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BerryDunn’s Cybersecurity Playbook for Management: Incident Response

The world of professional sports is rife with instability and insecurity. Star athletes leave or become injured; coaching staff make bad calls or public statements. The ultimate strength of a sports team is its ability to rebound. The same holds true for other groups and businesses. Chapter 7 in BerryDunn’s Cybersecurity Playbook for Management looks at how organizations can prepare for, and respond to, incidents.

The final two chapters of this Cybersecurity Playbook for Management focus on the concept of resiliency. What exactly is resiliency?
RG: Resiliency refers to an organization’s ability to keep the lights on—to keep producing—after an incident. An incident is anything that disrupts normal operations, such as a malicious cyberattack or an innocent IT mistake.

Among security professionals, attitudes toward resiliency have changed recently. Consider the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has come out and said, in essence, that cyberwarfare is a war that it cannot win—because cyberwarfare is so complex and so nuanced. The battlefield changes daily and the opponents have either a lot of resources or a lot of time on their hands. Therefore, the DOD is placing an emphasis on responding and recovering from incidents, rather than preventing them.

That’s sobering.
RG: It is! And businesses and organizations should take note of this attitude change. Protection, which was once the start and endpoint for security, has given way to resiliency.

When and why did this attitude change occur?
RG: Several years ago, security experts started to grasp just how clever certain nation states, such as China and Russia, were at using malicious software. If you could point to one significant event, likely the 2013 Target breach is it.

What are some examples of incidents that managers need to prepare for?
RG: Examples range from external breaches and insider threats to instances of malfeasance or incompetence. Different types of incidents lead to the same types of results—yet you can’t have a broad view of incidents. Managers should work with their teams to create incident response plans that reflect the threats associated with their specific line of business. A handful of general incident response plans isn’t going to cut it.

Managers need to work with their teams to develop a specific incident response plan for each specific type of incident. Why? Well, think of it this way: Your response to a careless employee should be different from your response to a malicious employee, for a whole host of legal reasons.

Incident response is not a cookie-cutter process. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This is one of the reasons I highly suggest that security teams include staff members with liberal arts backgrounds. I’m generalizing, but these people tend to be creative. And when you’re responding to incidents, you want people who can look at a problem or situation from a global or external perspective, not just a technical or operational perspective. These team members can help answer questions such as, what does the world see when they look at our organization? What organizational information might be valuable to, or targeted by, malicious actors? You’ll get some valuable fresh perspectives.

How short or long should the typical incident response plan be?
RG: They can be as short as needed; I often see good incident response plans no more than three or four pages in length. However, it is important that incident response plans are task oriented, so that it is clear who does what next. And when people follow an incident response plan, they should physically or digitally check off each activity, then record each activity.

What system or software do you recommend for recording incidents and responses?
RG: There are all types of help desk software you can use, including free and open source software. I recommend using help desk software with workflow capabilities so your team can assign and track tasks.

Any other tips for developing incident response plans?
RG: First, managers should work with, and solicit feedback from, different data owners and groups within the organization—such as IT, HR, and Legal—when developing incident response plans. If you create these documents in a vacuum, they will be useless.

Second, managers and their teams should take their time and develop the most “solid” incident response plans possible. Don’t rush the process. The effectiveness of your incident response plans will be critical in assessing your organization’s ability to survive a breach. Because of this, you should be measuring your response plans through periodic testing, like conducting tabletop exercises.

Third, keep your organization’s customers in mind when developing these plans. You want to make sure external communications are consistent, accurate, and within the legal requirements for your business or industry. The last thing you want is customers receiving conflicting messages about the incident. This can cause unnecessary grief for you, but can also cause an unmeasurable loss of customer confidence.

Are there any decent incident response plans in the public domain that managers and their teams can adapt for their own purposes?
RG: Yes. My default reference is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST has many special publications that describe the incident response process, how to develop a solid plan, and how to test your plan.

Should organizations have dedicated incident response teams?
RG: Definitely. Larger organizations usually have the resources and ability to staff these teams internally. Smaller organizations may want to consider hiring a reputable third party to act as an incident response team. The key with hiring a third party? Don’t wait until an incident occurs! If you wait, you’re going to panic, and make panic-based decisions. Be proactive and hire a third party on retainer.

That said, even larger organizations should consider hiring a third party on an annual basis to review incident response plans and processes. Why? Because every organization can grow complacent, and complacency kills. A third party can help gauge the strengths and weaknesses of your internal incident response teams, and provide suggestions for general or specific training. A third party can also educate your organization about the latest and greatest cyber threats.

Should managers empower their teams to conduct internal “hackathons” in order to test incident response?
RG: Sure! It’s good practice, and it can be a lot of fun for team members. There are a few caveats. First, don’t call it a “hackathon.” The word can elicit negative reactions from upper management—whose support you really need. Call it “active testing” or “continuous improvement exercises.” These activities allow team members to think creatively, and are opportunities for them to boost their cybersecurity knowledge. Second, be prepared for pushback. Some managers worry if team members gain more cybersecurity skills, then they’ll eventually leave the organization for another, higher-paying job. I think you should be committed to the growth of your team members; it’ll only make your organization more secure.

What are some best practices managers should follow when reporting incidents to their leadership?
RG: Keep the update quick, brief, and to the point. Leave all the technical jargon out, and keep everything in a business context. This way leadership can grasp the ramifications of the event and understand what matters. Be prepared to outline how you’re responding and what actions leadership can take to support the incident response team and protect the business. In the last chapter, I mentioned what I call the General Colin Powell method of reporting, and I suggest using that method when informing leadership. Tell them what you know, what you don’t know, what you think, and what you recommend. Have answers, or at least a plan.

Above all else, don’t scare leadership. If you present them with panic, you’re going to get panic back. Be a calm voice in the storm. Management will respond better, as will your team.

Another thing to keep in mind is different business leaders have different responses to this sort of news. An elected official, for example, might react differently than the CEO of a private company, simply due to possible political fallout. Keep this context in mind when reporting incidents. It can help you craft the message.

How much organization-wide communication should there be about incidents?
RG: That’s a great question, but a tough one to answer. Transparency is good, but it can also unintentionally lead to further incidents. Do you really want to let your whole organization know about an exploitable weakness? Also, employees can spread information about incidents on social media, which can actually lead to the spread of misinformation. If you are in doubt about whether or not to inform the entire organization about an incident, refer to your Legal Department. In general, organization-wide communication should be direct: We’ve had an incident; these are the facts; this is what you are allowed to say on social media; and this is what you’re not allowed to say on social media.

Another great but tough question: When do you tell the public about an incident? For this type of communication, you’re going to need buy-in from various sources: leadership, Legal, HR, and your PR team or external PR partners. You have to make sure the public messaging is consistent. Otherwise, citizens and the media will try to poke holes in your official story. And that can lead to even more issues.

So what’s next?
RG: Chapter 8 will focus on how managers can help their organizations recover from a cybersecurity incident.

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