What Is an Audit Trail, and Why Is It Important?

February 19, 2020 Kelsey McGuire

What Is an Audit Trail, and Why Is It Important

What is an audit trail? Audit trails are critical components of privacy and security monitoring – they document all activities relating to user access and modification of sensitive data within an entire information technology infrastructure. Using audit trails along with other insights gleaned from user activity monitoring, you can enhance your organization’s data security and privacy monitoring to help you meet the challenges of regulatory compliance.

What is the purpose of an audit trail?

Electronic information storage has transformed many industries, including financial services, technology, and healthcare. For example, with cloud storage, insurance firms can easily reference critical customer information in time-sensitive circumstances, alleviate physical storage challenges for records like claims and adjustments, and instantly transmit data to remote locations like a reporting agency. However, the prevalence of personally identifiable information (PII) in the cloud has presented significant security and privacy concerns. Data breaches can compromise personal information, resulting in ruinous financial and legal consequences as well as damaged reputation and lost trust.

While simple access restrictions might have been enough to curtail improper access of sensitive data only a few years ago, the modern business and technological landscapes are infinitely more complex. There are innumerable challenges in limiting information access to only a few key members of the workforce, particularly in smaller organizations where team members perform multi-functional duties. In order to maintain control over private customer information, organizations must maintain robust, comprehensive audit trails.

What information does an audit trail provide?

Simply put, an audit trail is the systematic accrual of employee activity regarding the access of secure information, which is recorded to ensure information integrity as well as proper use and access. At a minimum, audit trail features should contain:

  • Automated information captured at the time of record creation, alteration, or deletion
  • A timestamp based upon an unmodifiable clock, referencing either central server time, or the time zone in which the user accessed the information
  • Immutable storage security, making any alteration of the audit trail by any user or administrator impossible
  • A record of the specific user accessing or modifying the information
  • A record of the information values prior to user access or modification

It’s critical for audit trails to be available for review by management and the appropriate regulatory bodies when the need to review arises. And, depending on the information security policy, your organization may require users to record the purpose of the data access or modification based on audit trails.

Audit trails and compliance

Certain regulations like HIPAA require maintaining audit trail logs to meet recordkeeping standards, but it’s a best practice to use audit trails with all electronic applications with PII to mitigate the risk of data breaches and fraud. According to a 2020 Insider Threat Report survey, 31% of organizations rely on an in-app audit system or feature like audit trails to gain visibility into user behavior and identify privacy breaches and fraud.

While the storage duration requirements for audit logs vary from one regulatory authority to the next, it’s certainly a wise decision to preserve the logs for the active life of a record, although many companies choose to extend the storage period long after. Generally, organizations with robust security and privacy postures maintain audit logs for a minimum of two years, with many more archiving them for even longer to facilitate historical reporting or future investigations.

The benefits of maintaining audit trails

For any organization that manages sensitive customer information, it’s beneficial to recognize the importance of comprehensive audit trails. With cybercrimes becoming dangerously widespread and increasingly sophisticated, companies are under tremendous pressure to employ aggressive defensive protocols, and audit trails are among the most effective measures for ensuring data protection against malicious users.

While most businesses with sizeable volumes of proprietary data and private customer information employ security tools, these tools tend to focus on external vulnerabilities, almost to the exclusion of internal user monitoring. This gap in data protection can lead to devastating violations, as more than one-third of all security breaches can be traced to organization insiders. By integrating a comprehensive audit trail into existing security solutions, internal data theft can be prevented before it has a chance to cause irreparable damage.

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