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ISO 27001 Audit: Tutorial & Best Practices

ISO 27001 Audit

What's Inside

Learn the essential steps and benefits of the ISO 27001 audit process and how it can improve an organization’s information security and overall success.

In an era marked by rapid digital advancements and escalating cyber threats, engaging in the ISO 27001 audit process is essential for organizations. This process plays a crucial role in strengthening the organization’s information security management system (ISMS) and ensuring consistent compliance with the strict standards and requirements of ISO 27001 certification.

This article aims to offer a detailed exploration of the ISO 27001 audit process, highlighting its importance and providing recommendations for organizations to achieve and maintain compliance. By following these guidelines, organizations can bolster their defenses against cyber threats and enhance their overall security posture.

Phase

Article Takeaways

Preparation

Gain a comprehensive understanding of ISO 27001 and the internal groundwork required before an audit.

Execution

Grasp the stages of a certification audit, their requirements, and the new certification timelines.

Follow-up

Address nonconformities and review new implementations.

All

Commit to continuous improvement, keep leadership involved, and automate processes.

Organizations preparing for an upcoming ISO 27001 audit aim to demonstrate their dedication to information security, adherence to industry standards, and protection of sensitive data, thereby ensuring long-term resilience, credibility, and reliability. Successfully passing the ISO 27001 audit and achieving certification offers substantial benefits, including improved information security practices, heightened customer trust, and a competitive edge in the marketplace.

An unsuccessful ISO 27001 audit or failure to implement best practices and controls can have wide-ranging implications. Organizations may face heightened security vulnerabilities, legal and regulatory repercussions, reputation damage, and a loss of business opportunities. Financial losses, operational disruptions, and a lack of continuous improvement further compound the impact. Failure to attain ISO 27001 certification not only jeopardizes the organization’s overall security posture but also leads to a diminished competitive edge in industries where information security is paramount. Customer and stakeholder dissatisfaction are likely outcomes, with long-lasting implications for the organization’s success.

Benefits of ISO 27001

Understanding ISO 27001

ISO 27001 sets a benchmark for security requirements and controls designed to manage information security risks effectively. Distinct from other security frameworks that offer broad guidelines, ISO 27001’s systematic approach tailors security measures to an organization’s specific needs. Understanding this framework involves examining how it mandates an ISMS, ensuring not just compliance but a robust defense against ever-evolving digital threats.

Internal Audit

Before delving into the ISO 27001 certification process, it's imperative to distinguish between internal audits and the subsequent certification and surveillance audits. While the latter are conducted by external auditors for certification purposes, internal audits are mandatory self-conducted assessments, essential for maintaining continual compliance and improving the ISMS. Addressing this difference early on clarifies the distinct roles and objectives of each type of audit, thereby setting the stage for a comprehensive understanding of the ISO 27001 certification process.

The internal audit process begins with clear planning, where specific goals are set in alignment with ISO 27001 objectives and the unique security needs of the organization. This stage involves determining the scope of the audit and ensuring that qualified personnel are allocated to manage it effectively. The Internal Auditor is required to be Competent (background in security, auditing, etc) and Independent (i.e. not a key implementer of the ISMS), as such some companies outsource the Internal Audit to a third party with experience in implementing or auditing ISO 27001. 

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Execution of the internal audit involves several practical steps to assess the robustness and compliance of the ISMS. Conducting internal mock audits is an effective strategy to simulate the certification audit experience, identifying potential challenges and ensuring staff familiarity with the audit process. 

Stages of an ISO 27001 2022 Audit

ISO 27001 certification follows a detailed, step-by-step process over three years. It begins with the initial certification audit, which is broken up into two stages. During Stage I, organizations undergo a preliminary review to assess readiness for the formal compliance audit. Stage I is typically focused on the Clauses of ISO 27001 and key Annex A Controls (Stage II). In this stage, compliance with ISO 27001 standards is rigorously evaluated, focusing on the effectiveness of the implemented Annex A Controls within the ISMS.

Following successful certification, the process enters into ongoing surveillance audits conducted at least annually. These are focused reviews examining specific aspects of the ISMS, ensuring ongoing compliance, continual improvement, and adaptation to changes in the business environment or security threats. These surveillance audits are crucial in the interim years, providing a systematic approach to maintaining and enhancing information security practices.

The cycle culminates every three years with a recertification audit and a comprehensive evaluation to renew the ISO 27001 certificate. This audit confirms the organization’s continued adherence to high information security standards, thoroughly evaluating the implementation and effectiveness of controls within the ISMS. This structured approach ensures a continuous cycle of improvement and adaptation within the domain of information security management.

Example Audit Calendar

Audit Planning

In this initial phase of the audit process, the primary objective is clearly defined to ensure alignment with the overall goals of the audit. The scope of the audit is outlined, detailing the specific areas, processes, or technology to be examined. This includes identifying any particular risks or concerns that need special attention. 

New company products or services can be added to the ISO 27001 scope during certification or surveillance audits. This allows your ISO 27001 program to grow as the business grows.

The criteria against which the audit will be conducted are established, encompassing the Clauses and Annex A Controls of ISO 27001. 

Auditees—the individuals or departments being audited—are identified. This step ensures that the relevant personnel are aware of the audit and prepared to provide necessary information and access.

A comprehensive plan is established, which includes the detailed scheduling of audit activities. This plan is not just a timeline—it also outlines the resources required, such as personnel, technology, and access to data.

Finally, communication is a vital part of this phase. The plan is communicated to all stakeholders, along with its objectives, scope, and schedule. This ensures transparency and prepares everyone involved for the upcoming audit activities.

Audit Execution

During this portion of the audit, the auditors’ primary task is to gather sufficient and appropriate evidence. This evidence is a key element for assessing whether the information in the ISMS aligns with the requirements set out in ISO 27001.

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The process begins with a thorough review of documents and records. Auditors examine the organization’s security policies, procedures, and records to ensure that they meet the ISO 27001 standards. This review covers a broad range of documentation, including (but not limited to) security risk assessments, incident response plans, training records, and audit logs.

Observing activities and processes within the organization forms another significant part of evidence collection. Auditors may work with various departments to see how information security policies are implemented in daily operations. They observe how data is handled, the effectiveness of access controls, and the implementation of security protocols across different levels of the organization.

Conducting interviews with organizational staff is also a key component of the audit. These interviews provide insights into the practical aspects of the ISMS. Auditors engage with staff members across different roles and levels, from IT personnel to department heads, to understand their awareness and application of information security policies.

This step is vital in providing an objective assessment of the ISMS’s effectiveness and its compliance with ISO 27001. The evidence gathered not only highlights areas of noncompliance but also identifies best practices and areas of strength within the organization’s information security framework.

Audit Report and Certificate

Following the audit execution, a report is prepared for the organization pursuing ISO 27001 certification, summarizing the results and conclusions. This report includes a detailed description of identified nonconformities and improvement opportunities. It is delivered to relevant stakeholders.

Once the auditor feels the organization has met the requirements of ISO 27001, an ISO 27001 Certificate is issued. This certificate is intended to be the deliverable shared with customers, prospects, and the broader market. 

Audit Follow-Up

In this phase, auditors verify the implementation of corrective or preventive actions proposed in the audit report and assess their effectiveness. This may involve a revisit to the organization or a review of provided documentation.

Nonconformities in ISO 27001

Nonconformities (NCFs) in the ISO 27001 audit are instances where the organization fails to meet specific requirements of the standard, particularly those outlined in clauses 4 to 10. Examples of nonconformities might include gaps in security measures, inadequate implementation of the organization’s documented information security policies, or failure to assign owners to all identified risks.

These instances of noncompliance can also involve the organization’s own established information security policies, especially in areas where the ISMS does not fully meet the standard’s requirements. Every detail of such nonconformities is recorded, as they are essential to the audit report and will inform subsequent recommendations for improvement. 

This detailed documentation serves to highlight areas that need improvement, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the organization’s alignment with the ISO 27001 standard.

There are two types of nonconformities in ISO 27001:

Major: An ISO 27001 Certificate cannot be issued while Major NCFs exist. An example of a Major NCF is failure to complete the Risk Assessment or Internal Audit. 

Minor: An ISO 27001 Certificate can be issued while Minor NCFs exist, as long as appropriate Corrective Action Plans are in place. An example of a Minor NCF is an isolated failure of control effectiveness, such as one employee being found to not have completed their security awareness training. 

A third “unofficial” type of nonconformity also exists called an Opportunity For Improvement.

Opportunity to Improvement (OFI): An ISO 27001 Certificate can be issued while OFIs exist as this is a recommendation/best practice. 

Addressing Nonconformities

To maintain ISO 27001 certification, organizations must promptly and effectively address nonconformities. This involves implementing corrective actions, documenting the resolution process, and providing evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of these actions. Regular monitoring, internal audits, and a proactive approach to continuous improvement are fundamental to preventing, identifying, and rectifying nonconformities. This ensures the ongoing effectiveness of the ISMS.

In addition to addressing nonconformities, auditors may identify opportunities for improvement (OFIs). Unlike nonconformities, OFIs are recommendations rather than mandatory requirements. Organizations have the discretion to address these based on their perceived value, allowing them to enhance the ISMS according to specific needs and circumstances.

This balanced approach enables organizations to maintain their ISO 27001 certification while continuously improving their information security practices. The overall approach includes these actions:

Address Nonconformities Promptly

During an audit, encountering minor nonconformities is not uncommon. It’s important to address these promptly and efficiently when they are identified. This means not just acknowledging these issues but actively developing and implementing corrective action plans to resolve them. It is essential to demonstrate a clear understanding of each nonconformity, analyze its root causes, and develop a tailored approach to rectify the issue.

Commit to Continuous Improvement

This effort involves more than just closing nonconformities within the stipulated time frame; it requires a proactive approach to preventing similar issues in the future. This could involve revising policies, enhancing training programs, or improving internal communication and monitoring processes.

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Document the Response to Nonconformities Thoroughly

This includes detailing the corrective actions taken, the timeline for implementation, and the responsible parties. Documentation serves as a record of the organization’s responsiveness and commitment to upholding the standards and can be a valuable tool for future audits.

Engage With Stakeholders Throughout This Process

This includes keeping the audit team informed about the steps being taken to address nonconformities as well as internal communication to staff and management. By ensuring that everyone is aware of the actions being taken and their role in supporting these actions, the organization can foster a culture of quality and compliance.

Review the Effectiveness of Corrective Actions After Implementation

This could involve follow-up audits or reviews to ensure that the nonconformities have been fully resolved and that the corrective measures are effective and sustainable. This ongoing review process is a key component of continuous improvement and helps with building a robust and resilient ISMS.

The Difference Between Mandatory and Organizational Requirements

Mandatory requirements are non-negotiable aspects outlined in ISO 27001 that organizations must adhere to for certification. Failure to meet these mandatory requirements constitutes a nonconformity.

Organizational requirements are additional requirements that organizations often establish beyond the ISO standard, aligning with their specific context and objectives. Noncompliance with these self-imposed requirements, if stated in policies or documentation, also constitutes a nonconformity.

The Significance of Each Control in ISO 27001

Every control in the ISO 27001 framework is designed to mitigate specific information security risks. Understanding these controls’ significance is crucial for effective implementation.

Auditors look for evidence of a well-implemented and effective ISMS. They review the integration of controls into daily operations, staff awareness and understanding, and the measures’ effectiveness at risk reduction.

ISO 27001 also gives organization flexibility to mark Annex A Controls as not applicable if needed through the Statement of Applicability (SoA).

Recommendations for Preparing for an ISO 27001 Audit

In planning for the ISO 27001 audit process, it is important to define the objective, scope, and criteria while establishing the methodologies to be used.

Additionally, a comprehensive plan should be developed, outlining action items, assigning responsibilities, prioritizing tasks, and setting deadlines. This plan should also include scheduling activities and communicating them to stakeholders, ensuring that the implementation process is well-managed, organized, and transparent to all involved parties.

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To effectively prepare an organization for an ISO 27001 audit, the following steps should be followed:

  • Establish a project team: Form a dedicated project team responsible for overseeing the entire audit preparation process. Include representatives from various departments involved in information security and compliance.

  • Employee awareness and training: This should focus on prioritizing employee education on information security policies, procedures, and their individual roles in maintaining security and compliance. It’s important to conduct regular training sessions and provide necessary documentation and support.

  • Ensure employee role awareness: Employees must be aware of their roles in safeguarding sensitive information and the reasons behind each control. This approach goes beyond mere rote learning of procedures—it’s about instilling a deep understanding of the purpose and significance of security practices.

  • Conduct the internal audit: Be sure to do a thorough internal audit before external audits. Verify that all required documentation, evidence, and controls are in place. Identify and address any gaps or weaknesses in the ISMS.

  • Prioritize clear communication: Maintain open communication channels with the project team, auditors, and relevant stakeholders. Clearly communicate the audit plan, objectives, and expectations to ensure that everyone is aligned and aware of their roles in the process. Clarify any queries they may have and provide transparent information; building a positive rapport can contribute to a smoother audit process.

The implementation process focuses on assessing the adequacy and currency of documents to confirm that they comply with the standard. This includes a deep dive into the policies and engaging with the staff responsible for executing these procedures. Gathering insights and feedback from these members allows for a more comprehensive and inclusive audit, leading to a thorough evaluation of how well the ISMS aligns with ISO 27001 standards.

Beyond document verification, it is also vital to demonstrate the practical application of these policies and procedures as well as the effectiveness of the supporting tools. 

Providing evidence for each control, as specified in Annex A, is critical. This evidence should highlight not just the existence of documentation but also its active implementation within the ISMS. We recommend the following actions:

  • Institute continuous monitoring: Continuously monitor and update security controls as part of a proactive approach to maintaining compliance with ISO 27001 standards. This should include regularly conducting internal audits and periodic evaluations of the ISMS. These activities are crucial for identifying and addressing any shortcomings, ensuring ongoing compliance, and preparing the system for external audits. This integrated approach emphasizes both readiness for audits and continuous improvement of the ISMS in line with established standards.

  • Emphasize ongoing review and improvement, including surveillance and monitoring: Regularly review and improve your ISMS based on feedback and changing business needs. This ensures compliance while facilitating a smoother recertification process.

  • Update regularly: Stay informed about changes to ISO standards and update the ISMS accordingly. Keep abreast of industry best practices and ensure that the ISMS is adapted to address emerging threats and challenges.

  • Organize preparation workshops: Arrange workshops or training sessions specifically focused on audit preparation. Share insights, best practices, and expectations with the project team and relevant stakeholders to align everyone with the audit objectives.

  • Treat the internal audit as a dress rehearsal: Consider the internal audit audit as a dress rehearsal for the certification audit (Stages 1 and 2). This preliminary review assesses your readiness for the main event, allowing you to identify and address any potential issues.

  • Take a proactive approach to opportunities for improvement (OFIs): While OFIs are not mandatory, consider a proactive approach. Address recommendations that add significant value to your organization and demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement.

Expanded Focus on Audit Readiness

Organizations should not just focus on meeting compliance requirements as a mere checklist task. Instead, they need to cultivate a culture where security is an integral part of every aspect of the organization. This involves embedding security-conscious behaviors and mindsets in every employee, from the executive level to the operational staff. 

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Policies and procedures should be designed not just for compliance but to truly protect the organization’s assets, data, and reputation. Regular training and awareness programs should be conducted to keep security at the forefront of every employee’s mind.

By doing so, organizations will not only comply with regulations but also create a more robust and resilient security environment. This proactive approach to security can help prevent breaches and minimize risks, ultimately contributing to the long-term success and trustworthiness of the organization.

Document Observations and Nonconformities

To effectively summarize the results and conclusions of the internal audit and provide recommendations for improvement via an internal audit report prepared for stakeholders should be structured in a clear and comprehensive manner.

Begin with an executive summary that provides an overview of the audit’s scope, objectives, and high-level findings, catering to stakeholders who need a succinct understanding of the report’s main points. 

The methodology section should outline the audit process, including the standards or frameworks followed, areas covered, and assessment methods, setting the context for the detailed findings. These findings should offer a thorough analysis of the audit results, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the current ISMS, areas of noncompliance, identified risks, and any incidents or breaches.

Conclude the report by summarizing the overall state of the ISMS and the expected benefits of implementing the recommendations, and include any supporting data, detailed risk assessments, definitions, or explanations in the appendices. This approach ensures that the report is informative and guides actionable steps for stakeholders.

Implement Corrective or Preventive Actions

Verify the implementation of corrective or preventive actions proposed in the internal audit report and assess their effectiveness. This process may involve revisiting the organization or reviewing provided documentation to ensure that the actions have been effectively executed.

In managing nonconformities, it is crucial for organizations to establish and follow procedures that identify and address nonconformities as a key component of the ISO 27001 audit. These procedures should encompass root cause analysis, the implementation of corrective actions, and subsequent monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of these actions. This approach ensures that any issues identified during the audit are comprehensively addressed, contributing to the continuous improvement of the organization’s ISMS.

The Role of Leadership in ISO 27001 Compliance

In the context of implementing an ISMS, the role of top management is indispensable and multifaceted. Their commitment, resource allocation, and involvement are the foundation upon which the successful establishment, operation, monitoring, review, maintenance, and improvement of the ISMS are built.

Top management must not only endorse the ISMS but also actively participate in defining its scope and objectives, aligning them with the organization’s overall business strategy. This high-level endorsement ensures that information security becomes a priority across all organizational levels.

Top management is responsible for ensuring that adequate resources are allocated for the ISMS implementation. This includes financial resources, human resources with the necessary expertise, and technology. Top managers also play a critical role in fostering a culture of security awareness within the organization. By setting the tone at the top, they can influence the attitudes and behaviors of all employees toward information security.

In addition to resource allocation, top management must be involved in the continuous monitoring and review of the ISMS. This includes regular assessments of the ISMS’s effectiveness and making decisions on continual improvements. They must ensure that the ISMS remains responsive to changing risks and evolves with the organization’s growth and changes in the external environment.

Their involvement is also crucial in handling and responding to security incidents. Top management’s support in incident management can significantly impact the speed and effectiveness of the response, thereby mitigating potential damages.

Furthermore, top management should ensure that the ISMS complies with legal, regulatory, and contractual requirements. They should ensure that the policies and procedures are not only in place but also followed and enforced. This oversight is essential to maintain the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of information.

Continuous Improvement: Beyond the Audit

The completion of an audit in the context of an information security management system (ISMS) is not the final destination but rather a checkpoint in an ongoing journey. ISO 27001,emphasizes the importance of a continuous improvement mindset. This approach necessitates that an organization consistently review and update its ISMS to adapt to new challenges and changes in the business environment.

Continuous improvement in the realm of ISO 27001 involves a cyclical process of plan-do-check-act (PDCA). After an audit, organizations should analyze the findings and insights to plan and implement necessary changes.

Regular reviews of the ISMS are essential, not just in response to an audit but as a proactive measure. These reviews should assess the effectiveness of current security controls and policies and determine if they are aligned with the organization’s evolving objectives and risk landscape. By doing so, the organization can ensure that its ISMS remains relevant, robust, and capable of protecting against emerging threats.

Furthermore, the concept of continuous improvement extends to the organizational culture. Training and awareness programs should be updated and provided regularly to ensure that all employees are aware of their roles and responsibilities in maintaining information security. This ongoing education helps cultivate a security-aware culture where every member of the organization contributes to ISMS effectiveness.

Incorporating feedback mechanisms is another critical aspect. Feedback from employees, customers, and other stakeholders can provide valuable insights into the practicality and effectiveness of security policies and procedures. Utilizing this feedback for making iterative improvements ensures that the ISMS remains dynamic and responsive.

In essence, the philosophy of continuous improvement under ISO 27001 underscores the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of information security. It acknowledges that as business environments, technologies, and threat landscapes change, so too must the approaches to managing and safeguarding information. By embedding this mindset into their operations, organizations can ensure that their ISMS not only complies with current standards but is also prepared for future challenges.

An Ongoing Commitment to Security

In closing this comprehensive overview of the ISO 27001 2022 audit and its intricate process, it’s pertinent to underscore the dynamic and evolving nature of information security management within the context of contemporary business environments. Embracing the ISO 27001 standards is not just about adhering to a set of guidelines; it’s an ongoing commitment to excellence in information security, underpinned by a philosophy of continuous improvement and adaptation.

As organizations traverse through the stages of the ISO 27001 audit, from initial planning to execution and follow-up, they engage in more than a compliance exercise. They embark on a journey toward cultivating a resilient, security-aware culture, enhancing their reputation, and securing a competitive edge in an increasingly digital world.

The path to ISO 27001 certification, while challenging, offers invaluable opportunities for growth and learning. It necessitates a proactive stance toward both meeting current security needs and anticipating future challenges and evolving threats. This journey demands a commitment from all levels of an organization, especially top management, to foster a security-first mindset that permeates every aspect of the organization’s operations.

The ISO 27001 audit process is a vital mechanism for organizations to validate their information security practices and reinforce their commitment to safeguarding their digital assets and customer trust. In an era where data breaches and cyber threats are commonplace, achieving and maintaining ISO 27001 certification is a strategic imperative for sustainable business success and resilience in the face of evolving digital challenges.

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