Some Best Practice Tips for Effective Cyber Incident Response

big dataI’ve been neglecting this blog a bit of late. That’s due in part to being overwhelmed with the sheer number of security breach stories and features to write up this summer. I can’t recall a time when there’s been so much going on, and such a great variety of incidents — apart from last year, and the year before …. and possibly the year before that.

It’s becoming something of a cliché to say “it’s not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ your organisation is successfully attacked” — but that doesn’t make it any less true. That puts even more pressure on firms to get incident response right. Succeed, and you could get away with little more than a slap on the wrist from the regulators — you may even find your organisation’s reputation enhanced. I asked the experts their views for an upcoming Infosecurity Magazine feature.

First and foremost, IR plans should be drawn up by an organisation-wide team, according to IISP board director, Chris Hodson.

“The IR team must be cross-functional and comprised of senior business stakeholders that understand the importance of the data, applications and infrastructure across their enterprise,” he told me.

“An effective plan must consider not only the nefarious, but also accidental and environmental events. In a world where technology and internet connectivity is baked into everything, safety has become a key consideration too — it’s no longer just considerations of ‘confidentiality, integrity and availability’ (CIA), we need to look at safety being of paramount importance.”

PwC’s US cybersecurity and privacy lead, Sean Joyce, was more prescriptive.

“The incident response plan (IRP) should include but not be limited to the following types of information: event and incident definitions; incident categories, descriptions, and criticality levels; escalation matrices; incident life cycle workflows; a listing of internal stakeholders and external partners with their roles and responsibilities; and reporting requirements,” he explained to me.

Certified SANS instructor, Mathias Fuchs, added much more to the list, including a communications plan, police liaison, mapping out of standard operating procedures, and how to deal with outsourcers like cloud providers.

“As message control is one of the key points in incident response, a predefined circle of trust that limits information flow to people not working on the case as well as to the outside world is key,” he added. “Particularly for publicly traded organisations, information about security incidents has to be treated with great caution as it usually does have an impact on the stock price once publicly available.”

My plan’s in place, now what?

Once you’ve got a plan drawn up, it’s essential to test it regularly, according to Joyce.

“Preparation is a key component to any incident response event. In our experience, organisations that take the time to develop and test their IRPs and playbooks are more prepared to respond and likely reduce the impact of an incident,” he argued.” Decisions that are made in the first 24 hours are extremely impactful in a positive or negative way.”

For Ian Glover, president of accreditation body CREST, it’s also vital to determine how ready the organisation is to respond to an incident, covering people, process and technology.

“CREST has developed a maturity model and free tool to enable assessment of the status of an organisation’s cybersecurity incident response capability on a scale of 1 (least effective) to 5 (most effective),” he told me. “The tool enables assessments to be made at either a summary or detailed level and has been developed in conjunction with a broad range of organisations, including industry bodies, consumer organisations, the UK government and suppliers of expert technical security services. It delivers an assessment against a maturity model based on the 15 steps within the three-phase Cyber Security Incident Response process.”

Lessons learned

Even the best laid plans can come apart when a cyber-attack actually strikes. But well-defined and practiced playbooks can help, said PwC’s Joyce.

“An organisation, in consultation with their external partners, should proceed forward with identifying any additional requirements related to preservation, investigation, containment, and longer-term remediation related actions. The results of the investigative work stream should be communicated in a defined/repeatable process that will directly support internal and external messaging related to the incident,” he explained.

“Depending on the incident, organisations should pre-plan their internal briefing requirements to the board and the frequency and detail of those updates. For external messaging, organisations should work with external partners such as counsel and PR organizations to begin drafting an appropriate hold statement as well as media release should notification be needed prior to the conclusion of the investigation.”

SANS’ Fuchs urged IR teams not to act too quickly, especially if they don’t yet know how the attacker got in.

“Find all ways the attacker might have into your network. Try to develop intelligence about the attacker as you investigate, that helps you when they come back. Figure out what they were looking for and what they have already exfiltrated,” he advised. “Conduct a full investigation and then execute the remediation plan on a weekend where you disconnect the whole organisation from the internet.”

Post IR processes are also vital in helping build long-term resilience.

“If they didn’t get what they were there for, they will return,” warned Fuchs. “Find better ways to detect them and avoid them getting back in the same way they did the first time.”

PwC’s Joyce recommended organisations conduct an IR “post-mortem”.

“The results of this may lead to revisions of the incident response plan, policies, procedures, and key reporting metrics; additional training for the board, executives, staff; and additional investments in technologies in the organisations efforts to mitigate risk and evolve with the constantly evolving cyber threat,” he concluded. “In addition, organisations can schedule table-top exercises to provide training opportunities for all key internal and external stakeholders whose support will be needed in response to an incident. Table-tops provide opportunities to evaluate an organisation’s incident response plan and to assess key components such as escalations, internal and external communications, and technical proficiency of the incident response team.”

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Firms Fail to Combat the Insider Security Threat

hackerThe threat of accidental or malicious employees compromising information security has been around ever since there were computer systems. But you would have thought by now that CISOs would have got a handle on it.

Not so, according to a new report from training and research firm the SANS Institute which I’ve just covered for Infosecurity Magazine.

It found that although three-quarters of IT security pros are concerned about the insider threat, a third have no means of defending against it and around a half either don’t know how much they’re spending on it or have no idea what the potential losses would be.

From JPMorgan to Chesapeake, the dangers of failing to properly mitigate internal risks are clear to see, but firms seem to be slow on the uptake.

According to Roy Duckles, EMEA Channel Director at Lieberman Software, it’s a lack of “visibility, accountability and auditability” which is to blame.

“There is an assumption that if a person or group have the ‘keys to the kingdom’ with full admin rights across an enterprise, that this is a viable and effective way to apply security policies,” he told me.

“Where most businesses fail is that due to the fact that this approach not only reduces security, but it makes it almost impossible to see who is changing what, on which systems, at what time, and the effect and risk that it has on a business.”

Firms therefore need to remove privileges where possible, introduce 2FA and prevent admins “knowing” which passwords get them into systems, he advised.

Sagie Dulce, security researcher at Imperva, told me by email that organisations lack “budget, training, technology and an incident response plan” for when a breach occurs.

He added:

“Obviously, the first things organizations must do is put some resources into the insider threat. The second thing organizations must do is prioritise: ask themselves what are the most important thing they are trying to protect?

Once they know what they are trying to protect they should consider:

  • Is it Personal Information, emails, code etc?
  • Is the data structured, unstructured?
  • Is it found on databases, file shares?
  • Who has access to this data and how (from special terminals, via VPN, 3rd party partners etc.)?”

Finally I asked David Chismon, security consultant at MWR InfoSecurity, who repeated the notion that employees should be given the minimum access necessary to do their jobs.

Investing in systems to spot insider abuse could also help protect organisations against targeted attacks which spearphish users and abuse their access, he argued.

“For example, organisations are able to detect when an employee’s account is used to try and access data it shouldn’t or if a large amount of data is being exfiltrated,” Chismon explained. “It doesn’t matter at that stage if it is the employee misusing their account or an external attacker who has compromised the network.”


Russian mega-hack: time to get serious about alternatives to passwords?

padlockAll the talk this week has been of the Russian mega-hack. A data breach revealed first in the New York Times by a security firm called Hold Security of an estimated 1.2 billion username and password combinations and 500 million email addresses.

So what can we say about it?

Well, according to the security experts I spoke to we can summarise as follows:

  • It won’t be enough to push website owners into adopting more secure authentication mechanisms like two-factor authentication; passwords are just too user friendly and the alternatives would be too expensive.
  • The best we can hope for is it will encourage people to use password managers, or at least stop sharing passwords across sites, and improve the strength of those passwords.
  • It’s still not clear if this was as big a breach as claimed. We don’t know whether the details are current passwords, where they were obtained and exactly how. Fixating on the size is also missing the point a bit, as there are huge breaches every year.
  • Online firms should see this as a wake-up call. Patch those SQL flaws and keep passwords more secure – by doing this you’ll remove the “lower hanging fruit” these Russian attackers clearly went for.

Beyond that, Thales UK head of cyber security, Peter Armstrong told me he was disheartened to see Hold Security already trying to monetise its findings by charging for breach notification services.

“Once of the key building blocks that underpins the improvement in the global cyber defence posture is the preparedness of organisations to share threat intelligence. The creed and ethos here is we are only strong if we are strong together,” he added.

“Threat Information Exchange must remain a philosophy of openness and community benefit not individual benefit. This organisation [Hold Security] has derived benefit historically from this free information exchange helping them to amass the capability and intelligence to make this discovery in the first place. This kind of behaviour is likely to trigger black listing of organisations for bad behaviours from a community perspective and under those circumstances it is only the cyber criminals who benefit.”

For KPMG cyber security director, Tom Burton, the main issue here is whether passwords are still fit for purpose. He thinks not.

“The pervasive nature of the internet means mere mortals cannot possibly remember a different password for each and every website they have registered with, let alone passwords with strength,” he told me by email.

“In the short term, individuals must take a more risk based approach, maintaining strong and unique credentials for those sites that would create the greatest impact if breached (bank accounts and email accounts are two such examples) while being pragmatic and using common passwords for sites that really would be little more than an irritation if breached.”

For CISOs it comes down to risk management, and in many cases fortifying the organisation against such breaches may come higher on the agenda than dealing with advanced targeted attacks, he argued.

“It is too easy with modern processing to crack a large file of password hashes, and there will always be vulnerabilities that enable criminals to gain access to those hash files,” concluded Burton.

“If there is one thing that I feel is certain it is that this is unlikely to be the last announced breach of this kind, and is probably not going to be the largest.  If it doesn’t prompt businesses and individuals to rethink how they are protecting themselves then the criminals will have a bright future ahead of them.”