In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, a compliance audit is not just a regulatory requirement; it’s a cornerstone for safeguarding your organisation’s integrity and trustworthiness. A compliance audit checklist is an essential tool in this process, helping compliance auditors gather statistics, identify issues, and ensure that organisations adhere to certain standards. Yet, a surprising number of organisations remain either unaware of its significance or underprepared for the process. For instance, according to Thales Group, 43% of enterprises that underwent compliance audits in the last 12 months, failed. This stark reality underscores the importance of understanding and preparing for compliance audits.

What is a compliance audit?

A cybersecurity compliance audit is an independent review of an organisation’s information security posture against a defined set of controls, best practices and regulations. Compliance audit procedures involve examining records, conducting interviews, on-site visits, using checklists and questionnaires, gathering evidence, compiling a report, and making recommendations.

It aims to evaluate your company’s effectiveness in recognising, monitoring, safeguarding against, reacting to, and recovering from breaches and other security incidents. It specifically requires you to provide documented evidence of compliance in key areas such as risk management, which covers hardware, software, assets, and the interconnections between systems.

Internal audits vs. external compliance audits

Compliance audits can be conducted either internally or by an independent auditor. External compliance audits are conducted by independent auditors.

Internal audits

Internal cybersecurity audits, also known as internal audits, evaluate how well an organisation follows its own internal codes of conduct and formal processes. They are performed by an organisation’s own security team or audit department. They act as a proactive mechanism for companies to assess their own adherence to cybersecurity laws, regulations, and internal policies. The main goal is to uncover vulnerabilities and areas for enhancement within the organisation’s cyber security posture, promoting a culture of continuous improvement and accountability.

These audits are crucial for preparing for external evaluations by ensuring that cybersecurity processes and documentation meet compliance standards. This self-assessment approach is vital for risk management and enhancing the overall security framework of the organisation.

External Compliance Audits

Conversely, external audits are conducted by compliance auditors, who are independent, third-party professionals responsible for conducting audits, interviewing employees, reviewing documentation and evidence, and offering follow-up services to ensure compliance. These audits offer an objective evaluation of an organisation’s compliance with cybersecurity standards and regulations. The external viewpoint provided by these audits can reveal potential oversights not identified by internal teams, adding a layer of credibility to the audit findings.

This is particularly advantageous for reinforcing regulatory compliance, bolstering investor confidence, and enhancing customer trust. External auditors bring specialised knowledge and expertise, highlighting industry best practices and benchmarking organisational security measures against them, which can significantly contribute to the organisation’s cybersecurity maturity.

How do compliance audits work?

Compliance audits begin with a clear understanding of the regulatory standards applicable to the organisation. Auditors then assess various documents, procedures, and internal controls to evaluate compliance. This process not only identifies gaps but also highlights areas of risk and opportunities for improvement. An outline of the audit process has been provided below.

The Compliance Audit Process


The preparation phase is critical for a successful cybersecurity compliance audit. During this stage, organisations must gather all relevant documentation, including security policies, incident response plans, operational audits, and evidence of previous compliance efforts. Utilising a compliance audit checklist during this phase helps gather necessary documentation and ensure readiness. It’s also the time to review the specific cybersecurity frameworks and regulations applicable, such as ISO 27001, NIST, or GDPR documentation, depending on the organisation’s industry and location.

Preparing a comprehensive list of assets, including all information systems and data flows, is essential to understand the scope of the audit. Additionally, engaging with the audit team to clarify expectations and timelines ensures that both parties are aligned from the start.


In the fieldwork phase, auditors follow compliance audit procedures to conduct a thorough examination of the organisation’s cyber security practices. This involves reviewing the security architecture, examining the implementation of security controls, and assessing the effectiveness of incident response procedures. Auditors will typically conduct interviews with key personnel, perform vulnerability assessments, and test the organisation’s ability to detect and respond to threats. This hands-on investigation aims to identify any gaps in the organisation’s adherence to cybersecurity posture that could lead to potential vulnerabilities or non-compliance with relevant standards.


After completing the fieldwork, auditors compile their findings into a detailed audit report itself. This report will highlight areas of compliance and non-compliance, identify security vulnerabilities, and provide recommendations for improvement. The reporting phase is crucial for documenting the audit’s outcomes and providing a roadmap for addressing any identified issues. It should offer clear, actionable insights that the organisation can follow to enhance its cybersecurity measures.


The follow-up phase occurs after the organisation has had time to address the final audit report and findings. Auditors may revisit the organisation to verify that the recommended actions have been implemented and to assess the effectiveness of these changes. This phase ensures that the organisation has taken necessary steps to improve its cybersecurity posture and compliance status.

It’s an opportunity for continuous improvement and for solidifying the partnership between the auditor and the organisation, with the shared goal of achieving robust cybersecurity compliance.

Why are compliance audits important?

Compliance audits are essential for several reasons. They ensure legal and regulatory adherence, protect against data breaches and financial fraud, and enhance the organization’s reputation and stakeholder trust. We’ve outlined the specific points of importance below.

They Ensure Regulatory Compliance

First and foremost, compliance audits verify that an organisation meets specific legal and regulatory guidelines and industry-specific security standards. This is crucial for avoiding potential fines and legal penalties associated with non-compliance. More importantly, it ensures that the organisation is upholding its duty to protect customer and stakeholder data, maintaining trust and integrity in its operations.

Help to Identify Vulnerabilities and Risks

Through comprehensive evaluation, compliance audits highlight gaps and weaknesses in an organisation’s cybersecurity defences. Identifying these vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by malicious actors allows an organisation to fortify its defences, reducing the risk of data breaches and cyber-attacks.

Enhance Security Posture

The findings from compliance audits provide valuable insights that can be used to strengthen an organisation’s security measures. Implementing the recommended improvements helps in building a more resilient cybersecurity infrastructure capable of withstanding emerging threats.

Build Customer Trust

In an era where data breaches are not only costly but can also significantly damage reputations, demonstrating a commitment to cybersecurity can differentiate an organisation from its competitors. Customers and partners are increasingly concerned about how their data is protected; thus, compliance with recognised cybersecurity standards can enhance trust and confidence in an organisation’s services.

Facilitate Continuous Improvement

Compliance audits are not a one-time event but part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement. They encourage organisations to regularly review and update their cybersecurity practices in response to new threats and changes in compliance requirements. This dynamic approach ensures that cybersecurity measures remain effective over time.

Types of compliance regulations and audits

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996)

Established to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without consent or knowledge. Primarily the compliance regulation affects the healthcare sector, ensuring that entities handle health information with strict privacy and security measures.

Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) 2002

Aimed at protecting investors from fraudulent financial reporting by corporations. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) works with the government’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to ensure businesses comply with trading practice standards in the financial industry. SOX is crucial for the finance and accounting practices of publicly traded companies, demanding accuracy in financial disclosures.

ISO (International Organization of Standardisation) in 1946

These global standards ensure quality, safety, and efficiency across various industries. Organisations seek ISO certification to demonstrate excellence in their operational and business processes, product quality, and environmental responsibility.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

Ensures that all entities that process, store, or transmit credit card information maintain a secure environment. It is vital for the retail and e-commerce sectors to prevent credit card fraud and protect customer information.

SOC 2 (Systems and Organisational Controls) in 2009

Focuses on information security at service organisations, particularly those storing customer data in the cloud. It’s essential for technology and cloud computing companies to assure clients of their data’s security and confidentiality.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in 2016

Enhances personal data protection and privacy for individuals within the European Union. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) plays a crucial role in ensuring compliance with federal tax codes, which is an essential aspect of the overall compliance auditing process. It affects organisations worldwide that process the data of EU citizens, emphasising consent, data rights, and secure data handling practices.

California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) in 2020

Enhances privacy rights and consumer protection for residents of California. Similar to GDPR but specific to California, it requires businesses to be transparent about data collection practices and allows consumers to opt out of data selling.

The Challenges of compliance audits

Compliance audits are crucial for ensuring that organisations adhere to necessary legal, regulatory, and operational standards. However, the process of undergoing a compliance audit can present several challenges, each of which requires careful consideration and strategic planning to overcome. Below are detailed sections on some of the key challenges organisations face during compliance audits.

Resource Intensive

The process of preparing for and conducting compliance audits is highly resource intensive. Organisations must allocate substantial amounts of time, manpower, and financial resources to ensure that every aspect of their operations is thoroughly reviewed and adheres to relevant standards and regulations.

This includes the meticulous gathering and reviewing of documents, policies, procedures, and systems across various departments. Small to medium-sized enterprises may find the resource allocation especially burdensome, as diverting these resources from day-to-day operations can impact productivity and profitability.

Moreover, the hiring of external auditors or specialised compliance personnel represents an additional financial burden that must be carefully managed to avoid straining the organisation’s budget.

Evolving Regulations

One of the most significant challenges in compliance audits is the constant evolution of regulations. Legal and regulatory frameworks are continually updated to respond to new risks, technological advancements, and societal changes. Organisations must stay abreast of these changes to ensure ongoing compliance, requiring a continuous investment in legal expertise and compliance training.

This ongoing requirement can be particularly challenging for organisations operating across multiple jurisdictions, where they must navigate a complex web of potentially conflicting regulations. Keeping up with evolving regulations demands a proactive approach to regulatory compliance processes and management, including regular training for staff, continuous monitoring of regulatory developments, and the flexibility to adapt processes and systems as necessary.

Cultural Resistance

Cultural resistance within an organisation can pose a significant barrier to the successful implementation of changes required for compliance. Employees and even management may be resistant to alterations in established procedures, especially if the reasons behind these changes are not effectively communicated or understood.

Overcoming this resistance requires a deliberate effort to foster a culture of compliance throughout the organisation. This involves educating all members of the organisation about the importance of compliance, the potential consequences of non-compliance, and the role each individual plays in maintaining the organisation’s compliance posture.

Leaders must champion compliance efforts, demonstrating commitment through their actions and decisions, and encouraging open communication about compliance challenges and successes.

Who are compliance audits for?

All organisations, particularly those in highly regulated industries such as finance, healthcare, and technology need to undergo compliance audits. High-risk sectors include those handling sensitive data, operating internationally, or subject to stringent regulatory oversight.

How your organisation can prepare for a compliance audit

Understand Applicable Regulations

It’s imperative to have a deep understanding of the rules and regulations that apply to your industry. This knowledge forms the foundation of your compliance efforts. Regularly review legal and regulatory updates relevant to your sector and consider engaging with legal experts or regulatory bodies for insights into how these rules directly impact your operations.

Conduct Internal Audits

Implement a schedule for regular internal audits to evaluate how well your organization follows its own internal codes of conduct and formal processes. These audits can help identify potential issues before they become significant problems, allowing for timely corrective actions. Use the findings from these audits to refine and improve your own compliance processes and strategies continually.

Conduct External Asset Audits

Engage in an external audit to ensure your assets are in line with industry standards and best practices. These audits can be helpful in identifying issues prior to full compliance audit. By using the findings and working with the external auditor, you can help to ensure your assets are in line with industry best practices and regulations to ensure compliance.

Train Your Staff

Compliance is a team effort. Educate your employees on the importance of compliance and their role in maintaining it. Offer regular training sessions that cover relevant laws, regulations, and internal policies. Empowering your staff with knowledge and clarifying expectations promotes a culture of compliance throughout the organisation.

Document Everything

Documentation is key in a compliance audit. Maintain thorough records of your policies, procedures, training sessions, internal compliance audits conducted, and any corrective actions taken. These documents serve as evidence of your ongoing compliance efforts and can significantly streamline the audit process.

Engage with Auditors

View auditors not as adversaries but as partners in your compliance journey. Establish open lines of communication with them and foster a collaborative environment. Being transparent and cooperative with auditors can facilitate a more efficient and less stressful audit process.

Compliance auditing services by SecQuest

At SecQuest, we understand the complexities and challenges of compliance. Our team of experts offers comprehensive auditing services such as device build reviews to Center for Internet Security (CIS) compliance checks. With our industry-leading expertise we help to ensure your assets are operating in line with industry standards and best practices for security.

If you’re looking to bolster your security posture and take the next step towards ensuring compliance, contact SecQuest today.