Figure 1: Total number of vulnerability incidents reported to CVE
The number of cybersecurity vulnerabilities is rising, with 25,000+ incidents reported in 2022.1
Network security audits can assist companies in identifying, controlling, and monitoring these vulnerabilities. Thus, decision-makers can protect organizational assets and reputations, and ensure operational sustainability against security vulnerabilities, unauthorized access, and other threats.
This article intends to provide direction to IT and security risk experts about network audit, including its methods, and best practices.
What is a network audit?
Network audit is the act of independently reviewing information about your organization’s IT control systems, security measures, and risk management policies and processes.
The purpose of auditing is to pinpoint threats, areas of vulnerability, and breaches, and verify that an organization meets the regulations (e.g., System and Organization Controls (SOC) or North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC CIP))23
During a network audit, auditors often check the following essential parameters:
- Network implementation.
- Network security.
- Overall performance.
- Network management.
- Network performance.
- Network availability.
Why is network security audit important?
A network audit is an important activity that provides visibility into any possible network issues, allowing them to be addressed before they cause downtime or damage business performance.
Network audits and assessments can also help companies to achieve the following:
- Following the organization’s security policies.
- Meeting with all external regulatory standards.
- Determining whether the security training is adequate.
- Assisting in determining the source and scope of a compromise during security incident investigations.
- Fostering effective risk-based decision-making.
Figure 2: A network vulnerability scanning software showing current network issues.
Read more: Vulnerability testing.
What are the different methods to perform a network audit?
The IT audit process includes five components:
1- IT controls: Compliance assessment is performed to ensure that controls have been put in place by the client-provided documentation. This ensures that IT controls follow management procedures, rules, and legal requirements. These tests involve a full understanding of the numerous risks, such as unauthorized access to data and other assets, unusual system interactions, or corrupted data.
2- General control audit: To summarize, general controls encompass operating systems, databases, files, software, and technical infrastructure operations.
Network administrators can validate the following points:
- Equipment, databases, and software all enable logical access limitations.
- Administration controls adjustments.
- Controls for backup and recovery.
- Physical datacenter maintenance.
- Cycle controls.
3- Application control audit: Application control steps ensure and validate the authorization, security, and recordkeeping of all transactions. To conduct application control audits companies require a summary of the application and transaction details such as volume, network audit data involved, and workflow.
4- Internet and network controls: Monitors an endpoint and server firewall that enables companies to have total control over all network traffic. Internet and network controls ensure that unauthorized users do not get access to corporate sensitive data during data transmission.
5- IT audit standards: The IT audit must follow generally accepted security recommendations. A few of these are listed below:
5.1. Global laws, and regulations:
Figure 3: Global security standards for financial institutions
Source: Ekran System5
5.2 Local laws, and regulations in the U.S
SOX The Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX): Establishes best practices for preventing firms from conducting illicit financial activities. It stipulates what financial documents should be kept, for how long, and how they must be preserved. This law applies to all public corporations registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.6
GLBA The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA): Governs how financial organizations handle their customers’ personal information. It specifically mandates businesses to have stringent data access procedures and provide customers with complete information about how their data is kept, handled, and secured.7
FINRA: Establishes norms and requirements for US broker-dealers. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requires written data protection plans to prevent the loss of consumer data. FINRA also establishes standards for recognizing and managing cyber threats.8
NIST: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a US government body that develops security standards for information technology such as NIST 800-53. NIST has issued recommendations for security risk management, data protection, and threat detection. While NIST recommendations are primarily aimed at federal organizations, they can be implemented by any company seeking to secure a high level of security for its sensitive network resources.9
Read more: Automated security risk assessment.
What parameters do audits cover?
During a security audit, an organization’s systems may be checked for vulnerabilities in the following:
Network vulnerabilities: Auditors seek vulnerabilities in any network element that a hacker may use to gain access to systems or data. For example, data that moves between the two locations is highly vulnerable. Security audits leveraged by network monitoring software can analyze network traffic, which includes emails, chat rooms, documents, and other interactions. This section of the audit also assesses network accessibility and access to locations.
Read more: Network visibility.
Data encryption: Auditors question if a company has controls in place to handle data encryption operations.
Software systems: Auditors evaluate software systems (data processing, software development, and computer systems) to ensure that they function correctly and provide accurate data.
Organizational management structure: Auditors ensure that IT management has established organizational structures and processes to produce an efficient and regulated environment for information processing.
Telecommunications devices: Auditors ensure that telecommunications devices operate following the company and regulatory policies on both the client and server sides, along with the network that hyperlinks them.
A five-step network audit framework
- Establish common goals: Include all stakeholders in discussions to communicate what should be covered and achieved through the audit.
- Determine the scope of the audit: List all assets that will be audited, including computer hardware, internal records, and company software.
- Conduct an audit to identify risks: Describe any potential risks including disasters, viruses, cyberattacks, insider threats and that can cause data, equipment, or record damage.
- Assess security and risks: Assess the likelihood of each of the highlighted emerging security risks and the organization’s ability to protect against them.
- Set the necessary controls: Determine which security measures must be installed or enhanced to mitigate threats.
Stakeholders including CISOs (chief information security officer), Ops, OT (operational technology), and CROs (chief risk officer) can distribute network auditing responsibilities.
Figure 4: Distribution of responsibilities, by security approach
Source: McKinsey & Company10
What information should a network security audit report offer?
The network audit report informs companies about common security issues in the network and their implications. Each security vulnerability is documented in the security audit report, along with its impact, ease of misuse for an attacker, and potential solutions to mitigate the issue.
The table below lists the sections of the network audit report.
Table 1: Network audit report sections
|Network audit report
|Explains under which configuration setting the potential threat was discovered.
Outlines the potential outcomes of exploiting a security weakness (e.g. a weak password).
Describes the skills, knowledge, and accessibility that an attacker would require to bypass security measures and exploit a security gap.
|Provides a list of steps for resolving the issue.
|Issue total rating
|Total core of network audit.
Figure 5: The number of vulnerabilities for each site or application, divided down by rating type
Network audit best practices
Network audit focuses on providing visibility into any potential issues in a network infrastructure. Implementing the following practices will allow companies to resolve these issues before they cause downtime or disrupt their business operations.
Periodic inventory counts: Conduct a periodic inventory of all networked devices. Monitor information such as domain names, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, serial codes, installation settings, policies, and software versions.
Network security policy investigation: Utilize tools to conduct network inventory, evaluate device security configurations, and examine network performance.
Device maintenance: Determine which devices are maintained by the vendor (software and hardware) or are old and must be changed or upgraded.
Vulnerability scans: Conduct vulnerability scans on your networks to uncover known security concerns and identify areas of weakness.
Password checks: Examine password management and encryption processes.
Access control audits: Check users and groups for proper access levels and authorizations.
Device synchronization: Synchronize all network devices (e.g. IoT devices) with a central time server to make sure that audit logs are recorded using the same time source.
How often do companies perform network audits?
Companies practice security audits once or twice each year, however, monthly or quarterly reporting is likely to occur. Given the software, applications, number of employees, and information that each company uses, audit timelines may vary. The complexity of an organization’s systems, as well as the kind and value of the data it contains, influence how frequently it chooses to undertake network audits.
Companies can also conduct a one-time network audit if a data breach, system upgrade, data migration, new system mitigation, or changes to compliance rules happen. These one-time audits might focus on a single region in which the incident may have revealed security issues.
Test vs. assessment vs. audit
Audits: Audits are distinct from other processes such as testing and evaluations. An audit is a method of ensuring that a business follows internal processes and security rules, along with those established by standards organizations and regulatory bodies. Organizations can either perform their audits or hire third-party auditors. Several industry groups provide best practices for security audits.
Tests: A test, such as a penetration test, is a technique for ensuring that a certain system functions properly. IT professionals who conduct the testing look for gaps that could lead to vulnerabilities. A penetration test, for example, involves the security analyst breaking into the system in the same way that a threat actor would, to identify what an attacker can access.
Assessments: An assessment is a predetermined test, such as a cybersecurity risk or vulnerability assessment. It examines how a system should perform and compares it to its existing operational status. For example, a vulnerability assessment of a computer system examines the state of the security mechanisms protecting that system and whether they are functioning properly.
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Cem has been the principal analyst at AIMultiple since 2017. AIMultiple informs hundreds of thousands of businesses (as per similarWeb) including 60% of Fortune 500 every month.
Cem's work has been cited by leading global publications including Business Insider, Forbes, Washington Post, global firms like Deloitte, HPE, NGOs like World Economic Forum and supranational organizations like European Commission. You can see more reputable companies and media that referenced AIMultiple.
Throughout his career, Cem served as a tech consultant, tech buyer and tech entrepreneur. He advised businesses on their enterprise software, automation, cloud, AI / ML and other technology related decisions at McKinsey & Company and Altman Solon for more than a decade. He also published a McKinsey report on digitalization.
He led technology strategy and procurement of a telco while reporting to the CEO. He has also led commercial growth of deep tech company Hypatos that reached a 7 digit annual recurring revenue and a 9 digit valuation from 0 within 2 years. Cem's work in Hypatos was covered by leading technology publications like TechCrunch and Business Insider.
Cem regularly speaks at international technology conferences. He graduated from Bogazici University as a computer engineer and holds an MBA from Columbia Business School.
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