How to Build an Audit Logging and Monitoring Policy

According to IBM’s 2022 Cost of a Data Breach Report, just under half of all data breaches take place in the cloud, with an average per-incident cost of $4.24 million dollars. Although hybrid and multi-cloud environments are resilient and highly adaptable, they also expand the attack surface and make monitoring activity across the system more difficult.

Audit logging and monitoring policies help businesses tackle this challenge so they can effectively identify and respond to security threats, demonstrate regulatory compliance, and diagnose system issues. In this guide, we’ll explore why having an effective audit logging and monitoring policy is critical for modern data stacks, and share best practices for developing a comprehensive policy that meets your team’s needs.

What Is an Audit Logging and Monitoring Policy?

Audit logging and monitoring are crucial to protecting data. Audit logging is the process of documenting activity that occurs within an organization’s cloud and on-premises systems. Each cloud service, application, and device in a company’s network generates log data that can be used for auditing activities. Audit logs contain useful information about each event that occurs, including the registration of the event, a brief description of what happened during it, when it took place, the responsible user or service, and the impacted entity.

Audit logs gathered over time constitute a data audit trail. An audit trail can be used to verify compliance with relevant industry and government security standards, aid in post-incident investigations, and help security teams identify existing vulnerabilities.

Monitoring describes activities related to the continual review of audit log data. Using rule-based, statistical, and machine-learning methods, audit logs are analyzed to detect system performance indicators and identify potential security events.

An audit logging and monitoring policy is a framework of guidelines and procedures that govern audit logging and monitoring processes. This policy guides the collection, analysis, and storage of activity data within an organization. It outlines the tools and systems that will be used for analysis and reporting, the types of data that should be logged, the frequency of logging activities, and the way in which incident response and investigation will be handled.

Manually aggregating, analyzing, and interpreting log data is too complex and time-consuming to be effective. Most audit logging and monitoring activities are automated, either by a log management software solution or included as a component of a more comprehensive data security solution.

Benefits of Audit Logging and Monitoring

A well-designed audit logging and monitoring policy provides a wealth of benefits. Here are five reasons why an auditing and monitoring policy is an essential part of any data security strategy:

Identifying Existing Vulnerabilities

Audit logs help organizations identify weaknesses in the data supply chain by offering fine-grained details on who accessed data, when, and what changes were made to the data. The ability to track with this level of granularity not only allows data teams to proactively address points of weakness, but it also encourages voluntary employee compliance with established company data policies.

Accelerating Post-Incident Investigations

Although data audit logging and monitoring isn’t a frontline defense against external data breaches, it can help identify where and when breaches occur, making it possible to retrace steps after an attack. A data audit trail accelerates the post-incident recovery process and helps organizations harden their defenses against future breaches.

Demonstrating Regulatory Compliance

A data audit trail is a legal requirement for most businesses. Various government-mandated standards and regulations, such as ISO 27001, PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and PNR Directive, mandate logging. Audit logs can be used to demonstrate that an organization satisfied certain benchmarks during a specific time period.

Diagnosing System Issues

Audit logs hold detailed historical information that can help IT teams determine if a system outage or incident was the result of an operator or system error. For example, data teams can use audit trails to restore a corrupted file by analyzing them to determine how the file was changed, if the data can be reverted back to its original state, and how.

Questions that Audit Logging and Monitoring Can Answer

Effective audit logging and monitoring activities help organizations answer important questions about how their systems and data are being used. Supported by an auditing and monitoring software solution, a comprehensive audit logging and monitoring policy should facilitate quick answers to these essential questions:

  • Who viewed, modified, or moved data?
  • When was the data changed?
  • How did a user access this data?
  • What was the exact query used to find and access this data?
  • Was this access authorized?
  • Were the changes approved by someone with the authority to approve such changes?
  • Were any rights abused?

Best Practices for Developing an Audit Logging and Monitoring Policy

Developing an effective audit logging and monitoring policy requires an understanding of industry regulations, data privacy, and security controls. These best practices provide a foundation for creating an effective audit logging and monitoring policy tailored to the unique needs of your business:

Clarify What Should be Logged and Monitored

Not all network activities require the same level of logging and monitoring. Different activities carry different types of risk and compliance requirements. Teams will need to determine what activities should be logged and at what level of intensity they’ll be monitored. Examples of frequently logged data include:

  • Authentication events, such as successful and failed login attempts and password changes
  • Database queries
  • Server commands
  • Transactions governed by compliance standards, such as accessing protected health information (PHI)

Structure and Consolidate Logging Activities

Structured logs provide an easy way for humans and computers to search log data. Structured logging creates consistency, using a standardized format to separate the individual parts of each message into an easy-to-understand, searchable format. Data must then be aggregated for analysis, which can be done using a centralized cloud platform.

Index Logs for Faster, More Efficient Access

Indexing logs allow security and IT teams to quickly sort log data. When log indexes are created, they generate different keys that help teams quickly identify their original position in servers, making it easier to find the information they need quickly. Keys are based on certain attributes such as chronological order, IDs, or user names.

Leverage Cloud-Based Technologies for Log Storage

Available storage space can limit the effectiveness of audit logging and monitoring efforts. With massive amounts of log data being generated daily, storing this data on-premises for long periods of time can be cost-prohibitive. Cloud storage provides affordable long-term storage at scale, allowing security and IT teams to search, analyze, and monitor logged data over longer periods of time.

Incorporate Real-Time Monitoring and Alerts

Real-time monitoring helps IT teams resolve service outages and performance issues quickly. Security teams also depend on real-time data to detect suspicious activity. Investing in a security solution that monitors log data in real time and generates automated alerts provides IT and security teams with more lead time to resolve security and operational issues.

Secure Log Data

Log data is a high-value target for hackers searching for sensitive data such as login credentials or IP addresses. This data is also vulnerable to malicious insiders seeking to delete or alter log data to cover their tracks. Log data should be subject to stringent security standards, including being anonymized or encrypted prior to storage. In addition, attribute-based access controls help secure log data from insiders attempting to modify or delete log data, and can scale more easily than role-based approaches so new data or users don’t slip through the cracks.

Routinely Review the Policy and Assess Its Effectiveness

An audit logging and monitoring policy isn’t a static document. As new threats emerge and the business’s infrastructure changes, the document governing auditing and monitoring processes and activities should be revised to meet these new challenges.

Building a Better Audit Logging and Monitoring Policy

An effective audit logging and monitoring policy plays an important role in protecting an organization’s data. As security incidents become more common, costly, and disruptive, companies that consistently implement an audit logging and monitoring policy can protect their data more effectively.

To get an inside look at the state of data policy management, check out The Data Policy Management Report.