10 Lessons Learned from Breach Response Experts

SAN FRANCISCO—As hacking collectives target both the public and private sectors with a wide range of motivations, one thing is clear: Destructive attacks where hackers destroy critical business systems, leak confidential data and hold companies for ransom are on the rise. In a presentation here at the RSA Conference, the nation’s largest cybersecurity summit, Charles Carmakal and Robert Wallace, vice president and director, respectively, of cybersecurity firm Mandiant, shared an overview of some of the biggest findings about disruptive attacks from the company’s breach response, threat research and forensic investigations work.

In their Thursday morning session, the duo profiled specific hacking groups and the varied motivations and tactics that characterize their attacks. Putting isolated incidents into this broader context, they said, helps companies not only understand the true nature of the risk hackers can pose even in breaches that do not immediately appear to target private industry.

One group, for example, has waged “unsophisticated but disruptive and destructive” against a number of mining and casino enterprises in Canada. The hackers broke into enterprise systems, stole several gigabytes of sensitive data and published it online, created scheduled tasks to delete system data, issued ransom requests, and even emailed executives and board members directly to taunt them about the data exposed and increase the pressure to pay. Further increasing that pressure, the group is known to contact journalists in an attempt to publicize the exposed data. Victims have endured outages for days while trying to recover data from backups, and some have paid the ransoms, typically requested in the range of $50,000 to $500,000 in bitcoin.

Mandiant refers to this group as Fake Tesla Team because the hackers have tried to seem a more powerful and compelling threat by claiming they are members of Tesla Team, a far more sophisticated group that launches DDoS attacks. As that group is thought to be Serbian, they have little reason to target Canadian entities, and indeed, the bits of Russian in Fake Tesla Team’s code appears to be simply translated via Google.

In all of the group’s attacks that Mandiant has investigated, the hackers had indeed gained system access and published data, but they exaggerated their skills and some of the details of access. Identifying such a group as your attacker greatly informs the breach response process based on the M.O. and case history, Mandiant said. For example, they know the threat is real, but have seen some companies find success in using partial payments to delay data release, and they have found no evidence that, after getting paid, the collective does anything else with the access they’ve gained.

Beyond considerations of specific hacking groups or their motivations, Carmakal and Wallace shared the top 10 lessons for addressing a breach Mandiant has distilled from countless investigations:

  1. Confirm there is actually a breach: make sure there has been a real intrusion, not just an empty threat from someone hoping to turn fear into a quick payday.
  2. Remember you face a human adversary—the attacker attempting to extort money or make other demands is a real person with emotional responses, which is critical to keep in mind when determining how quickly to respond, what tone to take, and other nuances in communication. Working with law enforcement can help inform these decisions.
  3. Timing is critical: The biggest extortion events occur at night and on weekends, so ensure you have procedures in place to respond quickly and effectively at any time.
  4. Stay focused: In the flurry of questions and decisions to make, focus first and foremost on immediate containment of the attack.
  5. Carefully evaluate whether to engage the attacker.
  6. Engage experts before a breach, including forensic, legal and public relations resources.
  7. Consider all options when asked to pay a ransom or extortion demand: Can you contain the problem, and can you do so sooner than the attack can escalate?
  8. Ensure strong segmentation and control over system backups: It is critical, well before a breach, to understand where your backup infrastructure is and how it is segmented from the corporate network. In the team’s breach investigations, they have found very few networks have truly been segmented, meriting serious consideration from any company right away.
  9. After the incident has been handled, immediately focus on broader security improvements to fortify against future attacks from these attackers or others.
  10. They may come back: If you kick them out of your system—or even pay them—they may move on, perhaps take a vacation with that ransom money, but they gained access to your system, so remember they also may come back.

Eliminating Language Barriers Between Information Security and the C-Suite

Whether or not security operations pose a core focus to a company or are an afterthought, the largest obstacle now affecting business and security outcomes is the language barrier that exists between security teams and the C-Suite.

In general, security groups’ budgets have increased over the years, with organizations adding more vendors to the mix, “layering” security with the latest new tool to address the latest threat. One of the newest such tools is “threat intelligence” which organizations are using to form an “intelligence-led security” program, a security operations center, or incident response capabilities. While threat intelligence and other solutions hold the answers to many of the important questions executives ask about cyberattacks, this terminology means nothing to C-level executives, nor does the output from these systems and programs. What does it mean that you have stopped one billion attacks this past month? What impact have the 30 incident responses you’ve run over that same period of time had on the business? What’s the significance to reducing response time from one month to one day?

Executives running and overseeing a company have two primary concerns: increasing revenue and shareholder value. There is a big disconnect between security and the C-suite because they speak two different languages. One is a very technical language that needs a translation layer to explain it to the executives. The other is a very strategic language that needs to be conveyed in a way that makes security part of the team and company, and ensures alignment and participation with the business units and executive suite.

What’s the fix? Communication. Each group has to understand the other at least enough to relay the core concepts as they apply to the other and in a language the other understands. As a first step, some companies are adding a technical expert—a “designated geek,” if you will—to their board of directors so they can work on improving communication and understanding. While that can help, it takes a lot more to make sure priorities, efforts and results don’t get lost in translation.

A Two-Way Street

Executives need to include the chief information security officer or chief technical officer as part of their strategic discussions and make sure that security leadership has the ability to push that communication down to their teams in a way everyone understands. To that end, CISOs and executives need to train their security operations personnel to ensure they understand the business. This starts by asking some critical questions:

  • Does every member of the security team understand what is it that you sell/produce/provide?
  • What are the things your security teams need to watch out for to protect revenue?
  • Many organizations operate large industrial control systems. If your organization has such a system, is your security team aware of this?
  • If your company is moving into the cloud or is about to launch a mobile app, does your security team know about this and have you enabled them to get the right monitoring in place to protect it?
  • Have you involved the security team as you were designing that new revenue stream, or evolving your business model in some other way, to be sure that security isn’t an afterthought?

These are just a few examples of how executives need to think about the enterprise to ensure that security is strategically aligned. It is incumbent on the business to train the security personnel on its priorities so that security teams can look for attacks that are important to the business and take action.

Likewise, security teams need to change how they communicate to the C-suite. Every security team should conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify who needs to be informed of what and when. It all comes down to content, format and frequency. Make sure you have regular communications with not only your peers in security and network operations, but with the business units, risk management, C-level executives, the board of directors, and anyone else in the company that is involved in the day-to-day objectives and operations of the company. The CISO should be the link to make this connection happen, working with executives to establish regular communication.

There is no “right way” to communicate. Some executives and boards are more technical than others. Security teams need to take the time to learn what type of communication will be most effective or forever struggle to align security with the business. Sticking with the generated metrics of number of events, alerts and incidents per month has far less impact than an update that contains the “who, what, when, where and why” of a thwarted attack. For example: “We identified and stopped one attack this month from a cyber espionage group targeting our Western European manufacturing facility, which is responsible for $20 million per year in revenue to the company.”

For those in security who feel they can’t deliver such a statement because their security infrastructure doesn’t provide that kind of information about threat actors and campaigns, there is a path forward. Look into creating a program that uses adversary-focused, contextual cyber threat intelligence and make sure you understand enough about your business to know the impact of threats against the various business units. With the communication gap closed, and security and business goals aligned, organizations can become more secure, and profitable.

Delta Outage Spotlights Technology Risks


Delta’s computer outage on Jan. 29 was over by midnight, but its effects have extended into the week, not only resulting in 170 cancelations on Sunday, but grounding more than 100 flights on Monday and causing many delays. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the company’s mobile apps were also not working.

This latest incident follows another computer outage for Delta in mid-August, when flights were canceled for two days, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.

Such outages can be costly. A Southwest Airlines outage in July caused more than 2,000 flights to be canceled and cost about $54 million. The August Delta outage, which involved a fire, resulted in cancellation of 2,300 flights over three days and cost the airline $150 million in lost revenue, according to USA Today.

Jim Corridore, an analyst at CFRA Research, told USA Today on Monday that Delta’s computer outage puts a “spotlight on risks of airline technology infrastructure, much of which is old and patched with differing systems.” He said that airlines build new programming over old software, especially after a merger, when computer languages may differ. Programmers’ assumptions about how software will work are sometimes wrong.

While large companies such as Delta would have fewer outages with more testing of their systems, this is an expensive proposition.

According to USA Today:

Gil Hecht, CEO of Continuity Software, which tests computer systems for large banks and insurers, compared the construction of complex computer systems to a layer cake, with web servers, database software, storage and possibly interaction with other systems such as government computers that check whether passengers are allowed to fly.

“Testing should be done by every single layer and every single business service that participates in the critical infrastructure, and some of them are simply not under the airline’s control,” Hecht said.

He compared one way of testing to running a car into a tree to see whether the airbags work, which isn’t possible while keeping a computer system working. Instead, testing for a large financial institution or airline must confirm that each layer is configured to work well with all the others, he said.

“In order to do that, critical infrastructure operators must do much more testing, whether it’s manual by humans or by technology or by any means possible,” Hecht said. “Yes, it costs money. Quite a lot. But if more money and more effort will be driven into testing, we will have far less down time and data-loss events.”

Organizational Complexity Poses Critical Cyberrisk

According to a recent survey on IT security infrastructure, 83% of businesses around the world believe they are most at risk because of organizational complexity.

“Employees are not following corporate security requirements because they are too difficult to be productive, plus policies hinder their ability to work in their preferred manner,” noted the Ponemon Institute’s “The Need for a New IT Security Architecture: Global Study,” sponsored by Citrix. “It is no surprise that shadow IT is on the rise because employees want easier ways to get their work done.”

Shadow IT, the information technology systems built and used by an organization without explicit approval, has largely cropped up because employees feel official tools are too complex or otherwise difficult and inefficient. As a result, company data is being put on personal devices and official business is conducted on platforms that enterprise security teams can not monitor or secure.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents said their business needs a new IT security infrastructure to reduce risk. With increasing amounts of sensitive data stored, new technology like the internet of things adopted, and new cyberrisk threats constantly emerging, addressing individual security challenges may be impossible, Citrix Chief Security Officer Stan Black told eWEEK. Rather, companies should focus on larger issues like controlling complexity, developing and maintaining strong incident response plans, and rigorously vetting vendors with access to systems or responsibility for storing data.

Check out more of the report’s findings in the infographic below:

organizational complexity cyberrisk