Best Practices for Completeness and Accuracy in IT Compliance Audits

by | Feb 13, 2024

The transition from manual, error-prone processes to automated, streamlined, and reliable User Access Reviews (UAR) is essential for organizations to efficiently manage access rights, protect sensitive information, and uphold data privacy standards.

Achieving completeness and accuracy challenges traditional IT ownership and responsibilities, requiring a meticulous approach to data collection, audit readiness, and process automation. Automation, in particular, can assist with repetitive tasks susceptible to human error and enhance the integrity of audit trails. In this blog post, I will explore how your organization can withstand rigorous scrutiny and the role of automation in your efforts.

IT Compliance Audit: Top 5 Best Practices

Best Practice 1: Addressing IT Decentralization

In recent years, the decentralization of IT has become increasingly prevalent, driven by the need for specialized knowledge across different departments and the adoption of cloud services and SaaS platforms. This decentralization has caused fragmentation of data and system ownership, posing significant challenges for audit processes, particularly in collecting audit data and ensuring its completeness and accuracy.

To address these challenges, organizations can:

  • Standardize Data Management: Implement a single governance process and framework that sets clear, uniform procedures for data management and audit preparation across all departments. The process and framework should include clear guidelines on documentation, data collection methods, and reporting formats to ensure consistency.
  • Leverage Automation Tools:  IT audit and compliance automation tools that integrate with a wide range of systems and platforms help streamline the collection and analysis of data from disparate sources, reducing the potential for human error and ensuring that audit processes are both thorough and efficient.
  • Simplify Audit Processes: Create and adopt non-disruptive audit processes that all departments can follow. This includes developing easy methods for data collection, standardized campaigns, and uniform criteria for evaluating the results. Ideally,  your process should not interfere with your stakeholders’ normal business operations.
  • Require Ownership and Accountability: To ensure a clear line of responsibility for data management and system controls, it’s essential to define and communicate the roles and responsibilities associated with data and system ownership across the organization. This clarification helps guarantee that every department and individual understands their role in managing and safeguarding data, as well as in providing timely and accurate information during audit preparations.

Best Practice 2: Ensuring Data Integrity

To withstand scrutiny and accurately reflect an organization’s adherence to regulatory standards, ensuring data integrity involves meticulous handling of data capture and export methods.

  • Standardized Reports: Standardization ensures that data is captured in a consistent format, making it easier to compare and analyze. This consistency is critical for auditors to verify the accuracy of the data and to ensure that all relevant information has been included in the audit.
  • Timestamping: Timestamps serve as a vital piece of audit evidence, providing a clear and indisputable record of when data was extracted. This practice not only enhances the credibility of the data but also helps in establishing a timeline of events, which is crucial for tracking changes and identifying potential issues within the IT environment.
  • Audit Trails: Organizations should prioritize solutions that offer clear, transparent audit trails. These trails are essential for verifying the authenticity of the data and for tracing any issues back to their source. They also can verify the automation process itself, providing a record of all actions taken by the tool, including data captured, reports generated, and changes implemented. Additionally, direct integration capabilities with a wide range of applications and systems ensure that data can be accurately and efficiently collected from all relevant sources.

Best Practice 3: Enhancing Accuracy Through Automation

Automated tools can facilitate direct data extraction from systems, bypassing the need for intermediate steps that could potentially compromise data integrity. Repetitive tasks, such as data extraction, report generation, and access reviews, are particularly susceptible to mistakes when performed manually. Automation streamlines these processes, ensuring that actions are performed consistently and accurately every time. It can also support the automation of various functions beyond data collection, such as initiating access reviews, sending reminders, and executing access changes based on review outcomes.

I highly recommend Incorporating a campaign readiness stage into your automated UAR process. This practice helps improve the review’s effectiveness and accuracy, ensuring all data, permissions, and user accounts under review are up-to-date and accurately represented before initiating the formal review process. It includes:

  • Verification of Current Data: Conducting a thorough verification ensures that all applications, user accounts, and associated permissions included in the review are current. This step is crucial for ensuring that reviewers assess the most accurate and recent information.
  • Updating Business Context: As applications evolve, so do their associated permissions. Providing accurate and comprehensible descriptions of permissions helps reviewers make informed decisions. Clear descriptions demystify complex permissions, ensuring that reviewers understand exactly what they are approving or revoking.
  • Correct Mapping of Accounts to Users: A common challenge in access reviews is ensuring that user accounts are correctly mapped to the individuals using them. The Campaign Readiness stage is a time for organizations to meticulously verify these mappings.
  • Preparation of Audit Evidence: This stage also involves preparing and compiling all necessary audit evidence to support the review process. This may include screenshots of application settings, documentation of compliance controls, or any other evidence required by auditors.

Another important aspect of automation is related to applications that don’t support permission data retrieval via an API or by exporting permissions data into a CSV file. At Zilla, we have taken a unique approach to solving it through robotic automation. This feature, called Zilla Universal Sync (ZUS), retrieves user accounts and associated permissions from any app that doesn’t support APIs or data exports. It creates recipes that learn how to collect data and then deploy these recipes automatically for ongoing permission data synchronization.

Best Practice 4: Establishing Trust in Automated Tools

For auditors and stakeholders alike, confidence in automation systems hinges on clear, demonstrable proof of their reliability and effectiveness.

Methods for Demonstrating a Tool’s Effectiveness and Reliability to Auditors:

  • Transparent Audit Logs: Your audit logs should meticulously record every action performed by the tool, including data captures, report generations, and any access changes implemented. Providing a detailed account of the tool’s activities enables auditors to verify the accuracy and integrity of the data being presented.
  • Data Immutability: Ensure data immutability through tool features that prevent the modification of data after it has been captured. This guarantees that the data presented for audits remains unchanged from when it was originally captured.
  • Validation and Verification Processes: Implement processes that involve cross-referencing tool-generated data with source systems to ensure consistency and accuracy. Presenting auditors with evidence of these validation checks allows them to assess the tool’s effectiveness in accurately capturing and maintaining data.

Transparent Audit Logs and Data Immutability:

Many regulatory frameworks explicitly require the maintenance of detailed audit trails. Demonstrating compliance with laws and standards makes audit trails a top priority in any IT compliance program.

Audit trails also enhance accountability by mapping every action to an individual or process, making it possible to trace any data point back to its source. The origins and accuracy of data must be unquestionable during audits.

Finally, transparent audit logs enable the early detection of anomalies or discrepancies in data. By maintaining a detailed record of all actions, organizations can quickly investigate and address any issues, thereby preventing potential compliance risks.

Best Practice #5: Proactive Auditor Involvement and Reviewer Education

The early involvement of auditors in the tool implementation process ensures that they become familiar with the functionalities and capabilities of new automation tools, fostering a sense of trust and reliability from the outset. Auditors can provide valuable input that may influence the configuration and deployment of tools, fostering a collaborative environment. This partnership between IT compliance teams and auditors paves the way for smoother audit processes, minimizing surprises and enabling a more

Educating staff and reviewers about new processes introduced by the organization can demonstrate the simplicity and efficiency of these new processes, proactively dispelling any potential concerns about their complexity. Due to the resistance often encountered with any process changes, staff education should highlight how the new process streamlines reviews, reduces manual errors and contributes to a more robust compliance framework.

Real-world Application of IT Compliance Best Practices

Implementing Zilla Comply, our flagship solution, often marks a significant transformation in how our customers manage IT compliance and access reviews.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with one of our key customers, Baldwin Risk Partners (BRP), a prominent insurance distribution risk management industry firm, to discuss their compliance audit journey. Initially challenged by the manual and labor-intensive processes of importing data from a suite of custom applications, they used Zilla Comply to simplify the intricacies of data mapping and collection. This not only eased the operational burden but also enhanced the precision of their access reviews.

Before Zilla Comply was introduced, their process was fraught with inefficiencies. The routine of exporting data, often resulting in disparate Excel files being circulated among numerous stakeholders, was both cumbersome and prone to inaccuracies. Zilla Comply has revolutionized this aspect, streamlining their workflows and ensuring a consistency that was previously unattainable. The shift towards automation and the establishment of a robust, transparent audit trail have significantly mitigated the risks associated with manual processes.

BRP’s journey with Zilla has been one of evolving trust and reliability, particularly with auditors. The ability to present tangible evidence of access review completeness and accuracy—through straightforward screen captures juxtaposed against Zilla’s reports—has significantly bolstered auditor confidence in their compliance processes. Zilla’s comprehensive audit logs served as a testament to the solution’s diligence, meticulously documenting every aspect of the data import process, whether successful or not, thus providing a highly reliable source of truth.

Author

  • Aaron Beaudoin

    Aaron Beaudoin currently heads up product management at Zilla Security. Before joining Zilla, he was head of product management efforts for the Identity Governance and Lifecycle solution at Aveksa, which was acquired by RSA.

    Previously, he held a number of product management, field engineering, and solutions architect leadership positions at Unisys and ePresence (formally Banyan Systems). Aaron holds B.S. in Computer Science from Bentley University.

    Connect with Aaron via LinkedIn.

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