Audit Logs

The complete compliance guide to audit logs

In this article, we explore what audit logs are, their advantages, how they are set up, the challenges they present, and examples of log auditing tools.

Audit logs are compliance’s unsung heroes. They’re meticulous records of every action, event, and change that occurs within your system. When properly planned and deployed, they become invisible watchdogs and silent guards. And not just guards, guards of guards, as they diligently monitor and document critical activities. From admin logins to file modifications, your watchful audit logs capture it all. 


What are audit logs?

Audit logs, also called "event logs" or "security logs," are records of specific events or activities within an information system. These records capture detailed information about user actions, system events, and application operations. In this way, wudit logs serve as a chronological record of all events that occur within an organisation's IT infrastructure. 

When they are tamper-proof, thanks to systems that use immutable records, they also become a critical part of investigations. The ability to show that a log hasn’t been tampered with can be the difference between a brief investigation and legal action. 

An audit log’s digital record will contain a variety of information:

  • Timestamps.
  • System event names.
  • Event descriptors.
  • Access methods.
  • The type of credentials used for access or editing, such as passwords, authenticator apps, and API keys.
  • The user (user ID) or system (API ID) that conducted the event and where they are physically or virtually located.
  • The app, device, database or system that the event happened on.
  • Any information specific to an organisation or that may be required by regulation.

How are audit logs used?

Audit logs are a critical component of any compliance system. Compliance and security teams use them for a variety of purposes.

Enhanced logging
Audit logs go beyond regular systems logs like error logs or operational logs by creating a historical activity record for compliance or business policy purposes. To do this, they can track things like system-wide changes, data access and changes and administrator activity (more on that below)

Monitoring administrator activity
Who guards the guards? Audit logs do. Compliance monitoring depends on database accuracy, which in turn relies on the integrity of people with administrative access. For example, in relational databases, changes to the schema or changes to schema components can have far-reaching impacts on records. Privileged access by administrators who can make these kinds of changes, therefore, needs to be tracked, making audit logs essential. 

Regulatory compliance
Audit logs are often a legal requirement in regulated sectors, particularly financial services, healthcare and government. Any organisation or business that handles data about people and companies and is subject to regulations like the GDPR or CCPA may need to have a system that tracks how data is actually processed and used, not just what data is processed and used.

Before the regulator comes knocking, you need to know that you have access to comprehensive activity records. Having an easy-to-produce, immutable, and defensible record of what has happened provides an important basis for speedy resolution.

Troubleshooting problems and security
Beyond compliance, audit logs can also help IT and security teams better understand what has happened in a systems outage or a security breach. Logs provide both timelines and activity, making it easier to identify and resolve what has happened.

How logs are managed and audited

How your business operationalises log auditing will depend on your sector, business size, regulatory needs and data ecosystem complexity. However, if you were to do this from scratch, you’d find there are some common steps involved in setting up audit logging:

  1. Define your logging requirements. This involves determining what events and actions you need to monitor and establishing clear guidelines and policies.
  2. Put in place a centralized log management system.  Centralising all your logs in one place makes it easier to analyse and detect any anomalies or potential compliance violations.
  3. Normalise and structure data. This ensures that the data is in a consistent format for analysis, making it easier to identify relevant events.
  4. Define and implement audit policies: Create clear audit policies that specify which events to monitor, what constitutes a security violation, and retention periods. Ensure people are aware of and able to follow policy, adapting business processes and systems where needed. 
  5. Regularly review and analyse logs. Don’t wait for the regulator to call! Regularly reviewing and analysing logs puts compliance and security teams on the front foot when it comes to identifying suspicious activities, trends, or patterns.
  6. Take corrective action. When necessary, you’ll need to take immediate corrective actions to address identified issues, such as investigating security incidents, alerting a regulator to a breach or adjusting policies and processes.

The advantages of an audit log

Audit logs offer several benefits to businesses:

  • Security enhancement. Audit logs provide a detailed trail of activities, helping detect and respond to security breaches in real time.
  • Compliance. Organisations can use audit logs to meet regulatory requirements and demonstrate adherence to data protection laws.
  • Accountability. They hold individuals accountable for their actions, reducing the risk of insider threats and data breaches.
  • Forensic analysis. Audit logs support forensic investigations by providing a history of events leading up to and following a security incident. 
  • Defensible records. When audit logs can be shown to be immutable, such as those based on blockchain-based systems, they provide rock-solid evidence of the standard required for winning litigation.
  • Enhanced risk management. Audit logs provide an ideal basis for analysing, managing and resolving risk issues before they become a legal or compliance matter. This is particularly important given the complexity of modern digital ecosystems, an issue that new data-intensive technology like AI is exacerbating

The challenges of audit logging

Regulated businesses are awash with digital tools and data. Their digital and data ecosystems have porous boundaries and often extend into places regulators don’t like, such as personal phones. 

Making sense of this complexity is essential for regulatory purposes, but it’s an increasingly thankless task for compliance teams.

So, whilst essential, audit logs come with challenges:

  • Knowing where to start. Data management costs are spiralling for many businesses, and audit logs add to these costs, which makes knowing what to log and what not to log important but complex. The need to cut costs can result in cutting corners, leading to problems down the line if data isn’t available.
  • Volume and complexity: Large organisations generate vast amounts of log data, making it challenging to process and analyse. This data flows in, around and out of a business thanks to complex webs of enterprise systems, partnerships and services.
  • False positives and negatives: Sorting through logs can lead to false alarms and missed incidents, requiring skilled analysts.
  • Storage and retention: Storing logs for extended periods can be costly, and organisations must actively manage data retention policies.
  • Data privacy: Privacy concerns may arise when handling sensitive user data within logs, requiring strict data protection measures.
  • Maintaining integrity. Audit logs need to be tamper-proof, which means both intruders and malign internal actors need to be prevented from accessing or changing logs.

Examples of log auditing software

Several log auditing software options are available in the market, offering features and capabilities that meet the challenges of audit logging. Some of the top contenders include:

Splunk: A powerful and versatile platform for log analysis and correlation, suitable for large enterprises.

LogRhythm: Known for its security information and event management (SIEM) capabilities, ideal for threat detection and response.

Elastic Stack: Offers Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana, allowing users to collect, parse, and visualize log data effectively.

ManageEngine EventLog Analyzer: A user-friendly and cost-effective solution for log analysis and event correlation.

And, of course, our very own Log Locker: A blockchain-based system that solves key challenges such as data retention costs, data privacy and data integrity. It’s the whole package, really. Just ask us why.

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow

Audit logs are indispensable tools for maintaining data security, achieving compliance, and ensuring transparency within organisations. While they present challenges, their advantages far outweigh the drawbacks. By implementing a robust log auditing strategy, you can bolster your cybersecurity efforts and demonstrate your commitment to data protection and compliance.

They take effort to put in place and make effective, often requiring process change as new data requirements emerge or when regulation changes. Choosing the right log auditing software is, therefore, crucial for effective log management and security, with flexibility and scaleability key. 

Get it right, and you can rest easy at night, knowing that even if the worst happens tomorrow, you’ve got the most powerful guard of guards backing you up.


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