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The basics of a SOC audit

The Essential SOC Audit Handbook

February 6, 2024

A SOC (System and Organization Controls) audit is a critical step for companies to ensure they adhere to stringent cybersecurity and compliance standards. This article offers valuable insights into the best practices for preparing and executing SOC audits. We will guide you through key strategies, common pitfalls to avoid, and how to leverage these audits to improve your cybersecurity posture.

What is a SOC Audit?

A Service Organization Control (SOC) Audit is an in-depth examination conducted by an independent auditor. This audit assesses the internal controls and processes related to the services a company provides. It measures how well a service organization manages its data and how it ensures the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of the information it handles. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) developed SOC reporting to help service organizations communicate information about their control environment to stakeholders.

Purpose of SOC Audits in Business

The objectives of conducting a SOC audit

The primary purpose of a SOC Audit is to give confidence and peace of mind to the service organization's clients and partners. It demonstrates a commitment to maintaining high data security and operational integrity standards.

  • Building Trust: Demonstrates a service organization's dedication to maintaining robust security and privacy controls.
  • Compliance: Helps comply with regulatory requirements and industry standards, such as SOC 2 and ISO 27001.
  • Risk Management: Identifies vulnerabilities and enhances risk management practices.
  • Competitive Advantage: In today's digital landscape, being SOC compliant can be a significant differentiator in the market.

Who is Required to Have a SOC Audit?

Criteria for SOC Audit Requirement

Not all organizations require a SOC Audit, but it's a part of demonstrating compliance and security integrity. The need for a SOC Audit often arises under the following circumstances:

  • Service Organizations: Companies that provide services impacting their clients' financial or operational processes.
  • Data Management: Organizations handling significant amounts of sensitive or confidential data.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Entities must comply with specific regulations or standards like SOC 2 and ISO 27001.
  • Client Requirements: An SOC Audit is sometimes necessary due to contractual obligations or client demands, particularly in industries handling financial data or personal information.

Industries and Businesses That Need SOC Audits

Some industries are more likely to require a SOC Audit due to the nature of their services and the data they handle. These include:

  • Technology Companies: Especially those offering cloud services, SaaS platforms, and data storage solutions.
  • Financial Services: Includes banks, insurance companies, and other entities involved in financial reporting.
  • Healthcare Providers: Due to the sensitive nature of health records and the need for strict compliance with privacy laws.
  • Vendor Management: Organizations that heavily rely on third-party vendors for critical operational services.

Who Performs a SOC Audit?

Qualifications of SOC Auditors

A SOC (System and Organization Controls) audit is a meticulous evaluation by professional auditors. These auditors are typically CPAs (Certified Public Accountants), accredited by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). A SOC auditor must possess in-depth knowledge of audit processes, information security, and the specific SOC 2 and SOC 3 frameworks. They are experts in assessing the effectiveness of the controls related to security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy – collectively known as the Trust Service Criteria.

Selecting a Certified SOC Audit Firm

When choosing an organization for a SOC 2 audit or SOC 3 report, one must select a certified SOC audit firm. These firms are regulated and authorized to perform SOC audits, ensuring compliance with AICPA guidelines. A reputable firm understands the SOC audit process and has a proven track record in assessing service organization’s controls and system and organization controls. They should have experience dealing with Type I and Type II reports, ensuring a comprehensive audit.

Role of External Auditors in SOC Audits

External auditors are essential in SOC audits. They usually come from a separate audit firm and evaluate an organization's controls. This evaluation is unbiased. Their objective viewpoint is vital while preparing a SOC 2 or SOC 3 audit report, which assures clients and stakeholders about the organization's commitment to maintaining robust internal controls over financial reporting, security controls, and risk management. External auditors ensure the SOC audit follows AICPA rules and provides trustworthy information about the organization's internal controls for those interested. By selecting qualified SOC auditors and firms, organizations can assure stakeholders of their commitment to maintaining high security and compliance standards.

How is a SOC Audit Done?

Steps in the SOC Audit Process

How to conduct a SOC audit?

  1. Preparation: The service organization prepares for the SOC audit by identifying the scope and objectives of the audit. This process includes determining the type of SOC report needed (SOC 1, SOC 2, or SOC 3).
  1. Selection of an Auditor: A qualified SOC auditor or audit firm, often regulated by the AICPA, is chosen to conduct the audit.
  1. Assessment of Controls: The auditor evaluates the organization's internal controls, focusing on areas relevant to the type of SOC report.
  1. Testing: The auditor conducts tests to verify the effectiveness of the organization's controls.
  1. Reporting: The auditor compiles their findings into a SOC 2 audit report or the relevant SOC report type, detailing the effectiveness of the controls and compliance.

Key Phases of a SOC Audit

  • Planning Phase: Involves understanding the organization's systems and determining the audit scope and objectives.
  • Evaluation Phase: The auditor examines the design and implementation of the service organization’s controls.
  • Testing Phase: Testing takes place to assess the operational effectiveness of the service organization’s controls over some time, relevant in both Type I and Type II reports.
  • Conclusion Phase: The auditor concludes the effectiveness of the controls and prepares the final SOC audit report, providing insights into the security and compliance status of the organization.

What are SOC Controls?

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) defines System and Organization Controls (SOC) as a set of standards to help measure how well a service organization conducts and regulates its information systems and data. The primary purpose of these controls is to assure the security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy of the data processed by these systems. These controls are part of a suite of reports produced during an audit intended for organizations that provide information systems as a service to others.

Focus Areas in SOC Control Assessments

Focus areas during SOC control assessments


During a SOC control assessment, the focus areas include:

  • Internal Control over Financial Reporting (ICFR): This control is primarily assessed in SOC 1 audits.
  • Information Security: Assessing the organization's ability to protect its systems and data from cyber threats.
  • Risk Management and Controls: Evaluating how the organization identifies and mitigates risks.
  • Operational Effectiveness: Checking if the controls are designed well and operating effectively over time.
  • Compliance with Regulatory Standards: Ensuring adherence to relevant standards like ISO 27001 and NIST.

Types of SOC Controls

SOC controls are categorized into five Trust Service Criteria, focusing on various information and system management aspects. Security controls prevent unauthorized access and ensure data integrity. Availability controls maintain operational readiness and include disaster recovery measures. Confidentiality controls restrict data access and use encryption. Processing Integrity ensures accurate and timely system processing. Privacy controls protect personal information and adhere to data handling policies through multi-factor authentication and encryption. These categories collectively ensure robust and reliable information system management.

What is a SOC report used for?

SOC reports are essential for verifying internal controls, particularly in safeguarding customer data through security and privacy measures. They foster trust and transparency among stakeholders, including management and customers, by independently verifying organizational controls. These reports are crucial for assessing cybersecurity and supply chain risks, offering insights into an organization's risk management. Additionally, they support compliance with regulatory standards in data-sensitive industries and inform decision-making by providing a comprehensive overview of internal controls. Lastly, SOC reports enhance business relationships by demonstrating a commitment to robust governance and internal control standards.

What are the different types of SOC reports?

SOC 1 Reports

Purpose: Focus on internal controls over financial reporting (ICFR).

Audience: Primarily used by auditors of the service organization’s clients for financial audit purposes.

Types: Type I reports evaluate if the service organization’s description of its system is accurate and if the design of its controls is suitable. Type II reports, on the other hand, check if these controls work effectively over some time.

SOC 2 Reports

Purpose: Address controls relevant to security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, or privacy (Trust Service Criteria).

Types: Similar to SOC 1, SOC 2 reports come in Type I and Type II forms.

Audience: Relevant for stakeholders concerned with information security and compliance, such as customers, regulators, and business partners.

Preparation: Involves detailed audit process, focusing on the organization’s adherence to one or more Trust Services Principles.

SOC 3 Reports

Purpose: Similar to SOC 2 but designed for a broader audience.

Content: Provides a summary of the SOC 2 report and includes the auditor’s opinion on the effectiveness of the controls.

Audience: General public, making it a less detailed but more accessible report.

Comparing SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3 Reports

SOC 1 focuses on financial reporting, whereas SOC 2 and SOC 3 delve into information security, processing integrity, and privacy realms. SOC 2 is more detailed and specific, often tailored for a knowledgeable audience, whereas SOC 3 offers a general overview suitable for public consumption.

Choosing the Appropriate SOC Report for Your Business

  1. Identify Your Needs: Consider whether the report is for financial assurance (SOC 1) or information security and privacy (SOC 2 and SOC 3).
  1. Understand Your Audience: Choose SOC 1 for auditors, SOC 2 for customers and partners requiring detailed information, and SOC 3 for a broader audience.
  1. Compliance and Audit Process: Be aware of the audit requirements. For e.g., Preparing for a SOC 2 audit includes understanding the Trust Services Criteria and ensuring your systems and controls meet these standards.

How often should a company undergo a SOC audit?

A company should typically undergo a SOC audit annually. This frequency ensures continuous compliance with evolving trust services and security control standards. Regular SOC 2 audits are particularly crucial for service organizations that handle sensitive client data, as they assess and validate the effectiveness of system and organization controls in protecting this data.

For SOC 1 reports, which focus on financial reporting controls, the annual audit aligns with general reporting cycles. SOC 2 and SOC 3 reports benefit from ongoing scrutiny due to rapid technological and cyber threat advancements.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which regulates SOC audits, recommends this annual cycle. Staying up-to-date with SOC audits demonstrates a proactive approach to risk management and builds trust with clients and partners.

What are SOC audit best practices?

Best practices in a SOC audit

SOC audit best practices involve a strategic approach to ensure thorough compliance and effective system and organization controls.

  1. Early Preparation: Start preparing for your SOC audit well in advance. Conduct a SOC readiness assessment to identify areas needing improvement in your internal and security controls.
  1. Understanding SOC Requirements: Familiarize yourself with the SOC 2 trust service criteria or the financial reporting requirements of SOC 1. For SOC 3, understand the broader principles that govern these audits.
  1. Choose the Right Auditor: Partner with an experienced SOC auditor who is knowledgeable about the AICPA standards and the specific needs of your service organization.
  1. Documentation and Evidence: Maintain comprehensive documentation of your system and organization controls. These controls include audit reports, SOC 2 audit report records, and evidence of controls related to security and compliance.
  1. Regular Review and Updates: Regularly review and update your controls, especially if you undergo SOC 2 or SOC 3 audits, to ensure they align with current trust service criteria and security and compliance standards.
  1. Training and Awareness: Ensure the team is well-trained and aware of their role in the SOC audit process, particularly in maintaining security controls and internal controls over financial reporting.
  1. Collaborative Approach: Involve all departments and stakeholders in the audit process. This collaborative approach adequately addresses all aspects of the service organization’s controls.
  1. Continuous Improvement: Use the information learned from each SOC audit to improve your systems and controls. This proactive approach prepares you for future audits and enhances information security and risk management.
Jay Thakker
7 + years in application security with having extensive experience in implementing effective breach and attack simulation strategies to protect against cyber threat. Skilled in Threat Hunting techniques to proactively identify and neutralize emerging threats.
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