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The difference between compliance auditing and pen testing — and why both are critical for cybersecurity

Cynthia Overby

April 7, 2023

Cybersecurity is as fraught as it’s ever been. Businesses are under constant threat from cyberattacks, data breaches, and other security incidents, with nearly nine in 10 companies experiencing a cyberattack in the past three years.

Given the precarious security environment, it’s vital for organizations to stay on top of their security posture and patch weak spots before damage and disruptions occur. In the past few months, we’ve seen a significant increase in customer inquiries into security assessments, with a specific focus on the role compliance audits and penetration testing play in the process.

Although compliance audits and pen testing both serve a similar purpose, they differ in several key ways. A better understanding of how compliance auditing and pen testing work — and how they can complement one another — can help you evaluate your security practices, identify potential vulnerabilities, and strengthen your system’s defenses.

What is a compliance audit?

A compliance audit is a review of a business’s security practices and processes to ensure they meet regulatory and industry standards.

Compliance audits are most often conducted by an external auditor or third-party assessor, but an organization’s own compliance team may also perform audits. The typical audit involves reviewing policies and procedures, documentation, and technical controls to ensure they meet certain requirements, such as SOC 2ISO 27001 or the Department of Defense’s STIGS.

Compliance audits are crucial to ensure businesses are following best practices and necessary security protocols to protect sensitive data and prevent security incidents. By conducting a thorough review of their security infrastructure, businesses can identify potential risks and weak spots before they become significant issues. In addition, audits help organizations avoid compliance violations and any legal actions, reputational damages or fines that may come with them.

What is a pen test?

Pen testing, or penetration testing, is a simulated cyberattack designed to identify vulnerabilities in a business’s security infrastructure. This strategy involves an ethical hacker attempting to exploit vulnerabilities in a business’s system, networks, and applications to gain access to sensitive data and identify vulnerabilities that a real-life hacker could exploit.

Pen testing is typically conducted by an internal team or external security professionals using a variety of techniques and tools to try to breach an organization’s defenses and gain access to sensitive information. The process is incredibly effective: Ethical hackers discovered over 65,000 vulnerabilities in 2022 — 20% more than the previous year.

The goal of pen testing is to identify potential security risks and provide recommendations for improvement. By roleplaying how a hacker might carry out a data breach, organizations can identify potential vulnerabilities and weak spots, test security capabilities, and patch their configuration before bad actors beat them to it.

How compliance audits and pen testing work together

Compliance audits and pen testing tackle two sides of the same coin: meeting regulatory standards and identifying security weaknesses. You need both to maintain your overall security posture. For example, a compliance audit could uncover potential vulnerabilities that should be further assessed during a pen test to determine how they can be corrected, while a pen test may pinpoint compliance issues that must be addressed.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of technologies and services available to carry out security monitoring and testing. Getting started can feel overwhelming, but there are best practices to help guide you through the process. Here are the six steps we recommend to integrate compliance audits and pen testing into a top-to-bottom security assessment:

  1. Start with a configuration-based audit.The first step to a thorough security assessment is auditing your configuration, which involves reviewing parameter settings — such as password management, user access, and the setup of APF libraries — and gauging whether they adhere to best practices. Ensure your fundamental settings are in order before you start to assess other elements of your security defenses.
  2. Move on to an operations audit.The next step is to carry out a vulnerability scan of your operations systems, including your applications, programs across distributed systems, and, most importantly, the integrity layer. Scanning the integrity layer involves auditing the mainframe’s code and data to detect potential security vulnerabilities or unauthorized modifications — a crucial measure given that mainframes still handle more than 70% of IT workloads worldwide, including sensitive data such as personal and financial information.
  3. Mitigate any problems you find.Audits often reveal vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and other issues that could compromise security or compliance. After you’ve identified issues, mitigate any and all security vulnerabilities. Taking action to fix problems identified during configuration and operations audits not only improves your security posture, but ensures you will meet compliance standards and satisfy your audit community.
  4. Conduct a pen test.Pen testing confirms that your mitigation efforts were effective. It also helps spot any additional vulnerabilities your audits didn’t catch. For optimal success, you’ll need to provide pen testers with various levels of information to simulate different types of attacks. For example, one pen tester may launch an attack with little or no knowledge of your IT landscape — similar to an external hacker — while another pen tester impersonates an internal threat using existing knowledge of the landscape to compromise data and security.Similar to audits, pen testing should also focus on the mainframe. Although mainframe deployments are often far more secure than other platforms, they still suffer from critical software and configuration vulnerabilities — and you need to find these problems before others do.
  5. Mitigate vulnerabilities again.Likewise, you should conduct an additional mitigation process to patch any vulnerabilities that emerge from pen testing. Develop a remediation plan that outlines the steps needed to ensure issues are addressed in a timely and effective manner. Prioritize issues based on the level of risk and the potential impact on the business, solving the biggest threats first before moving on to smaller ones.
  6. Implement ongoing monitoring and testing.The security landscape is constantly changing. That’s why it’s vital to make monitoring and testing a regular routine. For pen testing, that could look like annual or semiannual retesting to verify problems remain patched and expose new weaknesses. In fact, 85% of cybersecurity pros report conducting such tests at least once a year.

Compliance auditing and pen testing both play vital roles in the necessary monitoring, testing, and continuous assessment of modern IT environments. And the ongoing investment is well worth it — robust preventative measures substantially minimize the risk of a costly data breach, protecting you from steep financial losses and reputational damage.

Learn more about how KRI can support your organization’s security strategy, explore our pen testing and compliance risk assessment solutions and services.