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The Importance of an Audit Trail to Securing Data Integrity

by Ryan Szporer

It’s easier to think of an audit trail as a collection of breadcrumbs leading out of the woods.
 

The Bright Side of Being Audited

Admittedly, the word “audit” gets a bad reputation. It’s usually associated with the unpleasant process of the same name that can be initiated by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In actuality, audits are an unavoidable part of life for many corporations in the sense that they can take place not once but multiple times of year. With an audit trail, they don’t have to be nearly as grueling as people have come to expect, though.

For the uninitiated, trails are the lists of transactions or events kept track of to help auditors and, in many ways, those being audited too. Of course, at its most fundamental level, a company’s audit trail does contain financial transactions. However, they can be chronological catalogs of so many more types of events. An audit is simply an investigation of accounts and records in general. They aren’t limited to those of the financial variety.

For example, audits can be key to achieving and maintaining regulatory compliance, which is in turn critical to operating in sectors like pharma. For a company that develops software intended to meet ISO compliance, perhaps for use within that same pharmaceutical industry, regular internal and external audits are to be expected.

 

External vs. Internal Audits

External audits can either be initiated by the relevant regulatory body (for certification purposes) or even a client that relies on the given software. Take a digital proofreading application for example.

Continuing within pharma, each piece of equipment that enters into a drug’s chain of custody has to be “validated” as meeting pre-determined specifications and attributes. Obviously, software qualifies as equipment in that context. It makes sense that a firm with as much at stake from a quality perspective as a pharmaceutical company would want to get assurances that a piece of equipment on which they rely comes as advertised as being compliant. It’s theoretically similar to how consumers depend on medication and accurate information on its packaging.

In contrast, an internal audit serves as an evaluation of the company’s effectiveness, from risk-management, governance, and process standpoints. As data integrity arguably touches on all three areas, its importance in a corporate environment cannot be understated. In fact, audits specifically aimed at examining data integrity are a real thing.

 

Benefiting from an Audit Trail

Regardless of the focus of an audit, trails are undeniably critical to their success. And success is what all parties should strive for, whether they’re doing the auditing or being audited. No one wins however unnecessarily hard one becomes to complete.

That’s one of the misconceptions regarding audit trails that is generally associated with the earlier IRS example. Obviously an audit isn’t exactly something to look forward to, but it can be made less of a headache if all required records have been kept and are easily accessible for the auditors. Automated trails that are easily searchable make smooth audits more of a reality.

Trails are theoretically included in software as one of many required technical controls that enable users to achieve compliance with 21 CFR Part 11 with the Food and Drug Administration (in the United States; equivalent to Annex 11 in the European Union). Compliance here ensures companies implement good business practices through reliable electronic records, which must be able to be accurately displayed and exported. Here, the audit trail serves to log what changes to application data were made, when, and by whom and be available for review.

Whoever ends up conducting that review, whether it’s an agency or the company itself, the auditor will no doubt thank you as the bigger picture begins to take shape. Identifying the individual trees is key to seeing the forest as a whole, though. Finding your way through can be hard, but an audit trail can clearly reveal the right path to take.


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