The Internet of Things: A Game Changer for IT Audit

Anthony Chalker, Managing Director IT Audit Practice

I recently had the honor of attending the ISACA’s 2017 North America CACS Conference in Las Vegas, where I discussed how the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to transform the mission of IT auditors. The IoT is a perfect example of an all-around disruptor, including in IT audit departments, as businesses collect, analyze and act on data captured outside of the traditional IT boundaries. As a result, IT auditors now routinely must take steps to provide assurance over systems that are no longer under their direct control.

Auditors are fully aware of the challenge. Participants in Protiviti’s 2016 Internal Audit Capabilities and Needs Survey acknowledge that they need to improve their IoT technical knowledge, or they’ll be unable to do their job. Technical knowledge ranked as a top-five issue among the most important internal audit priorities in the survey report. Without an in-depth understanding of the IoT, the technology that enables it and the business opportunities and risks it presents, we as auditors will be unable to quickly recognize innovations and how they could affect the organization’s business model or strategic objectives in the midst of a disruptive environment.

Below are just a few baseline points we covered during the conference discussion panel:

What is the IoT?
The IoT is an environment in which virtually any object, animal or person with a unique identifier on the internet has the ability to communicate over a network with another device, without the need for human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. The IoT evolved from the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and the internet. In short, the IoT is giving the world a digital nervous system that’s connecting people, processes and systems, from devices, such as smartphones and tablets on the consumer level, to machine sensors on the industrial level.

What is driving the IoT’s growth?
The explosive growth of IoT is supported by several converging supporting technologies including:

  • Adoption of IpV6 – The ability to have a seemingly unlimited number of unique identifiers on the Internet. To put this in perspective, IpV6 allows every atom on the face of the earth to have its own identifier, with enough left over for another 100 Earths.
  • Enhanced sensors – The dramatic drop in cost combined with the equally dramatic increase in capabilities of sensors to capture, analyze, store and transmit data.
  • Low-power/wide area communications – The ability to transmit data from a wide range of sensors across a simplified and secure communication infrastructure utilizing batteries or other low-power sources designed for the expected useful life of the sensor.

The convergence of these developments is ushering in a new digital platform that allows organizations to devise new and inventive methods of reaching strategic objectives. In a recent McKinsey article, the authors estimate that the IoT will have a $4 to $11 trillion economic impact over the next eight years.

What is the role of the IT auditor in an IoT environment?
The IoT integrates technologies to enhance business information needs. However, this does not mean that IoT projects necessarily originate in the IT organization. Many of the current IoT projects are occurring outside of the traditional walls of IT. As such, the IoT does not represent as much of a change in the purpose of the IT landscape or the types of issues that auditors typically address as it represents a change in where strategy is being implemented. We need to acknowledge this shift and ensure that we have a seat at the table to understand how the organization’s strategy is driving the IoT vision and the related IT risks that need to be addresses to successfully fulfill that vision.

To be sure, IoT discussions are happening across organizations today, from purchasing to research and development. IoT is not limited to a single industry or business process. As an IT auditor, are you part of these conversations? Are you in the loop of your organization’s IoT strategic initiatives? Again, we need to ensure a seat at the table to effectively perform our role as risk counselors and assurance advisors to management and the board about this rapidly evolving area. Unlike many areas on our traditional risk plan, IoT does not have an embedded platform of existing policies and procedures to leverage.  If we are not part of the strategic discussion, it will be difficult to fulfill our risk advisory role. Simply stated, we need to get in the loop, or we’ll find ourselves  on the outside looking in.

IoT does not inherently require a new IT audit skill set as much as it demands a new approach to identifying the linkage of strategy to IoT solutions. Here are a few questions we as auditors should consider as we continue to develop and refine strategies and solutions to help businesses maximize their IoT experience:

  • How is the IoT deployed in our organization today, and who owns it or its respective components? This includes determining an organization’s potential IoT inventory and IoT’s business activity role. The IoT could play a part in the end products that a business sells, for example, or in internal process management. It most likely does not reside in the IT organization. In many cases, projects will not include the wording “IoT” in their project plans or definitions. This underscores the importance of having skilled IT auditors who are able to link strategy and the underlying implementation mechanisms to identify where the IoT exists within the organization.
  • Do we know what data is collected, stored and analyzed, and have we assessed the potential legal, security and privacy implications? If IoT technology is found within a company’s solution offerings, for example, customer agreements may require disclosures regarding what information the devices are capturing and sharing. Do the organization’s data governance policies cover the tremendous amount of data being captured through the thousands of deployed sensors? Does the collection of sensor data pose risks that data may be aggregated in a manner that would create privacy concerns?
  • Do we have contingency plans in place in case our IoT “things” are hijacked or modified for unintended purposes? Among other considerations, it is critical to identify how an organization uses IoT devices and how a partial or full network shutdown would impact the business. Does the loss of these devices pose a risk to our organizations or other organizations? Is there a risk that our devices sold to others could be compromised on a large scale? One well-publicized example was the utilization of thousands of internet-connected devices as part of a denial of service attack on Dyn in October of 2016.

Auditors recognize that they need to improve their IoT technical knowledge, a skill set that is only going to grow in demand given the rapid deployment of connected devices throughout industry. We need to continually communicate with IoT experts and company managements and boards to create policies and procedures that address IoT opportunities and risks for organizations and industries alike. Perhaps the biggest risk on the auditor’s side of the ledger is failing to help his or her organization utilize IoT to make the most of its growth potential.

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  • With the rapid changes that are happening with the Internet of Things, the IT Auditor will need more than just a CISA qualification in order to keep ahead of `things’. He may need to obtain as many qualifications as there are in the IT world.

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