How To Get Started with your IT Compliance Efforts for SOX

There’s no question about it. For many of you top executives in the corporate world, all roads leading to a brighter future have to go through SOX compliance. And because the business processes that contribute to financial reporting (the crux of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) are now highly reliant on IT systems, it is important to focus a good part of your attention there.

It is a long and arduous path to IT compliance, so if you don’t want your company to fall by the wayside due to inefficient utilisation of resources, it is important to set out with a plan on hand. What we have here are some vital information that will guide you in putting together a sound plan for SOX compliance of your company?s IT systems.

Why focus on IT systems for SOX compliance?

We’ll get to that. But first, let’s take up the specific portions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that affect information technology. These portions can be found in Section 302 and Section 404 of the act.

In simplified form, Section 302 grants the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) authority to come up with rules requiring you, CEOs and CFOs, to certify in each annual or quarterly financial report the following:

  • that you have reviewed the report;
  • that based on your knowledge, the report does not contain anything or leave out anything that would render it misleading;
  • that based on your knowledge, all financial information in the report fairly represent the financial conditions of the company;
  • that you are responsible for establishing internal controls over financial reporting; and
  • that you have assessed the effectiveness of the internal controls.

Similarly, Section 404, stated in simplified form, allows the SEC to come up with rules requiring you, CEOs and CFOs, to add an internal control report to each annual financial report stating that you are responsible for establishing internal controls over financial reporting.

You are also required to assess the effectiveness of those controls and to have a public accounting firm to attest to your assessment based upon standards adopted by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB).

While there is no mention of IT systems, IT systems now play a significant role in financial reporting. Practically all of the data you need for your financial reports are stored, retrieved and processed on IT systems, so you really have to include them in your SOX compliance initiatives and establish controls on them.

Now that that’s settled, your next question could very well be: How do you know what controls to install and whether those controls are already sufficient to achieve compliance?

Finding a suitable guide for IT compliance

The two bodies responsible for setting rules and standards dealing with SOX, SEC and PCAOB, point to a well-established control framework for guidance – COSO. This framework was drafted by the Committee of Sponsoring Organisations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) and is the most widely accepted control framework in the business world.

However, while COSO is a tested and proven framework, it is more suitable for general controls. What we recommend is a widely-used control framework that aligns well with COSO but also caters to the more technical features and issues that come with IT systems.

Taking into consideration those qualifiers, we recommend COBIT. COBIT features a well thought out collection of IT-related control objectives grouped into four domains: Plan and Organise (PO), Acquire and Implement (AI), Deliver and Support (DS), and Monitor and Evaluate (ME). The document also includes maturity models, performance goals and metrics, and activity goals.

A few examples of COBIt’s detailed control objectives are:

DS4.2 – IT Continuity Plans
DS4.9 – Offsite Backup Storage
DS5.4 – User Account Management
DS5.8 – Cryptographic Key Management
DS5.10 – Network Security
DS5.11 – Exchange of Sensitive Data

By those titles alone, you can see that the framework is specifically designed for IT. But the document is quite extensive and, chances are, you won’t need all of the items detailed there. Furthermore, don’t expect COBIT to specify a control solution controls for every control objective. For example, throughout the control objective DS4 (Ensure Continuous Service), you won’t find any mention of virtualisation, which is common in any modern business continuity solution.

Basically, COBIT will tell you what you need to attain in order to achieve effective governance, management and control, but you’ll have to pick the solution best suited to reach that level of attainment.

Articles highly relevant to the one you just read:

Month End Accounting The Way It Should Be Today
Spreadsheet Woes ? Burden in SOX Compliance and Other Regulations
Spreadsheet Woes ? Limited Features For Easy Adoption of a Control Framework
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2015 ESOS Guidelines Chapter 2 – Deadlines and Status Changes

The ESOS process is deadline driven and meeting key dates is a non-negotiable. The penalties for not complying / providing false or misleading information are ?50,000 each. Simply not maintaining adequate records could cost you ?5,000. The carrot on the end of the stick is the financial benefits you stand to gain.

Qualifying for inclusion under the ESOS umbrella depends on the status of your company in terms of employee numbers, turnover and balance sheet on 31 December 2014. Regardless of whether you meet the 2014 threshold or not, you must reconsider your situation on 31 December 2018, 2022 and 2026.

Compliance PeriodQualification Date Compliance Period Compliance Date
131 December 2014From 17 July 2014* to 5 December 20155 December 2015
231 December 2018From 6 December 2015 to 5 December 20195 December 2019
331 December 2022From 6 December 2019 to 5 December 20235 December 2023
431 December 2026From 6 December 2023 to 5 December 20275 December 2027

Notes:

1. The first compliance period begins on the date the regulations became effective

2. Energy audits from 6 December 2011 onward may go towards the first compliance report

Changes in Organisation Status

If your organisation status changes after a qualification date when you met compliance thresholds, you are still bound to complete your ESOS assessment for that compliance period. This is regardless of any change in size or structure. Your qualification status then remains in force until the next qualification date when you must reconsider it.

Data Leakage Prevention – Protecting Sensitive Information

When DuPont lost $400 million in intellectual property, it wasn’t because a hacker from the other side of the world infiltrated their system. The information was simply stolen by a former employee. Alarmingly, data loss incidents are not always caused by deliberate actions.

A file containing personal information accidentally attached to an email and sent to multiple recipients; financial data stored in a USB pen drive, accidentally left in a restaurant; or bank account data of colleagues, inadvertently posted on a company website – these are also some of the everyday causes of data loss.

A report done by research company Infowatch regarding global data leaks in 2010 showed that there were actually more accidental data leaks in that year compared to intentional ones. Accidental leaks comprised 53%, while intentional leaks comprised 42% (the rest were unidentified).

But even if they ?only? happened accidentally, breach incidents like these can still be very costly. The tens of thousands of dollars that you could sometimes end up paying in civil penalties (as in the case when you lose other people?s personal information) can just be the beginning. More costly than this is the loss of customer and investor confidence. Once you lose those, you could consequently lose a considerable portion of your business.

Confidential information that may already be leaking out right under your nose

With all the data you collect, process, exchange, and store electronically every day, your IT system has surely now become a storehouse of sensitive information. Some of them, you may be even taking for granted.

But imagine what would happen if any of the following trade secrets fell into the wrong hands: marketing plans, confidential customer information, pricing data, product development strategies, business plans, supplier information, source codes, and employee salaries.

These are not the only kind of data that you should be worried about. You could also get into trouble if your sloppy IT security fails to protect employee or client personal information such as their names; social security numbers; drivers license numbers; or bank account numbers and credit/debit card numbers along with their corresponding PINs.

In some countries, you could face onerous data breach notification requirements and heavy fines when these kind of data are involved.

There are now more holes to plug

It’s not just the different varieties of sensitive electronic information that you have to worry about. Because these data can take on different forms, i.e. data-at-rest, data-in-motion, and data-at-the-endpoints, you also need to take aim at different areas in your IT system.

Sensitive information can be found ?at rest? in each of your employees? hard disks, in your servers, storage disks, and in off-site backup disks. They can also be found ?in motion? in email, instant messaging, social networking messaging, P2P file sharing, ftp, http, and so on.

That’s not all. Your highly mobile workforce may have already introduced yet another high-risk area into your system: data-at-the-endpoints. This includes USB flash-disks, laptops, portable hard disks, CDs, and even smartphones.

The main challenge of data leak prevention

Having been made aware of the various aspects of data leakage, have you already come to grips with the extent of the task at hand?

There are two major things you need to do here to prevent data leakage.

One, you need to identify what data you have that can be considered as sensitive/confidential information. Of course you have financial information and employee salaries in your files. But do you also store personally identifiable information? Do you have trade secrets that are stored in electronic form?

Two, you need to pinpoint their locations. Are they only on your hard disks and laptops? Or have they made their way to flash drives, CDs/DVDs, or portable HDDs? Are they being transmitted through email or any other file transfer media?

The reason why you need to know what your sensitive data are as well as where they are is because you would like all efforts of securing them to be as efficient and unobtrusive as possible.

Let’s say, as a way of protecting your data, you decide to implement encryption. Since encryption can consume a lot of storage space and significantly reduce performance, it may be impractical to encrypt your entire database or all your files. For the same reason, you wouldn’t want to encrypt every single email that you send.

Thus, the best way would be to encrypt only the data that really need encryption. But again, you need to know what data needs to be encrypted and where those data can be found. That alone is no simple task.

Not only will you need to deal with the data you already have, you will also have to worry about the data that will go through your systems during the course of your day-to-day transactions.

Identifying sensitive data as it enters or leaves your system, goes through your network, or gets stored in your file system or database, and then applying the necessary security actions should be done automatically and intelligently. Otherwise, you could end up spending on a lot of man-hours or, worse, wasting them on a lot of false positives and negatives.

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Field Service Organisations should use Digital Forms

For many Organisations, making use of paper based forms, is a common practice and method for collecting data and recording transactions. Whether it be for producing Quotations, Invoices or even getting sign off on completed jobs.

Paper based forms and documents have been the main stay of office communication and productivity for over 200 years. Paper-based forms are used to create anything from Invoices, Receipts, Purchase Orders, Contracts to the humble internal memo!

Paper-based forms radically improved productivity, efficiency and compliance by enabling people to create paper based instructions and enabling others to add additional information as required.

Over the past 3 decades or so, modern business environments have gradually been evolving towards the concept of the Paperless Office, resulting in the humble Paper based document migrating to a Digital Counterpart. The ease of availability of various Word Processing and Spreadsheet software products and cheap and easy data storage capacity have resulted in the Proliferation of thousands if not millions of files and documents being stored somewhere on the Company’s IT infrastructure.

People often create Digital Templates of forms that may be printed off and supplied to staff to complete using Pen and Paper or electronically. The data collation and reporting is often process

Often when conducting Operational Reviews, it is commonly found that the processing and analysing paper based forms is the least productive, efficient and profitable areas of business, although it is often vitally important.

Benefits of using digital forms for data collection

The ability to collect and analyse data effectively is increasingly important to businesses. Companies gather, examine, process and build reports on large volumes of data. Traditionally, they have deployed mail surveys, telephone interviews, door-to-door interviews as methods to collect information. With the ongoing digitisation, these procedures have become old fashioned.The digital transformation is changing many business operations at a high speed and a great deal of processes that were executed manually are now accomplished using digital methods.

Technology has had a major impact on how to approach data research and has provided researchers new tools that have transformed and improved data collection and analysis. The pace of change requires companies to be able to react quickly and adapt themselves to changing demands from customers and market conditions.

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