ISACA Journal
Volume 2, 2,014 

Features 

Internal Audit’s Contribution to the Effectiveness of Information Security (Part 1) 

Paul John Steinbart, Robyn Raschke, Graham Gal and William N. Dilla, Ph.D., CPA 

Perceptions of Information Security Professionals

The internal audit and information security functions should play complementary roles in an organization’s information security program. The information security function should focus on the design and implementation of the security plan, while internal audit should assess and evaluate the functioning of the plan’s components.1, 2 Yet, in practice, the relationship between the two functions is not always positive.

At its worst, the relationship can become so adversarial that it impairs effective governance, as exemplified by one information systems (IS) manager: “…It has been a game of cat and mouse. The auditors are trying to catch IT doing something and IT is trying to prevent audit from finding out.”3 In part, this may reflect the general friction between the accounting and IS functions.4 But, it also likely reflects the tension that exists among the information security function and other compliance-oriented groups (e.g., records management5) within the organization.

What causes friction between the internal audit and information security functions? What actions can management take to improve that relationship? What are the benefits, if any, of having a better relationship between internal audit and information security?

A multistage research program was undertaken to answer these questions. First, in-depth interviews with both internal audit and information security professionals at four organizations were conducted.6 Then, the insights from those interviews were used to design two survey-based studies. The first survey collected data from IS professionals across a variety of industries,7 the results of which are analyzed here, and the other collected data from internal auditors, the results of which will be analyzed in part 2.8 Figure 1 shows the characteristics of the information security professionals who completed the survey.

Figure 1

Factors Affecting the Internal Audit to Information Security Relationship

Figure 2 illustrates the three factors that information security professionals describe as important drivers of the quality of the relationship between the internal audit and information security functions:

  1. The perceived role of internal audit
  2. Perceptions about internal audit’s level of information security expertise
  3. The frequency with which internal audit reviews various aspects of information security

Figure 2

The importance of internal audit’s perceived level of information security expertise and the frequency of audit reviews were corroborated in a follow-up survey study.

Perceived Role of Internal Audit
In the interviews, information security professionals indicated that how internal auditors approached the review of information security profoundly affected the quality of the relationship. At one extreme, the auditors could be perceived as “the police” who were out to catch mistakes; at the other extreme, they could be viewed as consultants or advisors. Not surprisingly, the two examples had markedly different effects on the quality of the relationship. When auditors were viewed as “the police,” the relationship was formal, reserved and even adversarial; but, when auditors were perceived more as advisors and consultants, the relationship was more open and positive. The latter view was most clearly explained by the information security manager who provided the comment about the “cat-and-mouse” game quoted earlier, who said: “We can leverage each other’s expertise and position in the organization to make things happen. Many times the IT department will tend to almost hide things from audit because they do not want to get a black eye and we don’t have that issue here so much…we have the same goals.”9 An information systems professional at another institution expressed a similar comment, saying, “[Our relationship is] exceptionally strong to the point that we’ve just realized we have a codependent relationship. It’s been very positive.”10 These positive comments are related to the issue of trust. As the information security manager interviewed who talked about the typical “cat-and-mouse” relationship said, “I trust that [the internal auditor is] not out to catch anybody doing anything. He’s out to identify and reduce risk.”11

However, when attempting to build a good relationship, auditors must be careful not to imperil their objectivity and independence. Moreover, it may be almost inevitable that when auditors are the bearers of bad news in the form of audit findings, they will be viewed as compliance monitors or “the police.” Indeed, respondents to the survey indicated that they saw internal auditors as both monitors and advisors. Consequently, this may be why the survey results did not find a statistically significant relationship between perceptions of audit’s role and the quality of the IT-to-audit relationship. However, the interview data support the argument that auditors should strive not to be perceived as enforcement officers.12, 13

Not surprisingly, the key factor may be the attitudes of the heads of both functions. As one information security manager stated, “… the executive auditor gets along with our vice president of IT really well, and they understand—again, they don’t just look at one task, they see the whole picture. That’s the most important thing from the workforce point of view. When they see that demonstrated up high, that’s how they follow suit. They watch this, and then they know that’s the expectation and it’s pretty effortless here. People partner and just get along well with the same goal in mind. It shows.”14

To capture the information security participants’ view of the role of internal audit in their organizations, participants were asked to rate internal audit’s role in three categories as shown in figure 3.

Figure 3
Figure 4

As indicated in figure 2, participants did not perceive the role of internal audit to significantly impact the overall relationship between information security and internal audit. However, the perception of internal audit’s technical expertise has a significant impact on the quality of the relationship.

In the interviews, IS professionals repeatedly made comments about the importance of internal auditors possessing technical knowledge. For example, one respondent commented, “We’ve actually been very fortunate to hire a very competent IT internal auditor, intimately familiar with ITGC… That’s been really positive. And he’s very technical so that’s a big advantage. Many auditors that I have worked with in the past are not as technical. When [the internal auditor] goes on vacation, I sure am glad to have him return.”15

In contrast, the chief information security officer (CISO) at another institution where internal audit did not have much technical skill said, “We see them and we have a very good working relationship with internal audit. However, their focus is typically auditing business processes. You know, ‘are things being done right in payroll?,’ and ‘are we handling travel vouchers right?’” Although the CISO stated that the relationship was positive, the overall tenor of the interview indicated that it was really more a case of being nonadversarial than collaborative.

Respondents to the survey corroborated the importance of internal audit possessing strong technical skills, in particular, knowledge about information security. The survey instrument asked information security professionals whether they thought that internal auditors in their organization were “knowledgeable about information security” and whether they kept their “knowledge about information security current” (see figure 4). Higher scores on these two questions were significantly related to more positive views about the quality of the relationship between the two functions.

Taken together, the interviews and the survey clearly indicate that auditors’ technical expertise fosters a good relationship with the auditee (information security).

Frequency of Audit Reviews of Information Security
It is hard to develop a good relationship unless there is fairly frequent interaction. In the context of the relationship between the internal audit and information security functions, the most likely form of interaction involves audit reviews. However, audit reviews of information security are affected by internal audit’s level of technical expertise, making it difficult to distinguish between the frequency of review and expertise factors in the interviews. For example, the previously quoted CISO who stated that he had a positive relationship with internal audit, but that they focused on business processes (e.g., fraud prevention), also indicated that he did not think the internal auditors in his organization possessed much technical expertise (and the auditor interviewed at that same organization agreed).

Figure 5In addition to questions about internal audit’s level of information security expertise, the survey instrument also asked questions about the frequency of internal audit reviews of eight aspects of information security (figure 5).

Mean and median responses for all aspects were three on a scale of one to five, with one being “not at all” and five representing “often.” The responses ranged across the entire spectrum. Statistical analysis revealed that there was a significant positive relationship between frequency of audit reviews of those eight areas and the overall quality of the relationship between the information security and internal audit functions. Therefore, more frequent interaction in the form of audit reviews improves the relationship. However, the mean and median scores indicate that there is room for further improvement.

Benefits From a Good Relationship Between Internal Audit and Information Security

Some of the factors that affect the relationship between the internal audit and information security functions have been discussed. Those factors are clearly items that can be improved by managerial action, for example:

  • The leaders of both functions can make an effort to develop a positive relationship.
  • Additional resources can be invested to increase internal audit’s technical expertise in matters related to information security.
  • Increases in the audit budget can enable more frequent audit reviews of information security.

Nevertheless, such investments are worthwhile only if improving the quality of the relationship between internal audit and information security produces tangible benefits. Figure 2 indicates that it does—better relationships improve perceptions about internal audit’s value as well as the overall effectiveness of information security.

Perceived Value-add From Internal Audit

In the interviews, information security professionals indicated that a positive relationship improved their perceptions about the value added by internal audit. One reason is that information security professionals believe a good relationship with internal audit makes it easier for them to persuade employees and management to support information security initiatives. For example, one CISO stated, “The relationship with internal audit has] been very positive…a real big benefit to us achieving a lot of the goals we have from an information security perspective.”16 The CISO goes on to explain that he feels he can use the audit findings to his advantage, “…and we are going to begin reinforcing the importance of change control. And more importantly, the importance of completed documentation as part of change control for the deployment of new services; and we are going to strongly reinforce through internal audit reports.” The information security manager at another organization described the benefits of a good relationship in obtaining compliance, “If I am just being the IT network police, and I have to get [the internal auditor] and he goes in there with a suit and says ‘here is why you do not want to do this,’ they just usually put their tails between their legs.”17

Figure 6 shows the questions used to evaluate the quality of the relationship between internal audit and information security. As with the other questions in the survey, responses ranged from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). The higher respondents rated the quality of the relationship between the internal audit and information security functions, the more they agreed with questions about whether the information security professional thought that internal audit findings/reports provided useful information to the information security function and whether internal audit’s capability to review information was being fully utilized.

Figure 6
Figure 7

Figure 7 shows the questions asked of the information security professionals to understand their perceptions of the value added by internal audit.

Perceived Effectiveness of Information Security

In the interviews, information security professionals expressed a belief that a positive relationship between internal audit and information security functions enabled them to enlist the support and clout of internal audit for information security initiatives. In turn, implementation of those initiatives would improve the overall effectiveness of the organization’s information security. For example, more support from internal audit enabled better change management controls.18, 19 The results of the survey study corroborated that belief in the benefits of a positive relationship.

Figure 8Respondents were asked about the trend (questions are shown in figure 8) over the past three years in the number of information security incidents that either interrupted operations or resulted in financial loss, the number of audit findings that related to information security, and the overall effectiveness of their organization’s information security efforts. The results showed that the higher a respondent rated the quality of the relationship between the information security and internal audit functions, the more positive their answers were to those three outcome measures. Thus, information security professionals believe that a good relationship with internal audit improves an organization’s information security.

Conclusion

COBIT 5 acknowledges the importance of cross-functional collaboration to achieving effective governance and management of enterprise IT (GEIT).20, 21 In particular, the internal audit and information security functions can synergistically work together to optimize the overall effectiveness of information security.

Yet in practice, these two functions do not always have a harmonious relationship. Therefore, a multistudy program of research was conducted to investigate the factors that affect the quality of the relationship between these two important functions and the benefits associated with having a positive relationship. This article reported the perspectives of information security professionals about those issues. A subsequent article will look at these questions from the viewpoint of internal auditors and is planned for publication in volume 3, 2014, of the ISACA Journal.

Endnotes

1 Gelbstein, Ed; “Strengthening Information Security Governance,” ISACA Journal, vol. 2, 2012, www.isaca.org/archives
2 Oyemade, Ronke; “Effective IT Governance Through the Three Lines of Defense, Risk IT and COBIT,” ISACA Journal, volume 1, 2012, www.isaca.org/archives
3 Steinbart, Paul John; Robyn L. Raschke; Graham Gal; William N. Dilla; “The Relationship Between Internal Audit and Information Security: An Exploratory Investigation,” International Journal of Accounting Information Systems, 2012
4 CFO Publishing Corporation, Europe Research Services, “Are CFOs from Mars and CIOs from Venus? Overcoming the Perception Gap to Enhance the Finance-IT Relationship,” CFO, UK, 2008
5 Anderson, Kerry A.; “A Case for a Partnership Between Information Security and Records Information Management,” ISACA Journal, vol. 2, 2012, www.isaca.org/archives
6 Op cit, Steinbart et al., 2012
7 Steinbart, Paul John; Robyn L. Raschke; Graham Gal; William N. Dilla; “Information Security Professionals’ Perceptions About the Relationship Between the Information Security and Internal Audit Functions,” forthcoming in the Journal of Information Systems, 2013
8 Steinbart, Paul John; Robyn L. Raschke; Graham Gal; William N. Dilla; “The Influence of Internal Audit on Information Security Effectiveness: Perceptions of Internal Auditors,” working paper, 2013
9 Op cit, Steinbart et al., 2012
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Vazzana, Brian; “The Information Systems Auditor Unmasked,” ISACA Journal, JournalOnline, vol. 2, 2013, www.isaca.org/journalonline
13 Robinson, Ingrid; “Building and Maintaining Effective Mechanisms for Implementing IT Governance,” ISACA Journal, vol. 1, 2013, www.isaca.org/archives
14 Op cit, Steinbart et al., 2012
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Melancon, Dwayne; “Security Controls that Work,” Information Systems Control Journal, vol. 4, 2007, p. 29-32, www.isaca.org/archives
19 Institute of Internal Auditors, Change and Patch Management Controls: Critical for Organizational Success 2nd Edition, USA, 2005
20 ISACA, COBIT 5, USA, 2013, p. 29 and 80, www.isaca.org/cobit
21 ISACA, COBIT 5 Implementation, USA, 2012, p. 72, www.isaca.org/cobit

Paul John Steinbart is a professor in the Department of Information Systems in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (USA).

Robyn Raschke is an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (USA).

Graham Gal is an associate professor in the Accounting and Information Systems Faculty at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts (USA).

William N. Dilla, Ph.D., CPA, is the Union Pacific/Charles B. Handy Associate Professor of Accounting at Iowa State University (USA).

 

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