For companies worried about the possibility of a cyberattack, the question is not if, but when. Eighty-eight percent of companies worldwide have experienced at least one cyberattack in the past two years. This elevated rate comes even as median IT budgets have tripled since 2018.

Why the discrepancy? Part of the explanation may lie in many organizations failing to capitalize on two important security practices: compliance audits and penetration testing. To reap the benefits of these practices, an organization needs to understand their similarities, differences and the role each plays in security configuration. 

The three phases of a top-to-bottom security assessment

Most security professionals have some level of experience with compliance auditing and penetration testing. But it’s sometimes challenging to determine where they fit in a top-to-bottom security assessment, which has various moving parts to account for. To summarize, a thorough security assessment has three main phases to consider:

Phase 1: Compliance auditing 

Compliance auditing is crucial during the first phase — security leaders must conduct both a configuration-based audit and an operations audit. In a configuration-based audit, IT teams work to ensure their various systems, networks and parameter settings are properly configured and adhere to relevant industry regulations. Reviewing security controls, user access permissions and network configurations is essential before moving ahead with any further testing.

An operations audit consists of a vulnerability scan of all operations systems, which include the integrity layer and larger applications like ERPs and CRMs. This step helps security leaders identify potential vulnerabilities in the mainframe that they should target in a penetration test. 

Phase 2: Penetration testing 

After mitigating any vulnerabilities that appeared during the audit process, IT teams should move on to the penetration test. In a pen test, ethical hackers attempt to bypass an organization’s security measures to identify any vulnerabilities the previous round of audits didn’t catch. 

The ethical hacker, who can be a member of an internal IT team or a third-party, works to gain escalating levels of access to internal systems and attempts to modify them. Afterward, the hacker reports on their findings and recommends next steps. These tests are valuable for both identifying gaps in security architecture as well as testing the responsiveness to security threats. 

Phase 3: Continuous monitoring and evaluation 

A single assessment isn’t enough to ensure 100% compliance and security. With cybersecurity threats always evolving, IT teams must continuously monitor and test their security precautions to identify new vulnerabilities. Conducting both compliance audits and pen tests at least once a year can ensure that security posture remains strong.

Getting the most out of pen tests and compliance auditing

While it’s valuable to understand how compliance auditing and pen testing fit into a security assessment, there are several different ways to execute them. For example, an organization can either conduct a pen test internally or outsource it to a third-party provider. 

Both methods are effective, but in different ways. Nearly half of all cyberattacks are executed by internal attackers, so recruiting a member of an IT team to hack into systems can help protect against this situation. External hacks are just as common, so simulating these attacks are also valuable for identifying vulnerabilities. These pen tests can take significant time and resources to organize, so consider contracting a third-party for assistance. 

Organizations shouldn’t skimp on their compliance audits either, since a single compliance violation can cost an organization millions of dollars. These violations are often revealed during third-party audits, which is why an organization’s compliance team should also perform internal audits to ensure compliance ahead of time. This means keeping tabs of updates to regulations that are relevant to the industry and establishing clear documentation guidelines for compliance policies. 

Don’t overlook the value of comprehensive testing

By leveraging the power of compliance audits and penetration testing, an organization can strengthen its security posture and better protect itself against cyber threats. Comprehensive preparation and monitoring can help safeguard sensitive data and valuable assets while ensuring they don’t have to pay for a compliance violation.