How to Do an Internal Audit + Security Audit Checklist
Internal security audits are about much more than ticking some boxes or performing housekeeping on your security practices. They’re about discovering areas where your company can save time, effort, and resources by improving efficiencies and closing gaps. Not to mention their importance in keeping your company and customer data secure.
While internal security audits offer a lot of compelling benefits, actually conducting one is a complex task.
Your organization’s security infrastructure likely has hundreds of moving parts, and you’ll need to examine how each one works individually and how they all work together as a whole to protect sensitive data. It’s a careful, methodical process — rush through it or gloss over an important detail, and you could be leaving vulnerabilities unchecked.
Follow these steps for an internal audit that’s both thorough and efficient. You can also download and customize our security checklist PDF to guide your internal audit.
What is an internal security audit?
There are a few different types of security audits. Many people immediately think of external audits, which are typically required to achieve certification for frameworks like SOC 2 and ISO 27001, but that’s just one type.
- External audits: A certified third-party auditor evaluates your organization’s controls, policies, and processes to verify compliance with a specific security framework
- Penetration tests: A third party attempts to infiltrate your systems and identify weaknesses
- Vulnerability scans: A program scans computers, networks, and applications for weaknesses.
- Internal audits: A neutral party within your organization examines your security infrastructure
While external audits and penetration tests are often done as part of a formal certification audit, internal audits are usually voluntary. By reviewing its own security infrastructure, a company can identify and mitigate potential threats and improve its level of data security.
Internal audits allow your organization to be proactive about enhancing its security posture and staying aware of any new or evolving threats. Whether you’re pursuing a formal certification or not, an internal audit can help you understand whether your current security strategy is effectively protecting your organization and your customers.
Internal audits can also surface valuable insights about how your organization operates, including how effective your employee security training is, whether you have redundant or outdated software, and whether any new technologies or processes have introduced vulnerabilities. Regular internal audits also have the benefit of making external audits faster and less stressful.
Step 1: Establish scope and goals
The first thing you’ll need to do is decide what your goals are for the internal audit.
Perhaps you’re preparing to get certified for a specific framework, or need to complete an internal audit to maintain compliance. Maybe you’re being proactive about monitoring your security posture over time. Or maybe you’re looking for ways to improve your internal processes and cut redundancies. Either way, establishing clear goals will help you focus your efforts.
Next, define the scope of your audit by compiling a list of all of your information assets. This should include hardware and software, information databases, and any internal or legal documentation you need to protect.
Not all of these assets will fall within the scope of your audit, so you’ll need to take your comprehensive list and decide what you’ll examine and what you won’t. This is where your stated goals come in handy. They will help you whittle out everything that doesn’t specifically fall within the scope of your internal audit.
Step 2: Conduct a risk assessment
A risk assessment is a valuable tool for identifying threats facing your organization and deciding what you’ll do to address them.
Start with the list of assets you identified in step 1, then identify risks that could impact each one. You’ll need to consider anything that could affect data confidentiality, integrity, and availability for each asset. For example, weak or shared passwords could compromise your sensitive company data by allowing unauthorized access.
Now that you’ve identified risks, you can make a realistic plan for treating them. First, consider the likelihood each risk will occur and assign a number 1-10, with 10 being extremely likely and 1 being extremely unlikely.
Next, do the same with each risk’s potential impact on your organization. A risk that would have a devastating negative impact would be rated a 10.
Now that each risk has a likelihood and impact score, you can use those scores to prioritize your efforts. Combine the likelihood and impact score to see which threats are most pressing for your business.
Step 3: Complete the internal audit
For each threat on your prioritized list, you’ll need to determine a corresponding action. For the weak password threat identified earlier, you could establish a strong password policy and implement a tool like 1Password company-wide.
Look at what your organization is already doing to either eliminate threats or minimize their likelihood and impact. Record each control as part of your internal audit. Are there any gaps or deficiencies you can identify? If you have established security policies, are they being followed on a daily basis?
Step 4: Create a remediation plan
Whenever you uncover a gap in your security processes or policies, you’ll need to document it and create a plan for closing it. Assign a primary owner for each one along with a remediation timeline to make it actionable and ensure someone within the organization is responsible for seeing it through.
Here’s an example: during the course of the internal audit you discover some employees are running outdated software that doesn’t include the latest security patches. Your remediation plan is to implement a device management tool like Kandji or Fleetsmith to ensure every device has automatic software updates enabled. You assign the IT director as the primary owner with a deadline of three months to choose and implement a tool.
Step 5: Communicate results
Share the results of the internal audit with stakeholders, including company management and any IT or security compliance teams. Give an overview of the audit goals, assets evaluated, any new or unresolved risks you identified, and your remediation plan.
You should also use the results as a foundation for future internal audits. You’ll be able to track how you’ve improved over time and highlight areas that still need attention. By creating an ongoing awareness of various threats and what your teams can do to protect against them, you’ll also help create a culture of enhanced security throughout your entire company.
Download: Security audit checklist PDF
While every organization’s needs are unique, a security audit checklist can be a useful guide for getting started.
Below you’ll find a breakdown of the main categories a security audit should cover, along with a downloadable checklist for you to reference and customize for your own internal audits.
Physical & environmental security
Breaches don’t just happen as a result of phishing attempts or malware. Securing your offices and server rooms is a critical step in protecting your data.
Your physical security audit checklist should include a review of physical access to your workspaces and server rooms, as well as how you secure those spaces against threats like unauthorized access or natural disasters.
Device security involves protecting sensitive information stored on and transmitted by laptops, mobile devices, wearables, and other hardware.
55% of employees say they store or access work files, emails, and applications from their personal devices, presenting a tangible threat to network security. Addressing the risks presented by lost devices, unsecure WiFi networks, and malware is an important aspect of any internal audit.
The tools your team uses every day should be at the forefront of your audit efforts. Small vulnerabilities like stale passwords can leave your business software exposed to a breach.
Your internal audit checklist will need to review your controls for unauthorized access, access permissions, and data loss protection, to name a few.
Data storage & processing security
Of course, any internal security audit will focus heavily on how well you protect your company and customer data. You’ll need to examine how your organization safeguards this data from either accidental or deliberate threats, whether it’s stored on-site or in the cloud.
Data encryption, hashing, and tokenization are all methods for protecting data throughout its lifecycle, whether at rest or in transit.
Cybercrime has risen 600% over the last two years, and the majority of those attacks target people, not technology. Even well-meaning, security-aware employees can be fooled by an expert phishing attack, or overlook a simple detail in a security process.
Your most important asset in protecting your company and customer data is your staff. Make sure they receive regular, up-to-date security training. Verify that they have received and accepted your company policies. And educate them on the important role they play in safeguarding your organization.
Automate Your Audits with Secureframe
Our compliance platform can eliminate a lot of the manual effort of conducting audits and monitoring your security posture. Continuous infrastructure scanning, vulnerability alerts, automated security workflows, and vendor/employee access management all simplify the process of understanding and strengthening your company’s security posture.
Learn more about how we help companies like Indent achieve best-in-class security.