Compliance audits and penetration testing (pentesting) play an important role in assessing, correcting and strengthening an organisation’s information security configuration.
Data breaches have reached record highs in recent years. In the past three years alone, nearly nine in 10 companies experienced a cyberattack that resulted in damages, disruptions or a breach.
But despite the heightened risk—and rising costs—of data breaches, more than half of large companies are failing to stop attacks, reduce the impact of breaches and find and fix breaches quickly. Too often, companies wait until a breach has occurred to take action rather than investing in proactive measures to uncover and fix vulnerabilities before they become a problem. In particular, many businesses take shortcuts on security audits and testing in an attempt to save time and money.
For example, an organisation that conducts a compliance audit but forgoes routine penetration testing afterward will likely miss critical opportunities to uncover and patch weak points that are only identifiable through testing.
This short-sighted approach rarely results in long-term savings. Ultimately, sacrificing your security for the sake of short-term savings simply isn’t worth the cost.
How Audits and Pentesting Work Together to Strengthen Security
Compliance audits and penetration testing (pentesting) play an important role in assessing, correcting and strengthening an organisation’s security configuration.
A compliance audit reviews a business’s security practices and processes to ensure they meet regulatory and industry standards. An audit, most often conducted by an external auditor or third-party assessor, typically involves assessing policies, procedures, documentation and technical controls to ensure they align with best practices and protocols.
By evaluating security measures against industry standards, audits not only help organisations detect and address security risks but also avoid costly consequences such as compliance violations, legal liabilities and loss of customer trust and revenue.
Meanwhile, testing helps identify vulnerabilities via a simulated cyberattack. It’s designed to exploit weaknesses in a business’s security infrastructure by attempting to gain access to sensitive data. Whether conducted by an internal team or external security professional, roleplaying the ways a real-life hacker might exploit their systems and carry out a data breach allows businesses to identify vulnerabilities that may have been overlooked, test security capabilities and patch vulnerabilities before bad actors can exploit them.
As a result, pentesting provides a valuable assessment of the organisation’s security measures and offers actionable recommendations to enhance its overall security posture. In fact, ethical hackers discovered over 65,000 vulnerabilities in 2022, an increase of 20% compared to the previous year.
How to Ensure Your Security Investments Pay Off
Given the importance of audits and testing, why do organisations still believe they can carry out one without the other? It usually comes down to time and money.
Despite growing investment in cybersecurity, the average business only dedicates 15% of its overall IT budget to cybersecurity—and proactive security efforts often end up on the chopping block. In fact, nearly three-quarters of IT professionals and security leaders said they would test their systems more frequently if testing wasn’t so cumbersome and expensive.
But a comprehensive security assessment is an investment that pays big dividends in the long run, especially when you can effectively integrate audits and pentesting into your broader security strategy. As you look to improve audits and testing—and convince stakeholders of their merits—the following considerations can help you realize a bigger payoff from your security investments and achieve greater buy-in across your organisation.
1. Set goals that match your security requirements. You probably have a long list of security challenges on your to-do list, and audits and pen tests can help you cross them off. But without clear objectives, audits and pentesting are unfocused and fail to provide meaningful results.
It’s crucial to narrow down your priorities and focus on key issues specific to your industry’s standards, your organisation’s needs, and your overall security configuration. That could entail bringing your organisation in line with specific benchmarks such as SOC 2, ISO 27001 or the Department of Defense’s STIGS. Or you may focus on reducing the time it takes to identify and patch vulnerabilities. As you implement and improve your organisation’s security assessments, keep these goals top of mind to measure progress and ensure you are on the right track.
2. Develop a cohesive strategy. Although audits and testing differ in terms of purpose and approach, these efforts are most effective when deployed in tandem as part of a cohesive security strategy. For example, a compliance audit can spot potential vulnerabilities and security weaknesses that should be further assessed during a pentest so you can determine the best way to correct them. Meanwhile, a pentest may uncover a vulnerability that could result in a compliance risk that must be addressed to ensure the organisation meets regulatory standards.
For example, Target passed a payment card industry data-security standard (PCI-DSS) audit mere months before suffering a massive data breach that impacted 40 million credit and debit cards. The PCI-DSS standards, which require that cardholder names, account numbers and other sensitive authentication are protected through strong encryption and secure storage practices, weren’t enough on their own to protect against a breach. The retail giant ended up paying out $18.5 million to settle claims.
By integrating audits and testing into your broader security strategy, you can set a clear course of action to identify and patch vulnerabilities before they end up as front-page news. In particular, develop a remediation plan that prioritises issues based on the level of risk and potential impact on your business, and outline steps to address issues in a timely and effective manner.
3. Prioritise scope and substance. A high-quality pentest can cost between $10,000 and $30,000, while the average audit may run between $30,000 and $100,000, depending on the size and complexity of your organisation’s infrastructure. Although it may be tempting to select the cheapest option available, you should pay for comprehensive assessments that will benefit your organisation long term.
A thorough audit not only reviews your security configuration—such as password management, user access and other fundamental parameter settings. It should also include a scan of your operations systems. This includes scanning applications and, most importantly, your organisation’s integrity layer to detect potential security vulnerabilities or unauthorised modifications that may impact your mainframe.
In-depth pentesting often combines black-box and white-box testing, which provides testers with various levels of information to carry out an attack. For black-box testing, the pentester acts like an external hacker with little or no knowledge of your organisation’s IT landscape. In a white-box test, a pentester acts like an internal developer with complete knowledge of the landscape. Like audits, a quality pentest will also include probing the mainframe, an especially important step given that mainframes still handle more than 70% of IT workloads worldwide.
4. Implement ongoing assessments. Strengthening your security posture isn’t a once-and-done effort: It’s an ongoing process that requires continual, consistent improvement. Innovations in technology and hacking techniques mean threats are continually evolving as hackers develop new and less detectable ways to exploit system vulnerabilities, which can render your existing security controls obsolete and ineffective at any moment.
Given the constantly changing security landscape, it’s important to implement audits and testing on a regular basis. Pentesting on an annual or semiannual schedule verifies that problems have been patched, provides a baseline for future improvement, and ensures your security defences remain up to date. In fact, 85% of cybersecurity professionals report conducting such tests at least once a year. Likewise, it’s generally recommended that organisations perform compliance audits annually.
When organisations neglect proactive security investments for short-term savings, they increase the likelihood of a data breach or compliance violation—and the results are often far more devastating. The average cost of a data breach has reached an all-time high of $4.35 million, while the average company pays over $14 million for noncompliance costs—nearly three times more than the cost of compliance efforts.
Integrating routine audits and pen testing into your larger security strategy can help you avoid these costly damages. By working together, audits and testing provide a comprehensive picture of an organisation’s security strengths and weaknesses—allowing your teams to more effectively identify risks, strengthen defences and ward off potential threats.
The math is simple: Skimp on security now and pay more later, or invest in your organisation’s long-term health and safety today.
Article originated in Security Boulevard
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