Due to a lack of a common language in the security world, it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed. Considering the sheer volume of acronyms and jargon, the variety of services available, and providers using different names for packages all contribute to the noise. This often makes it challenging to determine what security services, support, and efforts your organization truly needs.
Audits are common tools for assessing security programs, but their necessity and benefits can be easily confused. If you’re stuck trying to determine if a network security audit is the best fit for your organization, consider the differences between an audit and a risk assessment before finalizing your decision.
Network Security Audit vs Security Risk Assessment- What’s the Difference?
While these security objectives appear similar on the surface, they serve very different purposes. It’s imperative that you understand the differences between the two so that you can choose the function your program really needs.
Many providers will not go to the lengths necessary to understand what your business really needs. For this reason, be sure to head into the service buying cycle armed with as much knowledge as possible. This will help you avoid pursuing something that is not a good fit for your needs.
What is a Network Security Audit?
To put things plainly, a security audit is a bit like a check-up. You’ll typically head into an audit with a few specific questions—typically relating to the security measures you already have in place. Compliance with laws, industry regulations, and whether your security program is otherwise operating as intended.
The results of the audit should in turn reflect how well your security program is performing against a group of pre-set objectives.
What is a Security Risk Assessment?
A security risk assessment, on the other hand, is fundamentally different from a security audit. Most importantly, it looks beyond simply whether a program is functioning as it should be.
A well-conducted risk assessment investigates potential gaps in your security program based on your organization’s risk tolerance. This allows you to focus your efforts on the most important issues and maximize your investments in the long run.
When Should You Perform a Network Security Audit?
Before organizations can successfully perform a network security audit, we need to understand the scope. If we break down the term “network security audit,” we are left with the following:
- Network – A combination of computers and equipment interconnected by cables and other mediums used to transmit and receive information.
- Security – Precautions taken to guard against a negative or dangerous situation.
- Audit – An official examination and validation of an agreed set of standards.
So, if you have an existing security program, and you need to verify that your program satisfies procedures and expectations- laid out either internally or by a regulatory agency- a network security audit is likely your best bet.
Annual, biannual, or even quarterly security audits are often the most effective way for an organization to confirm its security program is functioning based on set procedures and expectations.
When Should You Perform a Security Risk Assessment?
If your company is seeking a holistic examination of its security program, a security audit is probably not going to yield the information required. Instead, you may want to consider conducting an information security risk assessment.
The primary goal of a risk assessment is to identify the most prominent vulnerabilities and security risks facing a business. Quantification of risk provides a common language for security practitioners and executives to communicate about security. This allows everyone involved to understand their current standing, where they need to be, and how to get there.
How To Conduct a Security Risk Assessment
When conducting a risk assessment, we’ll closely examine administrative, technical, and physical controls within the organization. Looking beyond just the technical side of things that network security audits inherently focus on, we’re able to gain a much more comprehensive idea of the security practices in play and where the greatest risks lie.
Although most people think of security risk assessments and information security as they relate to tech, there is much more to it than that. Sure, technology plays a dominant role in how we transmit and store information today, but it is not the only focus of good security practices.
Let’s look at the controls (technical and otherwise) that should be considered when conducting an information security assessment:
This is the people part of security. Policies, procedures, and plans such as incident response or disaster recovery. These sets of rules and governance are the rulebook for how we play the game of information security.
Physical controls protect things on-site. What good is your firewall if someone can break in and steal your servers, unencrypted laptops, or paper records? What happens if our people (our most valued asset) are not protected from harm? How would a catastrophic natural disaster affect our ability to serve the company, organization, or mission?
If you asked most people what they think information security is, this would be what most would tell you. These controls determine how we manage technical assets, how to patch, how to implement tech, how changes are handled, etc.
A Word on Security Frameworks
Every risk assessment should be conducted in a way that aligns with a good security framework such as NIST, ISO 27001, or CIS. Be certain that your chosen provider is utilizing a trusted framework before engaging with them.
What Happens After a Security Risk Assessment?
Once an organization determines what risks exist within each of the controls, those risks must be addressed.
Putting a plan or roadmap in place to address vulnerabilities is the next step, but first, it’s crucial to determine how much risk is acceptable. We can’t eliminate risk entirely, but we can control it to a large degree—especially if we understand what can be done to reduce that risk to an acceptable level.
Risks that require the lowest effort and cost to have the greatest impact on risk mitigation should naturally be addressed sooner. Then, of course, we move on to long-term projects or lower-priority items. This, however, is not always possible due to prerequisites that need to be in place first. In that scenario, implementing those prerequisites would come before handling even the most glaring issues.
While network security audits are often required for organizations and can help benchmark the performance of security efforts, they can be limited in scope. Audits are simply not enough to uncover the information needed to guide risk mitigation efforts and lead a security program to maturity.
The importance of having a logical plan in place before investing time and resources in security development cannot be overstated. A risk assessment is the best initial step toward understanding your organization’s risk and putting that plan together.
It’s easy to make technology and process decisions in a vacuum without considering why they’re important and how much impact they’ll have towards minimizing overall risk.
Just as you might consult your doctor before you make a decision regarding your physical health, you should also consider getting advice from a security expert before attempting to handle information security on your own.
A good security provider will be able to help you interpret risk and suggest improvements over time.
If you need any assistance determining whether a security risk assessment or a security audit is right for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re always here to help and we’ll do our best to steer you in the right direction based on your organization’s needs.