Is Your Incident Response Plan Actually Effective?

Morey Haber, August 29th, 2017

Incident Response Plan

As a security professional, I have seen a wide variety of best practices for incident response. The methodologies vary greatly based on the sensitivity of the data, requirements to notify law enforcement. Plus, the incident plan can differ dependent on where the services are located — with third parties, on premise, technologies or to hosted in the cloud.

Best practices recommendations exist everywhere from non-profit security organizations through regulatory compliance initiatives, but all suffer from the same problem — they are too painfully high-level to actually execute.

Every one of the standards will recommend having an incident response plan, assign roles and responsibilities, preserve critical log information, notify law enforcement, and prioritize restoration of services. Sounds great…but how?

This may sound innocuous, but creating an incident response plan is one thing, while actually using it effectively without a fire drill is a completely different enigma.

This is the focus of this blog: how do you take your incident response plan, regardless of its maturity, and actually make it effective? The answer? Periodic role playing and practice much as with regular vulnerable assessments and penetration testing.

To get started, first ask yourself how often you have fire drills at your office or even at home. You probably have the former at least once a quarter, but rarely do you ever practice fire safety at home — let alone tell your children what to do if there is a fire. This is the first step in exercising an incident response plan.

Typically, these plans require you to call out the roles and responsibilities for all the team members involved, but do they actually know what to do? Do they know what to do when the incident happens while someone is on vacation, in the middle of the night, or during a holiday? Who are their backups?

This may sound like a procedure maturity issue, but all too often these procedures call out executives and various team members, while they themselves are unaware of their roles or what their tasks and responsibilities are.

This is why when practicing an incident response plan, it is so important to reference their participation, including any context aware variables that may affect the plan outside of business hours. The results, good and bad, should obviously be re-rolled back into the plan. But…that’s a different problem we will discuss later.

A second problem is controversial and revolves around transparency. How much information should you disclose internally, to team members, and to the press or law enforcement?

During practice exercises, hypothetical scenarios should always include some form of catastrophic use case. This could include access to crown jewels, or data leakage that could be a game over event for the business, and include aspects that may have human liability, such as illicit photos or behavior.

Why? Teams need to learn how to communicate this information between each other in order to successfully navigate an incident response plan. The team also needs to understand what information not to share, duplicate, or make available outside of a secure and trusted inner circle.

For example, if you are building a component for a government contract, and there is a suspicion that designs have been inappropriately accessed, sharing the blueprints with incident team members is inappropriate.

The data may have been privileged before the incident and the policy for its control must continue to be monitored and adhered to during an incident response. Just because it may have been leaked does not remove existing security procedures, and teams need to learn how and what to communicate.

The same would be true for credit card or other personally identifiable information. Just because it may be leaked does not mean the files should be treated with any less security moving forward, including putting the data on an insecure share for preservation.

Teams need talk about… what can and what can’t be said? What can be share and what can’t be shared? Data transparency during an incident needs to be considered during the social aspects of any response plan.

One of the primary goals after any incident is to return to a normal operating steady state. The criteria may include remediating systems, restoring backups, and preserving logs and files suspected of having been manipulated during an incident.

The human factor for role-playing is time-dependent. Based on a catastrophic incident as the worst-case scenario, teams need to consider how long the restoration times of services may take, including collecting forensic information.

Without an effective role-playing implementation, an hour-long meeting in a conference room to review an incident response plan will never reveal the true pain of an outage that could last days if domain controllers, virtual instances, and infrastructure need to be restored.

The business may want to leverage disaster recovery procedures or high availability options as a method to mitigate lost revenue during an incident. This exercise obviously touches more team members outside of the core incident response team and only emphasizes the first concern in this blog: roles and responsibilities.

Incidents may have associated outages and then again, they may not. Planning, role-playing, and practice exercises should consider the worst case, assuming an environment may need to be completely rebuilt. If you think that is never possible; ask someone who has ever had a domain controller compromised or been a victim of ransomware.

The final piece of any incident response plan and practicing it is self-improvement. Creating a plan, never testing it, and filing it away so you can check the box on a regulatory compliance form is just pathetic.

We have fire drills for a reason. We need to learn how to survive when a life-threatening event occurs and cyber security incidents can be life-threatening to the business, your job, and depending on your line of work, the country or well-being of others.

Please do not misunderstand my message. I am not suggesting war games. I am suggesting actually following your incident response plan in a mock scenario and on a periodic basis to ensure that people know what to do, how to do it, and what to say. Then, anything that works, fails, or needs clarification gets baked back into the plan until the next scheduled practice.

This scheduled practice should match up to existing policies for penetration testing, cyber security awareness training, and may involve red and blue teams for the sake of realism.

Incident response plans need to evolve past being a documented procedure. They need to be a working part of any business and the success of the plan measures with appropriate metrics for response time to loss of services and revenue.

While this might not always be the case, and the incident may be trivial, the potential for a catastrophic incident can happen to any organization.

Reading a manual for the first time when it happens is never a good way to manage the crisis. This is why we have fire drills.

Other Suggested Reading:

Security Emergency Preparedness: Planning for the Next (Inevitable) Cyber Attack (on-demand webinar)

How to Access Privileged Passwords in ‘Break Glass’ Scenarios (white paper)

Break Glass Theory: Designing a Break Glass Process to Provide Security for Privileged Accounts (on-demand webinar)