Time to Revise and Update Your Incident Response Program

The last couple of years has seen a truly disturbing increase in the sophistication and effectiveness of cyberattacks. It seems that private cybercriminal organizations and those of nation states are feeding off of, and even actively supporting each other; sharing techniques and malware. Attacks are coming fast and furious from various angles that are difficult to predict. If it isn’t attacks against vulnerabilities in the DNS system, it’s exploits of weaknesses in cloud containers, input-output systems, or some other technical problem. Added to that are the ever-present threats of phishing attacks, application compromises, zero-days and ransomware attacks. What’s coming next is anyone’s guess, but I doubt very much the situation is going to get better or easier to cope with. Despite these difficulties, though, this is not the time to throw up our hands in despair. This is the time to prepare as well as may be.

One factor that makes all of these cyber-woes worse for any organization is panic. When people are surprised and unprepared, they often either freeze up and do nothing, or they do the first thing that comes to their minds no matter how inappropriate. In other words, they panic. And the more important the attacked resource is, the greater the panic that ensues. The Military has had to deal with this situation since time immemorial, and they have come up with some effective methods of dealing with it. We would be well advised to take advantage of this hard-won knowledge and apply to our own incident response plans.

The first step is to construct a program that is adapted to dealing with both the expected and the unexpected. In order to deal with the expected, we need to be constantly updating our incident response procedures to include the new attack vectors being used by the “enemy.” An example of this would be supply chain attacks. Does your current IR plan have specific information about and processes for responding to a supply chain attack? Is there information about recognizing the characteristics of a supply chain attack and how to deal with it in a step-by-step format in the plan? How about ransomware? DNS poisoning attacks? I recommend that someone from the incident response team should keep informed about the latest attacks vectors and methods and ensure that the whole team is made aware of these emerging attacks. Any that pose credible threats to your organization should be dealt with. These matters should be researched and specific methods for reacting to them should be developed and practiced. The best way to document these processes are checklists and/or decision trees. The Military has found that clearly documented processes accompanied by repeated training is the surest way of avoiding panic and making right decisions under stressful conditions.

This leads me to methods for preparing your IR team for dealing with the unexpected. Again, I’ll take a cue from the Military. Dealing effectively and calmly with the unexpected in incident response is largely a matter of mindset. As they teach recruits in the Marines, you need to learn to adapt and overcome. The problem is, when you are at panic-level stress, it is exceedingly difficult to think calmly, rationally and logically. Training is the answer to this problem.

Personnel should understand the signs that they are heading towards panic and practice using their logical minds to help control their emotional responses. This is admittedly a difficult thing to do, and the only way I know of to go about it is to practice. IR training sessions should be conducted often, and part of that training should be aimed at preparing the team for handling stressful and unexpected situations. To accomplish this, I recommend unannounced incident response training sessions that the team has no idea are not real. If the team does not believe that the incident is really occurring, they will never become inured to the stress of the situation. They must learn on a visceral level that the worst thing one can do under stress is to surrender to unreason and panic. After all, a calm and rational human mind is the most effective tool and problem solver in the known universe.