Cybersecurity Audit vs. Cybersecurity Assessment: What's the Difference?

By Negin Aminian

Posted on Oct 7, 2020

Cybersecurity assessments and audits are often discussed interchangeably. While the two are related, assessments and audits are distinct cybersecurity and compliance evaluation mechanisms. It’s important for security leaders to understand exactly how the two function in order to drive organizational cyber maturity and meet industry-specific regulatory requirements.

How does a cybersecurity audit differ from a cybersecurity assessment?

A cybersecurity audit is a point-in-time evaluation which verifies that specific security controls are in place. A cybersecurity assessment is a high-level analysis that determines the effectiveness of those cybersecurity controls and rates an organization’s overall cyber maturity. While audits are usually conducted by an independent third-party auditor aligned with a regulatory framework (such as HIPAA), they can also be performed internally in preparation for the latter.

Whether performed internally by a team acting as an independent agency or by an external regulatory agency, audits differ from assessments in that they tally an organization’s controls, policies and procedures against a specific checklist in order to verify compliance. While audits serve an important regulatory purpose, internal audits don’t always tell the whole story when it comes to the effectiveness of an organization’s cybersecurity program.

What can and can’t be learned from internal audits and assessments?

Organizations looking to improve their security posture should be aware of the limitations of internal audits. While running down a checklist of security controls can verify that the specified controls are in place, this action doesn’t guarantee their effectiveness in mitigating cyber risk. For example, confirming the presence of access controls doesn’t mean much if they aren’t properly configured. Audits can also fail to identify potential vulnerabilities beyond the factors that are specified.

Unlike audits, cybersecurity assessments are informed by desired business outcomes such as continuity and resilience. Rather than simply checking the boxes, an effective assessment provides an in-depth look at the effectiveness of a company’s security program. A cyber risk assessment can also help security leaders identify cybersecurity gaps and plan remediation activities.

Why perform cybersecurity assessments?

Performing a comprehensive assessment that covers the full spectrum of cyber risk is essential to gauging an organization’s level of preparedness for security incidents. Important processes such as security event and third-party risk monitoring are beyond the narrow scope of most audits. Performing a high-level analysis of a company’s cybersecurity program also allows business and security leaders to make informed, risk-based decisions in consideration of other important factors such as:

  • The location of a company’s most valuable assets.
  • The data that poses the greatest business risk in the event of a breach.
  • Which vendors are business-critical.
  • Which vendors handle the most sensitive data (i.e. customer data).

The broad operational perspective gained allows organizations to determine where their systems are most vulnerable, ensuring that cybersecurity spending is proportional to each area of risk. These findings can then be mapped to industry standards and inform security leaders on which areas require further investigation.

Self-assessments help prepare for regulatory audits

As we mentioned above, cybersecurity assessments and audits are two separate but related stages of the cybersecurity evaluation process. An audit provides a compliance snapshot, while an assessment provides a high-level view of cyber maturity. Ideally, an assessment precedes an audit and serves as a preparation tool. In preparation for an internal audit, assessments help the auditing committee identify risk areas that require the most scrutiny, and which security controls are needed that may not be in place.

Companies that conduct internal self-assessments on an ongoing basis are more likely to succeed when faced with external regulatory audits. Organizational security posture can slide between audits, which are point-in-time evaluations that quickly become outdated. Technology solutions like security ratings are a great way to continuously monitor security and compliance posture.

How SecurityScorecard can help

SecurityScorecard goes beyond the narrow scope of audits by gathering comprehensive risk data across 10 factor groups, including network security, patching cadence, hacker chatter, and IP reputation. Our easy-to-use dashboard displays the most critical and common organizational risks, so security teams can drill down and prioritize remediation.

Security professionals can carry out ongoing self-assessments by leveraging our automation capabilities. Customizable alerts inform the appropriate team member when a breach or security ratings change takes place. Questionnaires can also be automatically sent to an internal team or vendor following an incident, and can be mapped to compliance frameworks so that organizations can remain audit-ready.

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