What Is an Audit Log and Why It’s Great For Tracking Software Activity in Security

Priyanka Damwani
Published 02/14/2024
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Importance of an audit log for software securityCybersecurity is one of the most important factors for any business operating today. By the end of 2023 alone, cybercrime is estimated to come to a total cost of $8.15 trillion, and that is forecast to continue rising to an estimate of $13.82 trillion by 2028. So, every business needs to ensure that it takes all measures possible to prevent its organization from falling victim to a cyberattack.

And with companies using multiple software and systems, the potential for an attack is greater than ever before. To make sure that those solutions are not vulnerable, it’s vital that your IT (or dedicated cybersecurity team) tracks all activity by audit logging. But what, exactly, is an audit log and why is it so important when it comes to maintaining a high level of cybersecurity? Keep reading to find out.


What is an audit log?


The easiest way to define an audit log is as a process that records all activity that happens across all the software systems you use within your business. The audit log will record what the activity was, the date and time it occurred, and who was involved; both the person who initiated the activity and any person or entity that was affected by the event will be tracked.

Audit logs can cover everything that interacts with your software: all devices connected to your network, any cloud services you might utilize, and all the applications you use. All of these produce logs anyway, but an audit log gives you a complete overview of all interactions. When you gather all your audit logs together, you have an audit trail that shows you all activity on a particular system.

By analyzing audit logs, your IT team, cybersecurity team, or system administrators can examine individual user activity or investigate cyberattacks, as well as ensure that your systems are complying with any relevant regulatory requirements. If you look at an audit log, you will find that it records the following types of information:

  • Type/name of event
  • Simple description of the event
  • Date and time of the event
  • The user who initiated the action (this could include creation, editing, or deletion)
  • Software, applications, or systems where the event originated and which were impacted by the event
  • Source of the event (country, IP address, device ID, etc.)
  • Any customized information provided by the user.


Regular system logs vs. audit logs


If you already have system logs, you might be thinking: why should I use audit logs, too? Your regular system logs record information regarding operations and errors and are mainly used by developers and software engineers to identify and fix any errors in your software.

Audit logs go much further. They provide you with a historical record of all software activity that can help you identify breaches and vulnerabilities, so you have evidence that all compliance needs have been met. The audit trails produced by audit logs cannot be altered, which means they help meet the need to retain information and activity, which is required by most regulatory/compliance frameworks.



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What is audit log tracking?

Different organizations carry out different activities according to their business type. However, you will find that audit logs – and what they track – apply to any type of business. There are several types of activity that an audit log will record – let’s view them in more detail.


1. System administrator activity

You may have several system administrators within your business. Some will be sharing responsibilities for one system or there may be different administrators for different systems you use. An audit log will record all administrative activity. This could include things like adding a new employee to systems as part of their onboarding process.


2. Failures and denials

If someone tries to log into a system and either fails or is denied access, then your audit log will record not only the event but all the pertinent details such as invalid credentials or password. It will also record if a user logs onto the system but is denied access to a particular area of the system or a specific URL, such as ae domains.


3. Data use


Data is the lifeblood of your business and can cover everything from customer information to how many SKUs (stock-keeping units) of a product you might have. Your audit log records every instance where data is accessed, created, or modified. For example, a staff member may update customer details on your CRM (customer relationship management) system, and your audit log will track that specific action.


4. System changes

While some activities may be confined to small parts of your system, others – such as the creation and implementation of automation systems – could have system-wide effects. Your audit log will not only show the activity itself but will also track and record any effects that activity has on the system as a whole.

Different types of businesses will make decisions as to what are the most important activities for them to track and audit. For example, a company offering call tracking solutions might focus on any activity happening on the various apps and programs associated with their product.

The decisions as to where to focus your audit log activity can be made by managers, system administrators, IT/cybersecurity staff, or even HR personnel. Your cybersecurity team may want to audit login activity as up to 95% of security breaches can be due to human errors, such as sharing login details or using poor password security.


The benefits of audit logging

In the past, audit logging used to be more common among companies that handled very sensitive data, such as financial institutions and healthcare providers. However, as digital footprints grow bigger, and as regulatory requirements spread across most sectors, it is now beneficial to any company that has a lot of digital activity.


1. Regulatory compliance


Many sectors now have to meet regulatory requirements. These can range from PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) for businesses that take payments from customers’ cards to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) for organizations that handle sensitive medical information.

Audit logs can show that your business is fully complying with any relevant regulations and that you are meeting benchmarks. As well as ongoing compliance, it also helps provide a historical record of compliance should the regulatory authority decide to audit you. If you are using any AI systems, it can also help improve security in those areas.


2. Diagnosing security breaches

Of course, you hope that a security breach never happens, but the scary fact is that 83% of businesses experienced more than one data breach in 2022. So, unfortunately, there is a good chance that you will at some point experience a – hopefully minor – one. The breach could happen because of different reasons, from hacking to human error, but you want to know why it happened so you can take steps to prevent it in the future.

An audit log acts as a trail of evidence so that your IT/cybersecurity team can work their way backward from the incident to find what (or who) the cause was. This means that they can look at whether there are vulnerabilities in your system that can be addressed.


3. Troubleshooting

Problems happen but it’s important to identify why they happened and attempt to fix any issues to prevent the incident from reoccurring. As with security breaches, an audit log can supply you with a trail and a timeline that will show you why the issue happened and what, if any, the contributory factors were.

For example, you may encounter some problems with your end-to-end encryption system. The relevant audit log can help you identify whether it is down to a system issue or human error. Audit logs can also help if any files become corrupted by identifying when and where the corruption occurred so you can restore it to its previous, uncorrupted state.


4. Evidence

Another thing you hope will never happen is for legal action to be taken against your business. But if it does happen, then audit logs may provide the evidence needed to prove your case. For example, let’s imagine you are a provider of domain names. One day, a customer disputes that they agreed to sign up for a Hong Kong domain name for a year.

If you have exchanged documents with the customer, and one of those documents is a contract that has been e-signed, then your audit log not only shows the evidence of the contract but can also show the exact date and time the contract was returned to you.


5. Improvements

As cybercrime risks increase and as reliance on tech also increases, there is a constant need to review the processes you currently have in place. Your audit logs can help you identify areas where systems need to be updated or even replaced. You may, for example, want to update some of your security processes to meet the more sophisticated cyberattacks.

An audit log may also identify the need for a third party risk management program if you are dealing with a lot of third-party vendors. You should constantly be using audit logs to see what improvements can be made to your systems and processes.


The takeaway

Modern business, with its increasing reliance on automation and AI systems, needs constant monitoring. And that’s not forgetting the eons-old problem of human error. The beauty of using audit logs is that it makes it far easier to identify what has caused any problems so that they can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

Audit logs are also ideal for ensuring you meet any compliance requirements, from protecting sensitive customer financial data to securing confidential medical information. As the use of data increases, so will the regulations that govern how you collect, store, and use that data. Audit logs can act as the guardian for your organization, helping you avoid any punitive action for lapses in compliance.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.