I recently had the pleasure of performing one of the best security assessments I’ve ever done. It was great: I didn’t find any gaps. Not a one.

To some people, it might come as a surprise that I’d consider that a good assessment. And I’ll admit, it made me a bit suspicious. Nothing? Seriously? Well, I had to look into why, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But let’s cover something else first.

I’ve been on both sides of the table for security audits. Being audited is Not Fun. You have someone coming in, looking over all your processes, and it’s up to you to prove that you’re doing what you’re actually doing, often for reasons that seem terribly arcane or pointless. And the management directive is almost always “make sure we pass this” which is assuredly not the same thing as “make sure we are actually secure.” It’s a very adversarial relationship.

As the auditor, you’re always looking for the places where they’re trying to hoodwink you, trying to gloss over something, or just outright lying. You’re always suspicious. If you’re not when you start, you will be. Because the people you’re auditing don’t want to be secure – they want to pass the audit. Which is understandable – failure can mean losing their license to operate, losing a major contract (clearly, one that’s big enough to bring in an auditor!) and in extreme cases bringing down the company.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As a security analyst, my goal isn’t to find problems. It’s to locate any security gaps that may exist, and where appropriate offer remediation steps.

Aren’t those the same thing, though?

Well, no. As the old saying goes, “seek and ye shall find.” I’ve met many auditors who took delight in writing overwhelmingly negative, scathing reports. They’d pounce on any excuse to fail a control. Which sounds like they’d at least be informative, but realistically the resultant reports aren’t all that useful – they don’t give much true concept of the security posture of an organization, because they’re invariably negative.

The problem is that nobody is really looking at the true purpose of security audits and assessments. Organizations being audited just want to get through the audit. The auditors are trying to “catch” the organization. But security audits aren’t high school tests or witch hunts. The end goal isn’t the report. The end goal is an organization, system, or project with a good security posture and no known gaps.

That’s what made the assessment I did last week so unusual. You see, they were given the standards in advance. They knew exactly what I was looking for – and so they went out of their way to make sure I’d find it. They had purpose-built the space specifically to meet the standards. There was no gotcha, no hidden agenda, no posturing or hiding. I knew they’d set things up to make sure my assessment would be good – and that’s great. It’s the way it should be, and the result was a completely clean assessment.

Of course, there is a risk. Organizations may know what the standards are and then try to pretend to follow the standard, or look for loopholes. That’s where the auditor really comes into play – to recognize when an organization is trying to follow the letter but not the spirit of the standard. But the most important thing to remember, for both the auditor and the auditee, is that the goal ultimately, is security – it’s not to play gotcha, it’s not to hide gaps. It’s to find and close the gaps that exist.