SOC 2 audits can be a daunting process for any organization. Navigating through the myriad of controls and requirements is a herculean task. One term that often pops up during SOC 2 audits is 'audit exceptions'. But what does an exception mean? In this blog post, we break down the concept of audit exceptions in SOC 2, their implications on compliance, and how your organization can steer clear of them.

What is a SOC 2 Audit Exception?

In simple terms, an audit exception is like a red flag, or a ‘finding’ or ‘issue’. It’s something that doesn’t quite line up with the standards set for a SOC 2 audit. The most common audit exceptions for SOC 2 include:

1. System Description Misstatements: These occur when the description of the organization's system does not accurately represent the actual design and operations. Essentially, it’s when the blueprints don’t match the finished building.

2. Control Design Deficiency: This type of exception arises when the controls in place are not properly designed to meet the objectives of the SOC 2 Trust Services Criteria. Think of it as having a fence with gaps; it’s not going to keep threats out!

3. Deficiency in Operating Effectiveness of a Control: Even if controls are well-designed, they must operate effectively and as designed. This type of exception is raised when controls don’t function as they are defined in the policies and should over time. Imagine a well-built fence, but with a broken gate latch. During audits, auditors expect to see controls implemented and operating effectively per the policies that define those controls. Policies and implemented controls not lining up will always create an audit exception.

What Does an Audit Exception Mean for SOC 2 Compliance?

If an auditor discovers exceptions, does this mean you’ve failed the audit? Not necessarily. SOC 2 audits are not pass/fail. The impact of exceptions depends on their number and severity and will result in an unqualified (good) or qualified (bad) opinion.

1. Minor exceptions might not significantly affect your SOC 2 compliance, but they should still be addressed.

2. Major exceptions, especially in control designs or operating effectiveness, can be more serious and might imply that the system doesn’t meet SOC 2 requirements.

In cases of major exceptions, the auditor or CPA firm may still issue a SOC 2 audit report but it will likely include a qualification in the auditor’s opinion stating that certain SOC 2 criteria have not been met. It is then vital for the service organization to take corrective actions, and they may need to undergo another audit once the deviations have been addressed.

How to Avoid SOC 2 Audit Exceptions

The best way to avoid audit exceptions and earn an unqualified opinion on your attestation report is to be prepared. Here’s how:

1. Comprehensive Documentation: Maintain thorough and accurate documentation and evidence of systems and controls. This reduces the likelihood of system description misstatements.

2. Strong Control Design: Evaluate the design of security controls to ensure they are fit for purpose. Don’t just install a fence; make sure it’s the right kind of fence!

3. Continuous Monitoring: Regularly monitor the operating effectiveness of controls. This helps in identifying and rectifying any issues before they become exceptions.

4. Compliance Automation Tools: Use compliance automation tools to streamline the compliance process. These tools can help in maintaining documentation, monitoring controls, and ensuring that you are always ready for a SOC 2 audit.

5. Seek Expert Advice: Consult with compliance experts or professionals who are well-versed in SOC 2 requirements. They can provide valuable insights and guidance regarding your internal controls, control objectives, testing exceptions, mitigation strategies, remediation plans, and overall cybersecurity posture.

Audit exceptions don’t have to be scary if you know what they entail, how to remediate or mitigate them, andhow to avoid them. By ensuring accurate system descriptions and effective control design, continuously monitoring for vulnerabilities, leveraging automation tools, and consulting security compliance experts, your organization can navigate the SOC 2 audit process with confidence.