How a digital design firm navigated its SOC 2 audit

In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, artificial intelligence (AI) is a driving force behind innovation. However, AI’s true potential hinges not only on technological prowess but also on the insight and foresight of designers and strategists. These professionals ensure that AI advancements are groundbreaking and safeguard our societal fabric.

As a co-founder of a company deeply engaged in developing digital solutions, I’ve found our journey to SOC 2 Certification unexpectedly essential to these very topics. I’m sharing the path we took, highlighting the lessons, insights, and unanticipated advantages we encountered during the process.

Since our founding over a decade ago, L+R’s global team has enabled a diverse range of businesses–from nimble small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to Fortune 500 companies–to traverse the intricate digital terrain. Our firm isn’t confined to the traditional roles of a strategy consulting firm or a design and technology studio; we’ve intertwined our offerings to provide a holistic, 360-degree value to our clients.

The pursuit of SOC 2 certification was a conscious and strategic choice. We started about two years ago, well ahead of the AI surge, in alignment with our belief in the importance of privacy and security, as well as to make onboarding more streamlined with our enterprise clientele. The decision was properly assessed by all departments since it is a significant investment for a small business, demanding not only financial resources but also the dedication of our teams to adapt to new, albeit temporarily less efficient, procedures for a greater purpose.

L+R’s approach to the SOC 2 audit process

We recognized early on that fortifying security goes hand in hand with cultivating a culture attuned to these imperatives. As we often guide clients in enhancing employee experiences, it was an enlightening revelation to see the parallels with our internal processes. SOC 2’s scope extended into the realms of employee training, standard operating procedures, and the overarching themes of security and privacy. This holistic approach underscored the intrinsic link between a secure, privacy-conscious environment and a positive employee experience.

Fully aware of the pivotal role that cybersecurity stakeholders play in the approval of new technologies, we ensured that our journey toward SOC 2 compliance was aligned with the expectations of these key decision-makers. We recognize the importance of ensuring peace of mind for stakeholders when collaborating with us, as we understand that the strength of the chain is determined by its weakest link.

What is a SOC 2 audit?

A little background on the SOC 2 Certification: Created by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), System and Organization Control (SOC) audits fall under several evaluation and reporting frameworks comprising and fall under three categories: SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3. Most organizations ask their vendors and business partners to provide the results of a SOC 2 Type 2 audit. Auditors evaluate organizations against the SOC 2 framework and the AICPA’s five Trust Service Criteria: security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. SOC 2 audit reports inform organizations and their partners how well they’re protecting data in each of those five areas.

Select the right audit and attestation consultants

Embarking on the SOC 2 certification, we first needed to find a consultant who could guide us through the process. The selection of this service provider demanded an in-depth analysis of our organizational framework, the quality of our employee experience, and the intricacies of our client relationships. A dedicated internal leader was appointed to foster best practices and to ensure department-wide compliance. After evaluating several SOC 2 certification service providers, we chose one that resonated with our operational ethos.

In refining our approach to selecting the appropriate audit and attestation consultants, we concentrated on a set of core criteria that resonated with our organizational needs and values. Our decision-making process was streamlined, focusing on five essential aspects that comprehensively addressed our requirements:

  1. Unified technology and audit framework: We looked for a consultant who could offer an integrated solution, combining the audit platform and the audit process. This approach was critical for streamlining our operations, setting our choice apart from the rest.
  2. Advanced access management and vulnerability detection: Our chosen partner excelled in providing detailed access reviews and compatibility with a range of vulnerability scanners. This ability to offer real-time alerts and effective vulnerability management was a significant advantage over other providers with limited capabilities.
  3. Flexible onboarding/offboarding and comprehensive risk management: The ability to customize workflows for employee onboarding and offboarding, along with a robust risk management system, was paramount. These features not only simplified our processes but also ensured that the outputs were acceptable to auditors.
  4. Streamlined automated testing and reporting: Efficiency in automating tests for SOC 2 compliance and the provision of comprehensive reporting were key. This efficiency was a notable improvement over alternatives that necessitated more manual intervention.
  5. Auditor-friendly tools and documentation: The ease of interaction for auditors with the system was crucial. We preferred a consultant who provided a straightforward platform for auditors to manage policies and evidence, along with well-organized, ready-to-use documentation templates.

These tailored criteria guided us in selecting a consultant who was not just a service provider, but a partner aligned with our vision of a seamless, technologically advanced, and efficient SOC 2 certification journey.

The journey, however, was not without its hurdles. In the first year, we reached a juncture where we had to pivot from our chosen service provider due to a mismatch with our team’s workflow, which also incurred a significant financial burden.

The procurement of new equipment was an unexpected yet vital aspect of our operational enhancement, particularly the transition of team members from using their personal devices to company-provided laptops. This change was crucial for enhancing security and ensuring a consistent technological environment across our team. Although it represented an unanticipated expense, it underscored our commitment to maintaining high-security standards and a uniform work experience, aligning with our overall goals for operational excellence and security compliance.

Additional challenges included the need to overhaul our digital infrastructure. We discovered that certain legacy systems were not compliant with SOC 2 standards, necessitating upgrades that were both time-consuming and costly. Moreover, the process of educating our team and adjusting to new security measures led to a temporary decrease in operational speed as employees adapted to the more stringent protocols.

Although the upgrades required a significant investment, we firmly believed that the benefits to both our clients and our team more than justified the additional expense. Adhering to the principle that better tools yield superior results, we faced these challenges head-on.

The SOC 2 audit experience: Navigating the rigors of compliance

The audit process for SOC 2 certification was a multifaceted endeavor that tested the mettle of our entire organization. It began with a pre-audit phase where we meticulously gathered evidence of our existing controls and processes. This phase was crucial as it set the stage for the actual audit, and it was here that we faced our first set of challenges.

We had to comb through our data-handling procedures, system access controls, and risk management protocols to ensure they met the stringent SOC 2 criteria. Every aspect of our operation, from client onboarding to product development — where AI plays a critical role — and even employee offboarding and employee offboarding, was scrutinized. In our pre-audit work, we realized that many of our processes, particularly those involving the nuanced use of AI in both our operations as well as building tools for clients, functioned effectively in practice but had not been formally recorded. This revelation led us to invest a considerable amount of time in meticulously documenting these procedures.

For instance, we identified a potential vulnerability in how AI prompts could be manipulated to bypass standard security measures like two-factor authentication. A cleverly crafted prompt might trick the AI into divulging restricted information, a risk not typically present with traditional web interfaces. To address this, we developed truncated datasets tailored to individual permission levels, ensuring compliance with SOC 2 requirements.

When the actual audit commenced, it brought a new level of scrutiny to our operations. The auditors were thorough, requiring evidence for each control we claimed to have in place. For example, they didn’t just take our word for it that we conducted regular security training; they asked for attendance logs, training materials, and even test results.

The audit also examined our vendor management processes, where we had to demonstrate due diligence and ongoing monitoring of third-party service providers. This was especially relevant as we relied on various external platforms and tools to deliver services to our clients.

One of the more intense aspects of the audit was the testing of our incident response plan. We had to provide records of past incidents, how they were handled, and the lessons learned. Moreover, the auditors conducted tabletop exercises to assess our preparedness for potential future security events.

After weeks of evaluation, the auditors presented their findings. We excelled in some areas, such as in our encryption of sensitive data and our robust user authentication systems. However, they also identified areas for improvement, like the need for more granular access controls and enhanced monitoring of system configurations.

Post-audit, we were given a roadmap of sorts–a list of recommendations to address the identified deficiencies. This phase was dedicated to remediation, where we worked diligently to implement the auditors’ suggestions and improve our systems.

Reflecting on the transformative impact of SOC 2 certification, L+R has discerned a profound shift in the dynamics of client engagement and internal processes. SOC 2 certification transcends the realm of compliance, fostering enriched dialogues, bolstering trust, and catalyzing decision-making at the executive level. Here’s how the SOC 2 certification has become a pivotal element in our journey:

Client engagement and trust

  • Educational opportunities: Introducing clients to SOC 2 has opened avenues for education and discussion, enhancing their understanding of data privacy and security.
  • Comfort with AI: Addressing data privacy concerns has allowed clients to comfortably explore AI solutions within a secure framework.
  • Expedited decision-making: The assurance of SOC 2 certification has dissolved previous hesitations, allowing for swift executive decisions on AI integrations.

Internal advancements

  • Refined practices: SOC 2 has prompted a thorough examination of our internal processes, leading to enhanced practices and a more agile organization.
  • Security-first AI integration: The certification has ingrained a security-first approach from the inception of AI development, ensuring a robust foundation for all innovations.

Broader implications

  • Cybersecurity as a principle: Our perspective on SOC 2 as an ongoing principle rather than a mere endpoint has resonated with clients who value security as integral to digital innovation.
  • Continuous evolution: The journey of integrating cybersecurity into our ethos is continuous, with SOC 2 being a cornerstone that upholds the integrity of our clients’ visions.

L+R’s journey highlights the need for a fundamental change in how we approach the convergence of AI and cybersecurity. Recognizing security as a critical element right from the start is essential. This is a message to the industry to place a high priority on protecting innovation and maintaining data integrity, ensuring a robust and reliable digital future for businesses. While AI brings with it a degree of uncertainty, we are aware that it represents the future. At L+R, we are committed to laying the foundation and equipping ourselves to face any potential challenges that this emerging and evolving technology may present.

Certifications, Compliance

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