In an internal data security audit, a company uses its own employees and resources to conduct the audit. These audits are usually quick, easy to manage, and cost less than external audits. And because they use internal staff, the auditors are already familiar with the existing structure of the company and its systems. 

In an external data security audit, a company hires an auditing firm to conduct the audit. These audits obviously cost significantly more than internal audits. Be that as it may, the cost of having to later fix a security incident greatly outweighs the cost of hiring an external auditor. 

External auditors give their unbiased observations about the state of your company’s data security infrastructure. Another benefit of having external auditors is that they'll look at your system from a different point of view than internal auditors might. Having a third party opinion gives you insights you wouldn't see with an internal audit. 

For the audit to be effective, external auditors should be granted complete access to the company and its security system. If you're not comfortable with having a third party access sensitive data, you can always conduct an internal audit. The choice is yours. 

What Happens During a Data Security Audit?

As we've already established, a data security audit is a way to protect your company from security threats and reduce the risk of a cyberattack. An audit also assesses security systems to ensure they meet security regulations and industry standards. Some security audits include a penetration test, where a hacker tries to get past your security controls and into your system. 

Some security audits include a penetration test, whereby a hacker tries to get past your security controls and into your system.

Steps to Conducting a Data Security Audit

Review Previous Audits

Before you start an audit, it's important to review reports from previous security audits. This will contain useful insights that will help in the current audit. For instance, the auditor can see if any non-compliance issues from prior audits have been fixed. 

Plan and Define the Scope

The data security audit starts with planning and defining the scope of the audit. The audit should cover every part of your system and company that can access data, including staff. Thus, the auditor will need to gain a thorough understanding of the existing security infrastructure and a list of all personnel who could impact security in order to plan for the audit. Planning and defining the scope of the data security audit helps you prioritize. 

If you use an external auditor, it's important to plan a budget and prepare relevant documents that are needed for the audit. For instance, you’ll need the company's current security policy to compare against industry standards and regulations. ISO27001 is the international standard for managing information security. 

Conduct the Audit

The data security audit will cover every device that can send and receive data. Basically, anything with internet access. In addition, the auditor interviews all staff who work in a security capacity or otherwise have access to the company's data. The auditor will check if your data security processes meet the ISO27001 international standard. An auditor uses a checklist to note the progress of the audit. 

Evaluate Risk and Vulnerability

The main purpose of the data security audit is to identify any weaknesses in your system. After identifying the risks, auditors categorize and prioritize them. What areas need immediate attention? Is your security system strong enough? Does the incident response process need an update? A careful audit of every aspect of your data security system will answer questions like these. 

The main purpose of the data security audit is to identify any weaknesses in your system.

Write a Report

After the audit, it's important to keep a record of all observations made during the audit. You’ll use the report as a point of reference when fixing any non-compliance and vulnerabilities issues in your security system. This report will also contain recommendations for updating the company's security policy. Later, it’ll become a reference point for any future audits. 

Best Practices to Ensure a Successful Audit

Internal and external audits follow basically the same process. To ensure the audit goes smoothly, consider a few best practices. 

First, inform all staff of the impending audit. Every relevant staff member should know that you're about to conduct an audit and when it’ll happen. This is important because you have to be open with your staff. Also, because these individuals have access to the data for the audit, their availability is needed so they can grant necessary permissions to the auditor. 

Second, plan regular audits to assess the effectiveness of your security system. Just as technology evolves, threats also evolve. By conducting regular security audits, you can ensure your system is up-to-date with current security policies and regulations and ready to prevent or handle any incidents. 

Finally, it’s important to set audit goals. What would you like to achieve in this audit? Don’t just dive headfirst into an audit; know what you want to achieve from the audit beforehand. The main aim of a security audit is to detect areas of vulnerabilities, but other goals might be to become more compliant with industry standards and regulations, or to cover a wider scope. 

A security incident that leads to a data breach can have disastrous consequences. You'll affect your company's reputation and lose customer trust, which ultimately leads to financial losses. Businesses today send and receive so much data through the internet, and customers and employees need assurance that you can protect all their sensitive data. Standards organizations usually issue certificates, or licenses, to companies that meet their requirements, and you can make these visible as a way of reassuring customers of your safety practices. 

Conclusion

From this post, you learned that a data security audit finds weaknesses in your company's security system and identifies improvements you can make. You can decide to use internal or external auditors. Whatever approach you decide to take, ensure that the audit covers every aspect of your security infrastructure to identify loopholes and potential threats to your system. 

The average cost of a data breach in 2021 was more than four million dollars, according to a report by IBM. Whether your company is small or large, cyberattacks can target you. As data becomes increasingly digital, companies collect more data than ever from various sources. You need this data to make informed business decisions that will increase profit. Every company has the obligation to protect customer and employee data. To do so effectively, you need regular data security audits. 

This post was written by Oscar Jite-Orimiono. Oscar has a B.Eng in mechanical engineering, but now he’s a self-taught frontend web developer and technical writer. His skills include HTML, CSS, and JavaScript(Vanilla and jQuery). He builds websites with a focus on them being user-friendly, responsive, and having pleasing aesthetics. He’s also interested in data science, Python, and SQL.

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