Mastering Security Audits: 6 Steps to Protect Your Data

From 2021 to 2022, the average cost of a data breach to affected businesses increased from $4.24 million to $4.35 million. With the frequency and severity of data breaches showing no signs of slowing, security audits are more crucial than ever.

Conducting effective security audits is paramount for maintaining robust information security measures. These audits not only help organizations identify vulnerabilities but also assess the effectiveness of existing security controls to prevent costly breaches.

In this ISMS Connect guide, our aim is to equip cybersecurity and compliance professionals with the knowledge and insights needed to navigate the intricacies of security audits. By staying informed and proactive, they can fortify their organization’s defenses and stay ahead of potential threats, ultimately protecting their data and reputation in the ever-changing digital landscape.

What Is a Security Audit?

A security audit is a systematic and thorough examination of an organization’s information systems, processes, and policies to assess its overall security posture. It involves evaluating the effectiveness of existing security controls, identifying potential vulnerabilities, and measuring the organization’s compliance with industry standards, regulations, and best practices.

During a security audit, trained professionals review various aspects of the organization’s IT infrastructure, such as network configurations, access controls, data protection measures, and incident response procedures. They conduct both technical assessments and non-technical evaluations, analyzing security policies, training programs, and employee awareness.

At ISMS Connect, we simplify the security auditing process with easy-to-understand guides and on-demand expert support for pre-audit checks and preparation. 

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Different Types of Security Audits

Security audits can be categorized into three main types based on their scope and the entities involved:

Internal Audits

Internal audits are conducted by the organization’s internal team or an independent internal audit department. These audits are carried out by individuals who are part of the organization but are not directly responsible for the audited areas. 

Second-Party Security Audits

Second-party security audits are conducted by an affiliated, external organization such as a customer, vendor, or partner. This type of audit is often used to assess security controls before entering a business relationship or contract.

External Security Audits

External security audits are conducted by independent organizations or security firms that have no direct affiliation with the organization being audited. The focus of these audits is to assess the organization’s security from an external perspective, simulating real-world attack scenarios to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the network and systems.

Security Audit vs. Vulnerability Assessment

As we’ve discussed, a security audit is a comprehensive evaluation of an organization’s overall security posture. It involves a systematic review of security policies, procedures, controls, and practices to assess how well they align with industry standards, regulations, and best practices.

A vulnerability assessment, on the other hand, is a more focused and technical process that aims to identify and prioritize specific vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT infrastructure. It involves scanning and testing systems, networks, and applications for known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. The focus of a vulnerability assessment is to discover potential entry points that attackers could exploit to gain unauthorized access or compromise systems.

Example: During a vulnerability assessment, automated scanning tools are used to identify vulnerabilities in an organization’s network devices, web applications, and servers. The assessment may uncover vulnerabilities like unpatched software, outdated firmware, or misconfigured firewall rules.

Why Are Security Audits Important?

Verifies Compliance

Security audits ensure that an organization adheres to relevant industry standards, regulations, and internal policies. Compliance serves as a benchmark for security best practices and helps demonstrate that the organization is taking appropriate measures to protect sensitive data and mitigate risks effectively.

For instance, a financial institution needs to comply with PCI DSS, which is a security standard for credit card transactions. In this case, the auditor evaluates if the payment systems of the organization align with PCI DSS and identifies any vulnerabilities or areas that can be improved.

Helps Build Your Company’s Resiliency to Future Attacks

Security audits help identify weaknesses, evaluate current security measures, and suggest improvements, enabling organizations to strengthen their defenses and be ready for potential cyber threats.

For example, a cybersecurity and compliance officer for a healthcare organization might find that their data storage system lacks encryption, leaving patient information vulnerable. The officer also discovered that employees lack cybersecurity training, increasing the risk of phishing attacks and data breaches.

To address these issues, the officer could propose a plan to improve the organization’s resistance to attacksthat includes:

  • Implementing encryption to protect patient data.
  • Providing cybersecurity training to raise employee awareness 
  • Creating an incident response plan to minimize damage and coordinate a response 

Improve Your Security Posture

Security audits help address new vulnerabilities as they arise. This ensures that their systems and networks are secure and prepared to respond to potential threats.

For example, a cybersecurity officer at a financial institution might find outdated firewall configuration and inadequate segmentation during a security audit. To enhance security, might recommend a range of solutions, including:

  • Upgrading and configuring the firewall to industry best practices
  • Improving the effectiveness of traffic filtering
  • Protecting against unauthorized access and cyberattacks

How To Conduct a Security Audit

Step 1: Determine the Assets that You’ll Be Focusing On

You need to identify and prioritize the critical assets that need protection within your organization. 

These assets can include:

  • IT Equipment: Computers, laptops, phones, tablets, and any devices connected to your network.
  • Network Devices: Routers, switches, firewalls, access points, etc.
  • Software & Applications: Operating systems, databases, custom applications, or cloud services.
  • Customer Data: Names, addresses, phone numbers, emails, credit card information, etc.
  • Company Data: Financials, legal documents, marketing plans, employee data, etc.

The specifics will depend on factors like industry, company size, location, and security posture. For instance, a healthcare provider might prioritize safeguarding patient medical records, while a financial institution may focus more on securing transactional data.

As an auditor, it’s important to understand that auditing each and every asset may not be practical. So, the next step is to decide which subset of assets will be included in the audit process and which ones won’t be a part of this specific assessment.

Choosing which elements to include in your audit is a key decision. Factors like asset criticality, alignment with objectives, and the audit scope all play a role. Ultimately, this decision shapes the direction and focus of your entire audit adventure.

Step 2: List Potential Threats

Once the assets are identified, create a comprehensive list of potential threats that could pose risks to those assets. What is a threat? Anything that has the potential to cause substantial financial loss to your business, including activities, events, behaviors, or objects.

These may include:

  • Data breaches
  • Phishing attacks 
  • Insider threats 
  • Natural disasters
  • Ransomware attacks

That said, cyberattacks are by far the most common and costly threat to organizations today. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the most common types of cyber threats so you can adequately protect your assets from them.

Common cyberattacks today include:

  • DDoS Attacks: Malicious attempts to overwhelm a website’s server with fake traffic, causing it to shut down. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.
  • Ransomware: Among the most dangerous malware types, hackers encrypt sensitive data and demand ransom payment for decryption.
  • Social Engineering Attacks: These include phishing and business email compromise, where attackers manipulate individuals into revealing sensitive information.
  • Stolen Passwords: Cybercriminals exploit leaked personal data, like passwords, to access corporate accounts and exfiltrate data.
  • SQL Injections: Exploiting unpatched security vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to internal systems.
  • Zero-Day Exploits: Hackers use undisclosed vulnerabilities to access systems before developers can provide patches.

Step 3: Assess Staff Training

The risk of human error increases as more individuals gain access to highly sensitive data. 

Verizon’s 2022 Data Breaches Investigations Report reveals that a staggering 82% of data breaches are linked to human involvement. This includes situations where employees either directly expose information (like when they mess up database settings) or accidentally enable cybercriminals to access their organization’s systems.

To effectively address this threat, decision-makers must:

  • Gain a comprehensive understanding of how human error impacts their organization and recognize the gravity of the risk it poses.
  • Maintain a record of staff members who have access to such information and identify employees who have received training in cybersecurity risk management, IT security, and compliance practices. Those who still require training should be prioritized for future training sessions.
  • Conduct regular cybersecurity awareness training to educate staff about best practices, potential risks, and the importance of adhering to security policies. 

For instance, an automotive company might offer training on how to handle vehicles safely and keep car systems secure from unauthorized access. On the flip side, a SaaS company could assess its employees’ understanding of data breaches and provide simulated training to enhance their ability to identify and respond to security threats.

Step 4: Hire a Security Audit Consultant

Consider engaging a qualified security audit consultant, especially if your organization lacks in-house expertise or needs an unbiased third-party assessment. 

skilled consultant like ISMS Connect can bring specialized knowledge and experience to identify vulnerabilities and recommend effective mitigation strategies. Check out how our assistance has helped small and mid-sized organizations across various sectors to succeed in their security strategy.

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To ensure that your consultant is well-versed in relevant compliance requirements and industry standards, you should look into the credentials of every consultant you consider working with.

Look for relevant certifications from relevant bodies, such as:

  • International Register of Certificated Auditors (IRCA)
  • Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA)
  • International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC2)

Step 5: Conduct the Security Audit

During the security audit, thoroughly assess your organization’s security controls, policies, and procedures. Evaluate how well they align with industry best practices and compliance requirements.

For example, a retail company may review access controls to its inventory management systems and evaluate encryption methods for securing customer data. A healthcare provider, on the other hand, may conduct a security audit of its network infrastructure, assessing firewall configurations and data encryption practices.

The frequency of security audits depends on the organization’s size, scope, and regulatory requirements. It is recommended to conduct audits at least once per year, but many organizations opt for a more frequent schedule to prevent data breaches.

Compliance management tools like AuditBoard and Workiva can help you track reports, schedule audits, and assess risks.

Step 6: Write a Report

After completing the security audit, prepare a detailed report outlining the findings, vulnerabilities, and recommended actions. Include a prioritized action plan for addressing identified weaknesses and mitigating risks.

For instance, an online service provider’s report may recommend implementing multi-factor authentication to strengthen access controls. A software development company, on the other hand, may compile a report highlighting areas of improvement, such as patch management and regular vulnerability assessments, to enhance its software security.

Ready to streamline your security audits? 

ISMS Connect offers SMBs a range of tools for simplifying the process of implementing an effective, compliant ISMS. With step-by-step guides and how-tos, expert rounds, on-demand support from experienced consultants, and access to a community of similar businesses, SMBs get access to all the information they need to make informed decisions when it comes to their security strategy.


Conducting security audits is an essential practice for organizations to identify vulnerabilities, assess risks, and improve their overall security posture. 

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For cybersecurity and compliance officers seeking an efficient and streamlined process for security audits, ISMS Connect offers a comprehensive toolkit to manage and track all aspects of the audit process. With specialized features and resources, we empower organizations to identify risks, implement effective mitigation strategies, and stay resilient in the face of cyber threats. 

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