The Limitations of Audits: What You Need to Know

In recent years, the SOC2 and ISO 27001 badges have become a staple at the bottom of nearly every SaaS website. This is largely due to the growing number of startups providing solutions for SOC2 and ISO 27001 audits, such as Vanta and Secureframe. These companies greatly reduce the time and money necessary to comply with various audit regimes. The fact large companies are increasingly incorporating the requirements for SOC2 and ISO 27001 audits into their procurement process of course also drives the demand for these audits. With that said it’s important to understand what these badges really mean and what they don’t.

One common misunderstanding is that audits are ongoing assessments of an organization’s security practices. In reality, audits are almost always point-in-time retrospectives, meaning they only reflect what was the case at the time of the audit and not what is currently the case. This is a material point, as many small organizations view the work associated with these audits as an annual tax, rather than integrating the associated practices into how they work.

Another factor to consider is the scope of the audits. The entity being audited gets to choose the scope, and it’s common for startups to exclude their IT environment (such as desktops) from their audits. This means that not all SOC2 audits are created equal, and you may not be getting the full picture.

Beyond that when audits involve sampling data, it is usually the subject of the audit who chooses the sample. This means that either by accident or on purpose, the analysis may be based on the most favorable data.

There is also the concept of accepted and managed risks. An organization can often get by with poor security practices as long as they acknowledge the risk and have a plan to resolve it within a fixed period of time. This period of time can be continuously extended, allowing the organization to avoid addressing the issue indefinitely.

Then you need to remember that the auditor works for the organization being audited. They want to be hired again next year, so they may be willing to accept the organization’s interpretation of the expectations in order to secure future business. This means that the results of the audit may not be completely impartial.

And finally, there is the question of the qualifications of the auditors conducting these assessments. Often, they are exclusively accountants and not technologists, meaning that they are not equipped to evaluate the technical security or correctness of the systems being audited. Instead, they are essentially tasked with assessing if the checklist represented in the audit regime can be reasonably deemed as met. 

In conclusion, while SOC2 and ISO 27001 audits have good intentions, they are far from sufficient in assessing an organization’s security practices. The fact that the audits are point-in-time retrospectives, the scope of the audit is chosen by the entity being audited, the auditor works for the organization, and the results may be based on favorable data, all contribute to the limitations of these audits. As a result, it’s important to be aware of these limitations and not rely solely on a SOC2 badge as a sign of a secure organization.

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