Internal audits are essential to securing your organization’s digital assets from cybersecurity threats and helping you steer clear of security risks. However, there are different types of internal audits, depending on your organization’s structure, security needs, and other considerations. Read on to learn how you can decide which audit type works best.
Breakdown of the Different Types of Internal Audits
For organizations that conduct frequent self-assessments, it helps to know which of the different types of internal audits can provide prompt insights into security vulnerabilities without significantly impacting internal operational bandwidth.
In this blog, we’ll provide an overview of the NIST standards for audits and then cover four different types of internal audits:
- Internal control audits
- Automated audits
- System security audits
- Penetration testing
Working with a managed security services provider (MSSP) will help you streamline your evaluation of the different types of internal audits and identify which audit best meets your organization’s security needs.
NIST Standards for Audits
According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), audits are evaluations that determine whether systems meet certain security requirements or organizational policies.
In cybersecurity, audits can also help determine if security controls are working as expected.
Audit findings are also essential to demonstrating security assurance to stakeholders (e.g., customers, staff, and the Board). As such, an organization that gains familiarity with preparing for audits—whether internal or external—will likely be well-prepared to handle security risks.
Before starting out on the journey to internal audits, it’s essential to distinguish between internal checks and internal audits. An internal check simply ensures your operational information and controls are accurate and reliable, whereas an internal audit is more involved and evaluates the effectiveness of these controls.
The NIST’s standards for audits can help inform your audit preparedness and are useful guides when deciding between the different types of internal audits. Below, we’ll describe these different types of internal audits recommended by the NIST and how they can help your company optimize its security posture:
1. Internal Control Audits
The most common type of internal audits evaluates the effectiveness of the internal controls an organization implements across its assets. Across the different types of internal control audits, it is often challenging to keep them independent and unbiased.
One common way organizations maintain audit independence is to designate an auditor from a different team than the security team to complete the audits. Alternatively, organizations may completely outsource internal audit services to a trusted partner.
A comprehensive internal audit of system controls will involve:
- An evaluation of the system and non-system-based controls implemented organization-wide
- Interviews of staff responsible for implementing security controls
- Observation of system controls in action
- Testing of security controls and the assets to which they are applied
- Assessment of compliance with regulatory requirements
- Detection of irregularities related to poor system operation or human error
In principle, audits of internal controls can apply one or more assessment tools or methods to determine whether these controls are suitable for an organization’s security posture.
2. Automated Audits
Whereas some internal assessments of security vulnerabilities or gaps may still be conducted manually, it is challenging to do so across an entire IT infrastructure.
That’s where automated audits come in. By automating security assessments, your internal teams can promptly uncover a wide range of vulnerabilities across different assets within your infrastructure.
Automated audit tools may be implemented in two ways:
- Active tests attempt to discover vulnerabilities by exploiting them.
- Passive tests examine the system state to observe potential risks.
You can leverage automated audits to identify vulnerabilities, such as:
- Gaps in access control configurations and protocols
- Weak password use, resulting in poor encryption
- Unpatched security systems
Most of the automated audit tools available on the market are easy for most security teams to use and can provide insight into the vulnerabilities cybercriminals can exploit.
3. System Security Audits
You can also conduct internal audits based on a system security plan (SSP), which details a system’s security requirements and how security controls can meet those requirements.
An SSP is critical to ensuring that the security controls you have established are actually performing as intended. As such, a system security plan-based audit will evaluate:
- Users’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities when applying and overseeing the implementation of security controls
- The development and documentation of protocols for the successful deployment of security controls
- System performance based on the internal system security plan
The findings obtained from system security assessments also indicate your organization’s current security environment. For instance, poor implementation of security planning controls can reveal gaps and weaknesses in the:
- Current system security plan
- Rules of behavior for security implementations
- Conceptualized security operations
- Information security architecture
- Central management of security controls
Furthermore, internal audits based on an SSP must account for baselines in security controls.
If these audits reveal deviations to system security environments that may be considered high risk, the NIST recommends evaluating whether these changes are significant risks to the system or have minimal impact on that system environment.
4. Penetration Testing
As one of the most frequently used internal assessments, penetration testing is also called “ethical hacking” and represents a robust way to simulate a potential cyberattack. Penetration testing may be conducted manually or automatically. With penetration testing, your organization can evaluate its entire IT infrastructure for gaps and vulnerabilities in security implementations.
The most common types of vulnerabilities identified during pen testing include:
- Gaps in firewall security – Internal penetration testing can point to areas in your IT infrastructure that are prone to attacks like malware. Since firewalls are the first line of defense for sensitive network environments, firewall pen testing will help mitigate potential network downtime.
- Network security vulnerabilities – Besides firewalls, all access points connected to your sensitive network environments are at high risk of being targeted by cybercriminals. Network security pen testing can help uncover the threats and vulnerabilities that pose risks to the hardware, software, and systems connected to networks across your It infrastructure.
- Web application vulnerabilities – With most applications running on the Internet, cybercriminals are looking for vulnerabilities they can exploit to gain access to sensitive systems. Web application penetration testing can help reveal vulnerabilities in web application security (e.g., SQL injection, broken access controls).
Beyond the vulnerabilities penetration testing helps uncover, it is also required for compliance with frameworks like the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standards (DSS).
Per the DSS, organizations that process card payments are required to routinely conduct pen tests to identify vulnerabilities in system security. Once these vulnerabilities are identified, they must remediate them before they compromise sensitive data environments.
Across organizations and industries, penetration testing may also look different between internal and external audits. When conducted internally, pen testing may depend on the expertise of your internal security team. However, with external pen testing, you can benefit from expertise and perspectives outside your organization.
Partnering with a reliable MSSP can help you make an informed decision about which of the different types of internal audits applies best to your organization.
Effective Internal Audits, Robust Security
Conducting effective internal audits will help your organization stay ahead of security threats and minimize the risks of data breaches. At RSI Security, our team of experienced audit security specialists can help you decide between the different types of internal audits that will help strengthen your security posture. To learn more and get started, contact RSI Security today!