What is a security questionnaire?

October 25, 2022
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What is a security questionnaire?

Working with third-party vendors like an analytics tool or a payment processor will often require you to share your company's sensitive data. Managing security is hard enough at your own organization, so how can you trust that an outside vendor will keep your sensitive information secure?

This is where the importance of vetting vendor security comes into play. Creating a security questionnaire is one effective way to ensure that a vendor meets your security standards. To help you get started using these questionnaires to bolster your third-party risk management, let's take a look at everything you need to know about security questionnaires and their role in reducing cybersecurity risk.

What's typically covered in a security questionnaire?

A good security assessment questionnaire should cover all of the biggest topics that contribute to a vendor's security posture. The most common topics typically covered by a security questionnaire include:

Application and interface security

According to EdgeScan's 2022 Vulnerability Stats Report, 10% of vulnerabilities in internet-facing applications were considered to be a high or critical risk. This number jumps to 15% if you look at vulnerabilities in online payment processors. Given that these applications store sensitive data (including customer data such as their credit card information), it's vital to ensure that your vendor's applications are as secure as possible.

Here are a few examples of application and interface security questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • What controls are in place for user authentication?
  • How are SQL injection risks mitigated?
  • What data does the application store?

Audit assurance and compliance

Audit assurance and compliance ensure that an organization is compliant with regulatory requirements for their location and industry. For a security questionnaire, this means asking questions to understand compliance with cybersecurity frameworks such as ISO 27001, HIPAA, and the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, and any related certifications. 

While adherence may be voluntary, any vendor that takes its security policies seriously will typically comply with an industry-standard framework. Forming partnerships with vendors that comply with one of these frameworks will ensure that they follow the security practices required to prevent data breaches and cyberattacks.

Here are a couple of examples of audit and security compliance questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • What cybersecurity frameworks does your organization adhere to?
  • What measures are in place to ensure compliance?

Business management

Few factors have a bigger impact on a company's performance than its management, and this is true for information security as well. While it can be difficult to fully assess a vendor's day-to-day management practices, there are still a few important questions regarding business management that a security questionnaire should include, like:

  • Does your organization have a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)? If not, who is in charge of overseeing the organization's security?
  • Does your organization have a security team?

Data center security

Some vendors will store the data in on-premise servers. But it's much more common for organizations to store their data in third-party data centers. This means that along with verifying the security practices of the vendor you are partnering with, you will also need to verify the security of the data centers they utilize.

Here are a few examples of data center security questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • What data center providers do you use?
  • Which data centers do you use to store sensitive data?
  • What countries or states are the data centers located in?

Encryption security

Encryption is an effective security control that entails encoding information into ciphertext so that those with the encryption key are the only ones who can decode it. 

Encryption ensures that even if a data breach occurs, a hacker won't be able to decipher the data that they steal. Ideally, a third-party vendor should encrypt any sensitive data they store.

Here are a couple of examples of encryption security questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • What is your company protocol for encrypting sensitive data?
  • Who within your organization has access to the encryption key?
  • What measures do you have in place to ensure data privacy?

Vendor risk management

Cybersecurity is like a chain: a single weak link can cause failure all the way down the line. Along with ensuring the security of a potential vendor, you will need to ensure the security of their vendors, too.

Here are a few examples of vendor risk management security questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • What third-party vendors does your organization utilize?
  • What data do you share with third-party vendors?
  • Does your organization conduct security assessments for its vendors?

Infrastructure security

Infrastructure security protects an organization's IT infrastructure against physical and cyber threats. It's a broad term that can include everything from application and interface security to ensuring that safeguards are in place to protect servers and other critical hardware from natural disasters.

Here are a couple of examples of infrastructure security questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • What environmental controls are in place to protect critical infrastructure?
  • Are there physical access controls in place for securing servers and desktop machines?

Supply chain management

If a vendor is delivering physical products that your company relies on, a disruption to the vendor's supply chain can potentially create disruptions to your business. This makes it important to ensure that a vendor has developed a transparent and reliable supply chain that is designed to mitigate disruption.

Here are a few examples of supply chain management questions that a security questionnaire will typically include:

  • Who are the suppliers and carriers that make up the supply chain?
  • What are the supply chain's inherent risks?
  • What are the plans for pivoting to alternate suppliers in the event of a disruption?

Tips for getting faster response times for your security questionnaire

It's vital to do your due diligence when choosing a vendor, and a security questionnaire is an essential component of any organization's security program. However, a security questionnaire is only going to be beneficial if a vendor actually responds to it in a timely manner. To ensure faster response times for your security questionnaires, here are a few effective tips to follow:

Use the right tools

One of the best ways to speed up the process of vendor risk assessment is to utilize automation and security questionnaire templates. By automatically generating and sending out security questionnaires, you can streamline the process on your end and reduce the time it takes for a vendor to receive the questionnaire.

Automated security questionnaire tools can also help ensure faster security questionnaire responses after a vendor has received the questionnaire by ensuring that you are asking the right questions and providing vendors with a simple, straightforward process for completing the questionnaire.

If you want a tool to streamline the process of completing security questionnaires (for you and your vendors), check out HyperComply. By leveraging AI and an experienced team of subject matter experts, HyperComply can complete security answers with 90+% accuracy, dramatically reducing the amount of time and effort required for thorough vendor risk management. 

To get started using HyperComply to send automated security questionnaires completely free of charge, sign up here.

Create clear and concise questions

Making life difficult for your vendors isn't a good recipe for speeding up security questionnaire response times. While you certainly want your questionnaire to be thorough, you also want to ensure that your questions are clear and concise.

Don't go overboard and ask questions just for the sake of asking them; make sure that every question your questionnaire includes will actually help you evaluate the vendor's security. Likewise, make sure that your questions aren't too open-ended or difficult to understand. Every question you include should ask for a specific answer that the vendor's sales team should have little trouble finding.

One great way to ensure that you are asking the right question in your security questionnaire is to use a security questionnaire template such as the free templates provided by HyperComply. Along with eliminating the hassle of creating your own questionnaire from scratch, these templates also come pre-populated with all of the most important questions written in a clear and concise way.

Build an elaborate knowledge base

Creating a comprehensive vendor knowledge base is a great way to organize the information that you collect from your vendors. While this may not speed up the process of vetting new vendors since vendors aren't likely to already be in your database, it can help streamline the process of re-vetting existing vendors.

We'll talk more about how often you should conduct a security assessment of existing vendors in the next section, but no matter how often you choose to conduct them, they are much easier when a vendor's information is organized and searchable. From creating questions for your questionnaire to comparing current and past vendor information, the entire process is streamlined when a vendor's security information is easily accessible.

Build a SOC Type 1 and SOC Type 2 checklist

Compliance with SOC 1 and SOC 2 is one important thing to check for when conducting a risk assessment. Both SOC Type 1 and Type 2 audits are designed to analyze critical risks in an organization's security, with SOC 2 being the more rigorous of the two. By building a SOC Type 1 and SOC Type 2 checklist, you can offer vendors that have completed these audits a simple way to provide a wealth of data security information.

Want to learn more about SOC compliance? Check out this helpful resource. 

Study previous questionnaires and continuously improve

Studying previous security questionnaires can provide the opportunity to see what's working well and what isn't. Are some of the questions in prior questionnaires commonly leading to low-value answers? Are there common issues that vendors are having with your questionnaires? Have you noticed changes to the questionnaire either speeding up or slowing down average response times? 

Studying previous questionnaires to answer questions such as these will enable you to take a data-driven approach to continuously improving your questionnaires for better and faster responses.

How often should you do a security assessment?

Along with vetting new vendors, performing routine security assessments of your organization's existing vendors is important. But how often should you be doing these assessments? The answer depends on several factors, with the first and most important being the vendor's risk level.

There are multiple factors that define a vendor's risk level, including the vendor's vulnerabilities as well as the actual risk to your organization. 

For example, consider a vendor that doesn't deal with sensitive data or provide a core product/service. You might not classify them as a high-risk vendor — even if they have a lot of vulnerabilities — since the threat to your organization is low. On the other hand, a vendor that collects customer data or provides a product that is core to your organization's operations might be considered high-risk, even if their security practices are solid.

With that said, here is a recommended schedule for conducting security assessments based on vendor risk level:

  • Low-risk vendors: Once a year
  • Medium-risk vendors: Once or twice a year
  • High-risk vendors: Twice a year or quarterly

In addition to conducting routine security assessments based on vendor risk, there are also circumstances where you may need to conduct a triggered security assessment. Here are a few examples of instances where a triggered security assessment might be required:

  • A vendor experiences a data breach or other security incident
  • An issue was flagged in a previous assessment, triggering the need for a follow-up assessment to ensure that it has been addressed
  • Regulatory changes, changes in the vendor's management, changes to the vendor's security practices, or any other changes that could potentially impact your own organization's security

Streamline vendor risk assessment with HyperComply

At HyperComply, we speed up and improve the process of vendor risk management for both the organizations sending security questionnaires and the service providers receiving them. HyperComply makes it easier to create and send security assessment questionnaires while streamlining the process for your vendors. This way, HyperComply can save your organization time and effort while speeding up security questionnaire response times by doing the same for your vendors.

To see the many benefits of automated vendor risk management for yourself, get started with HyperComply today.