In accounting, an audit trail is the sequence of paperwork that validates or invalidates accounting entries. In computing, the term is also used for an electronic or paper log used to track computer activity. For example, a corporate employee might have access to a section of a network in a corporation such as billing but be unauthorized to access all other sections. If that employee attempts to access an unauthorized section by typing in passwords, this improper activity is recorded in the audit trail.
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Audit trails are used to record customer activity in e-commerce. The customer's initial contact is recorded in an audit trail as well as each subsequent action such as payment and delivery of the product or service. The customer's audit trail is then used to respond properly to any inquiries or complaints. A company might also use an audit trail to provide a basis for account reconciliation, to provide a historical report to plan and support budgets, and to provide a record of sales in case of a tax audit.
Audit trails are also used to investigate cybercrimes. In order for investigators to expose a hacker's identity, they can follow the trail the hacker left in cyberspace. Sometimes hackers unknowingly provide audit trails through their Internet service providers' activity logs or through chat room logs.