How to Conduct a Data Security Audit to Assess Vulnerabilities

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Businesses today retain a lot of data about both internal operations and their customers. This information is one of your strongest assets, but that also makes it one of the most valuable to criminals. As your data grows and cybercrime rises alongside it, a data security audit may be necessary.

Why Do You Need a Data Security Audit?

Your business likely relies on data — and if it doesn’t yet, it will in the future. Data helps you respond to changing customer trends, set actionable growth targets, bolster your supply chain and more. You may also hold sensitive customer information that could land you in significant legal trouble if it leaks.

As data becomes more valuable, the cost of a breach rises. Average data breach costs are now higher than $4 million, a figure that’s only grown over the past few years.

Despite these risks, most data isn’t as secure as it should be. Only 13% of the world’s data has the protections it needs. Part of the issue is that businesses don’t know what defenses they lack or how to improve their security posture. A data security audit provides that insight.

How to Conduct a Data Security Audit

A thorough data security audit will reveal your security strengths and weaknesses, letting you know how to protect it more effectively. Here’s how you can conduct one to ensure you cover all your vulnerabilities.

Determine the Scope and Criteria

The first step in a data security audit is to decide what the audit should address. There are two parts to this decision — your audit’s scope and its criteria.

The scope of your audit defines which data sets, systems and processes to analyze. Auditing your entire organization may offer the most thorough results but will be a long, disruptive process. You may want to start with your most sensitive assets or the newest workflows you’ve implemented instead.

Your audit’s criteria determine the standards your data security posture should meet. Government contractors should align with the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC), which follows NIST 800-171 and 800-172, and other businesses can follow regulations like Europe’s GDPR or California’s CCPA. Whichever you choose, using a pre-defined standard helps you get specific, actionable results.

Choose Between External and Internal Audits

Your business must also choose between performing an internal audit or hiring an external auditor. One option isn’t necessarily better than the other. Rather, the best course of action depends on your needs and goals.

An internal audit may be more affordable and less disruptive, especially if your IT team already has access across the organization. However, many businesses lack the cybersecurity talent or staffing numbers to perform one effectively. Internal audits may also not offer enough trust for some government regulations.

External audits are more expensive and disruptive, but they can offer more reliable results. Future partners and regulatory agencies will appreciate the authority an external audit provides, and these auditors may uncover vulnerabilities your internal team missed.

Maximize Transparency

It’s also important to remember that data security audits can be a long, disruptive process. It often takes several weeks, even months, to complete, depending on the organization's size and extent of the audit. You can streamline that timeline by being as transparent as possible beforehand.

Create a formal list of all the software and devices employees use to view or manage data. Ensure you can provide audit tools or third-party auditors with quick access to the data sets in question, and consider creating a data map if you don’t already have one. Steps like this will make it easier for auditors to review all the information and processes they need.

You may also need information like your security software’s version, your update schedule and a list of who has access to what systems. Inform all employees about the audit so they know to comply with auditors and prepare for interviews if necessary.

Cover All Vulnerabilities

Once it’s time for the actual audit to begin, ensure it covers all vulnerability types. Technical defenses are the most obvious targets to analyze, but process-related risks are just as, if not more, impactful.

Human error is a massive security risk in any business, so your audit should address employee factors. That includes workers’ knowledge about cybersecurity risks and how much they comply with best practices like strong password management. If you’re running an internal audit, phishing simulations are a great way to judge their security readiness.

Third-party dependencies and access permissions are another easy-to-miss but important risk group to cover. Shared hosting, for example, is less secure than other hosting options because more parties can access the same servers, so you should review how practices like this impact your data security.

Respond to the Results

What you do after the audit is just as important as the audit process itself. Once the results come in, company leaders should review them with IT to see where and how they must improve.

If your audit’s criteria align with regulatory standards, address noncompliance issues first. If your standards are not a matter of legality, start with whichever vulnerabilities are the most pressing. Third-party auditors may recommend specific changes to address these risks. Otherwise, you can consult with security experts about overcoming any gaps the audit revealed.

Remember that cybersecurity is an ongoing process. Data security audits should be a regular occurrence to ensure you’re as safe as possible amid changing threats.

Modern Businesses Need Data Security Audits

Businesses of all sizes today rely on data. Consequently, even smaller companies can be targets for cybercrime. That risk will only grow as businesses become more tech-centric, so covering all vulnerabilities is crucial.

Data security audits provide the insight you need to remain secure. When you know how to perform one, you’ll be able to uncover and patch any security gaps as your company grows.

Eleanor Hecks is the managing editor at Designerly. She’s also a mobile app designer with a focus on UI. Connect with her about digital marketing, UX and/or tea on LinkedIn.



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