15 Practical Tips for More Effective Cybersecurity Incident Response
Building an effective cyber incident response plan requires more than having the right tools in place or engaging the right cyber incident response services. As a security leader, you’re responsible for building the right security foundation and fostering a culture of teamwork and open dialogue during a crisis. Summarizing a recent webinar, this article will explain:
- 3 Common Pitfalls in Cybersecurity Incident Response
- 8 Practical Tips for Building an Effective Incident Response Team
- 4 Technical Fixes to Reduce the Likelihood of a Breach
It almost goes without saying that everything is connected to the internet these days. It’s a business enabler and a necessity in the global economy. But it’s also a playground for cybercriminals.
The good news is the impact of cyberattacks like ransomware can be minimized or entirely prevented with an effective incident response plan in place. And it doesn’t require fancy techniques like AI and machine learning. Don’t get me wrong AI and machine learning can help detecting attacks. But they are frequently overrated. It won’t do the job we would all like to think it can do.
Based on our team’s experience investigating breaches for clients, here are the common pitfalls we see CISOs fall into during an incident and some practical tips for avoiding them.
Table of contents
Three Common Pitfalls in Cybersecurity Incident Response
There are three characteristics that come up again and again in organizations that experience an incident, and they are all totally avoidable.
#1 Speed-Based Trust – Thinking Security Vendors Will to Do the Full Job for You
Collectively, we have a culture of outsourcing trust. Where we used to trust our peers or institutions, we are now in an era of outsourced, “speed-based” trust. We assume trust in exchange for convenience.
Just as we trust Uber to get us to the right location safely, we trust our security vendors to keep our organizations safe. None of these security vendors, however, can fully address our security issues. We’re going to have gaps.
We call this a Swiss Cheese Model of security. While an MSSP or EDR solution may have you covered when it comes to detection and response, you’re still going to have to assume responsibility for applying patches to close any backdoors that may go undetected and ensure that your systems have secure configuration.
#2 Not Doing the Basics (It Was Never Going to End Well for the Titanic)
Almost worse than the Swiss Cheese Model of security is the Cyber Titanic Model. In the Cyber Titanic Model, you believe you have built a ship that can’t sink. You believe so much in the tools you have invested in, that you let your guard down. Maybe you even relax your security requirements.
Eventually, the boat will sink, and you will not be prepared.
Investing in endpoint detection and network security makes sense, but you need to balance it with basic security practices. If you don’t have a solid foundation of patching, configuration, segregation and hardening, you will just be investing in a sinking boat. Too many times we see breaches that could have been prevented if the basics were in place.
#3 Not Understanding Where to Harden vs. Add New Solutions
To put a finer point on this, detection technology isn’t the end-all-be-all when it comes to preventing an attack. Often security vendors will use the MITRE attack framework to show you how much coverage they can give you across the phases of attack. This can be helpful but also misleading.
Detection is not the only way to prevent attacks. You can also use MITRE to understand where you need to harden your system to make it harder or impossible to breach your security at each phase of attack, to begin with.
Tips for Building a More Effective Incident Response Team
Building a more effective incident response team requires more soft skills than technical skills. Leadership, communication, and policy are critical to improving response outcomes. Here are my top tips.
#1 Understand Organizational Bias
We all have bias, because we have experience in certain areas and blind spots in others. Having bias is not the issue. It becomes a problem when you do not recognize the bias.
As a CISO, you will have to understand the bias of your team. They may have a limited view of an issue because they are specialized in a specific area of security. You need to identify the biases, articulate them, and map them. This is foundational to addressing incident response blind spots.
Watch out especially for the more expert or senior team members who may be very confident in explaining an issue, but don’t have the whole picture.
This can cause the organization to focus on a very narrow component of security without addressing the entire ecosystem.
#2 Bridge Skills to Avoid Bias
One way you can break through the bias is bringing different teams together to solve a problem. Ask questions that require teamwork to answer. Instead of “Are we secure?”, ask “How bad could it get?”
Then put together a purple team to work together to create a joint report with agreed upon points of action. This creates a culture of exchange. Teams with better communication will be much better equipped to respond in a crisis situation.
#3 Develop KPIs with Value
Bad KPIs run rampant in security. Security can be hard to report on. But because we want to prove our value, we end up reporting on KPIs that don’t actually mean anything.
We say we blocked one million attacks on our firewalls or we processed three trillion events, because we want to look like we are effective. But what do these numbers actually tell us? If we say we blocked one million attacks on a firewall, all that communicates is that we configured a firewall. If you’re asked for those numbers, challenge the requester, and ask what they’re really trying to understand.
Instead, I recommend going smaller and more actionable with your metrics. Rather than how many attacks we blocked, try reporting on metrics like these:
- # of common attack vectors removed
- # of new techniques added to detection coverage
- % decrease in the attack surface
#4 Shrink Your Digital Footprint
Think about all the data stored in email, your Google accounts and your mobile apps. All of that data can be exfiltrated. Reducing your personal and corporate digital footprint also reduces the impact of a successful attack.
When data is no longer needed, delete it rather than archive it. If you have a legal requirement to keep the data, encrypt it and store the keys off the server. Encrypted data leaks have little to no impact on security, as long as the secret keys remain secret!
Further, how you store data is important. If you have a document on SharePoint called “Insurance Policies” or “Digital Assets Value”, you are giving an attacker a flashing arrow to the documents they need to hold you ransom. If they know your insurance policy is for one million dollars and that one day of disruption would cost your company ten million dollars, they know exactly what to ask for.
#5 Augment your team
Major incidents require more work than your day-to-day security operations. It would be difficult to scale your internal team for such a situation.
Bringing in external partners can help augment your incident response team. Remember to look beyond security when it comes to team augmentation. Your incident response plan will likely include system administrators, cloud administrators, etc.
As a rule of thumb, if you don’t have a dedicated team member working on a required security discipline on a monthly basis, you may need to find an external partner in the event of a breach. While thinking about this, don’t forget your IT. You’ll need to augment your IT operation capabilities. Rebuilding an infrastructure can absorb a lot of resources.
There are different options. Emergency response support, preparation and resilience support. The best option to go for is usually an 24/7 incident response retainer, because you have guaranteed response support when things go wrong. It’s a safe investment – many companies will ensure the retainer can be reassigned to another program, if not spent on incident response services.
#6 Explore Different Response Paths
There is no one-size-fits-all incident response plan. It is up to you, the CISO, to explore different paths and choose the one that will work the best for the organization. In some cases, it may make sense to choose the plan that results in the least business impact. In other cases, it may make sense to err on the side of security.
Augmentation, as mentioned above, can help your team move faster and work on steps in parallel. After all, your incident response process should not be linear; that will only slow things down. If you do augment your team with an external partner or security provider, carefully consider their recommendations and the tradeoff between value and cost.
For example, forensic disk imaging might make sense as part of the plan, but it could overwhelm your IT team with time-consuming tickets. Additionally, security providers may take advantage of an organization’s desperation during an incident, knowing they’ll do anything to get business back up and running.
Challenge every recommendation and request. Look at the types of requests, the costs and hours associated. Ask “Is this really necessary?” or “Could we do this differently?” Explore all the different response paths and choose a way forward.
#7 Foster Open Dialogue
Creating a culture of open dialogue during an incident is incredibly important. If people are afraid to speak up or ask questions, you will not be able to accurately assess the team’s understanding of the question. There are a number of reasons a team member may not feel comfortable asking questions:
- Fear of looking stupid
- Tensions within the team
- Power dynamics created by an authority figure or expert
Asking questions may how you don’t understand something. But not asking questions, will mean that you remain ignorant.
As a CISO, you need to be able to spot this behavior and act on it very quickly. You must ensure that everyone has the right level of understanding to do their work. It’s how you will turn an incident into a constructive, rather than destructive, experience where everyone is learning from each other.
#8 Show Your Appreciation
Breaches are stressful for everyone in the organization. As a C-level, you can send signals to your team that you understand the toll an incident takes on them and their families.
It could be as simple as providing food, drinks, and a place close to the office for the team to stay. For remote employees, you could provide a meal of their choice for themselves and their family. It sends a really strong message that you appreciate the work that they (or their mother, father, spouse) is doing to help the organization. These types of signals can change the mood.
Four Technical Fixes to Reduce the Likelihood of a Breach
In addition to the nontechnical guidance above, I’d like to leave you with four of the low-hanging technical fixes that could significantly reduce the likelihood of a breach. In 70% of the cases we’ve investigated, one of these four best practices was missing.
#1 Proper Segmentation
Often in breach scenarios we find the organization has a flat network, which makes it much easier for the threat actor to move through.
#2 Zero Trust
Understand the zero trust framework and how to apply it in your organization. Achieving zero trust won’t happen overnight. It’s very iterative work, so be patient.
#3 Timely Patching / Emergency Patching
Threat actors will quickly be there to exploit new vulnerabilities. For that reason, it’s important to have an emergency patching plan in place. Ask yourself “Do I want to have an operational issue or a security issue? Would I rather have a system down or data leaked?”
Misconfiguration can have a huge impact, and so, proper configuration can also have a huge impact. Sometimes it’s just a small detail that is overlooked that would allow an attacker to gain access to something they shouldn’t.
Get in Touch
It is my hope that if you follow the advice presented in this article, that you will never need our services. However, if you do experience a breach or if you would like a pre-emptive review of your current configurations, architecture, or incident response plan, please get in touch with our incident preparedness and response team here.