Cool in a crisis

Learn from the misfortunes of your peers and prepare to defend against repeat use of the same cyber-attack techniques as part of your defence planning advises David Stubley.

Cool in a crisis
Cool in a crisis

In today's world it is inevitable that organisations will suffer cyber-attacks.  When an organisation is attacked their incident management procedures will be key in sustaining the company through the crisis.  However, with large scale breaches continuing to cost organisations and individuals dearly as well as hit the headlines, more could be done to improve incident management procedures.  

Preparation is key to any planned response but it can be difficult for organisations to anticipate what will be required in the event of an incident.  For many organisations, incident response procedures plan to tackle scenarios identified through business continuity risks or following internal incidents.  Procedures are often completed or reviewed as part of an annual business planning process by those with a focus on the business. This results in an introspective focus that can leave incident management procedures lacking. 

An introspective focus does not effectively anticipate the full suite of scenarios that an organisation may face in responding to an incident.  Such an internal emphasis does not take into account the evolving threat landscape or the changing external environment in which the organisation operates.  Without placing incident response measures in this dynamic external context, organisations may find their response measures are lacking in the face of current attacks.

Of course, gaining information about factors external to your organisation, such as threats, is often an insurmountable challenge, but organisations have an opportunity to carry out reviews of the breaches of their competitors or other organisations similar to their own.

Groups conducting attacks, whether for financial gain or other motives, will frequently use the same methods of compromise.  This fact has clearly been demonstrated in the recent attacks on the electronic point of sale systems in the US retail sector and the on-going use of targeted phishing emails to gain access to corporate networks.  There are also previous attack trends of utilising SQL injection or memory scraping malware as attack methods to draw upon as examples of attack methodologies being reused.  The use of similar methods by attackers means that organisations have an opportunity to identify attack approaches and vulnerabilities that could be applicable to them.  Organisations should therefore look to use the experiences of others within their sector to enhance their own incident management procedures.

While it is accepted that the full details of the incident will not be publicly available, many industries have information sharing forums and employees build up relationships with their counterparts in other organisations.  It is likely that an organisation will be able to garner sufficient information to identify vulnerabilities exploited by attackers and key attack vectors.  This information can be used to review the incident and determine if the organisation is itself vulnerable to such an attack.  In short organisations should conduct a post-incident review of the incidents that impact on other organisations.

Using the information available, an organisation can identify potential attack scenarios and whether they are likely to be breached as a result.  By playing out these scenarios within the context of their own environment, organisations will be able to identify if they have compensating controls in place or where they may be required.  Once compensating controls are in place organisations can then test their effectiveness in the context of these scenarios and therefore gain assurance that they are not exposed to the attacks their peers have suffered.

This process may be assisted by experts such as security testers, ordinarily external to the incident response planning process.  Penetration testers can provide insight into the scenario planning and assessment process.  By the very nature of their jobs, penetration testers are often skilled at identifying and understanding attack vectors.  By using such experts, organisations will be able to add more rigor to their assessment of scenarios as well as challenge preconceptions.  Ultimately this will result in a more resilient approach to incident response.

Reviewing the incidents of others will enable organisations to anticipate the types of attacks they may be vulnerable to and prepare for them, ultimately keeping cool in a crisis.  By keeping abreast of the threat landscape, spotting trends within relevant industries and reacting to the external environment, organisations will be able to plan effectively for incidents, if not reduce the likelihood of a successful attack. Should an attack occur, organisations will have more resilient incident response measures in place with which to tackle these anticipated threats. By learning from others' misfortunes organisations may be able to avoid the pain of going through a similar experience.

Contributed by David Stubley, CEO 7 Elements Ltd