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, an already existing 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 used by Fake Tesla Team 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.

Top Obama Administration Officials, Law Enforcement Reach Out at RSA Conference

loretta lynch at RSA

Attorney General Loretta Lynch addresses RSA Conference 2016

SAN FRANCISCO—Many of the Obama administration’s top brass are here in force, addressing some 40,000 practitioners from every part of the technology and information security industry at the annual RSA Conference. Set against the backdrop of the ongoing fight over between Apple and the FBI encryption and backdoors, the tension ebbed and flowed during sessions with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and Admiral Mike Rogers, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, and director of the NSA. While many speakers will not address the issue directly, the subtext is clear throughout the show, particularly as the public battle brings considerable interest to the privacy and security issues the RSA has centered on for 25 years.

Indeed, in his keynote address, RSA President Amit Yoran called law enforcement’s current stance on encryption “so misguided as to boggle the mind.” Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, chimed in as well, asserting that we cannot keep people safe in the real world unless we can keep them safe in the virtual world. He lauded Apple and pledged that the tech giant would stand with Apple in its resistance.

Ash Carter at RSA

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in Conversation with Ted Schlein of Kleiner Perkins at RSA

While the gravity of the issue and the massive potential impact for many in the sector are boggling many minds here, the administration officials’ sessions also offered more broadly positive comments for businesses outside the tech sector. The conciliatory tone Lynch and Carter often struck centered on the critical need for partnerships between technology and government. They tried to emphasize the ways the administration is reaching out to private entities, both within Silicon Valley and across corporate America at large.

According to Sec. Carter, for example, the United States Cyber Command has three core missions: defending the Department of Defense’s network; helping American companies, the economy and critical infrastructure; and engaging in offensive cyber missions. The second is a key pillar, he said, as the DoD must keep in perspective that the strength of American entities is the strength of the nation. From threat intelligence to the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental he announced yesterday, to be helmed by Google’s Eric Schmidt, Carter believes there is considerable need for industry to engage with government on cyberrisk, and both parties have valuable assets to contribute. “Data security is a necessity, and we must help our companies harden themselves,” Carter said. Indeed, he wants both help for and from the industry. In closing, he said, “We are you. You pay us. We represent you and our job is to protect you, and we’d love to have your help.”

He also noted that the DoD is trying to learn a bit about managing its cyberrisk from the commercial sector’s best practices. “We do grade ourselves and we’re not getting good grades across the enterprise,” Carter told reporters Wednesday, according to Defense News. “I have these meetings where I call everyone in and we have these metrics which tell us how we’re doing [and] if you don’t score well, that is evident to the Secretary of Defense at those meetings.

“We don’t assume for a minute that we’re doing a perfect job at this,” he added. “That’s the whole reason for me to be here and the whole reason for me to be engaging with this community here at this conference.”

Carter also announced that the Department of Defense will be hosting “Hack the Pentagon,” a bug bounty program offering white hat hackers cash for finding and reporting vulnerabilities in the Pentagon’s websites. Many companies have been offering these programs to try to discover their exposure in a controlled setting, without the risk of reputation damage, personal information exposure and business interruption that accompany an unknown hacker finding them instead. Carter called these a “business best practice” to gauge preparedness.

Federal law enforcement also has a notable presence at RSA and is making a pronounced effort to reach out to businesses regarding cyberrisk, threat intelligence, and managing a cyberattack. Indeed, in one session Tuesday, panelists from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and the White House urged a call to action for businesses to get serious about proactively building bridges with law enforcement and to make use of the many resources the administration is trying to activate to help private industry fortify against cyber threats. The government is working to make it easier for companies to turn to it for help, they said, and attitudes are shifting to more consistently recognize and respect victimized businesses and minimize business interruption.

Some in the audience expressed skepticism, such as one man who seized upon the Q&A portion of a session on government departments’ specific roles in fighting cyber criminals. He asked how the government can be trusted to help industry when it cannot protect itself. But corporate entities should be taking note, particularly of the services available. While many hesitate to share threat intelligence or even successful attacks, Eric Sporre, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division, stressed that FBI Director James Comey has made it a directive for FBI field offices to develop relationships with local businesses and to treat businesses as crime victims, not perpetrators. In responding to attacks, he noted, the Bureau sometimes even brings in victim services to holistically approach aiding in the investigation and recovery process.

Andy Ozment, assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications at the Department of Homeland Security, also highlighted the preventative measures his department offers companies, including personal risk assessment services. In some cases, chief information security officers and other executives engaged in cyberrisk management functions have been getting DHS assessments, using them as a tool to drive investment or otherwise sell cyber upwards with the board or C-suite of their organizations.

Crisis Management in the Age of Cybercrime

[The following is a guest post by Richard S. Levick, Esq, president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications. You can Follow Richard on Twitter @RichardLevick where he comments daily on risk management and crisis management.] 

Immense as it may be, the March 30 Global Payments data breach that dominated headlines is only the latest in a series of events that made this current crisis eminently predictable. If there are any illusions that this breach was anomalous, consider the extent to which high-profile data breaches similarly dominated headlines in 2011.

Sony suffered over a dozen data breaches stemming from attacks that compromised its PlayStation Network, losing millions and facing customer class action lawsuits as a result. Cloud-based email service provider Epsilon suffered a spear-phishing attack, reportedly affecting 60 million customer emails. RSA, whose very business related to on-line security, experienced an embarrassing and damaging theft of information related to its SecureID system, necessitating an expenditure of more than $60 million on remediation, including rebuilding its tattered reputation.

And the list goes on.

Right now, just about all businesses face cyber risks. The worst include intellectual property losses due to economic espionage — by far the greatest risk to companies — as well as data breaches and ideological “hacktivists.” And the growth rate of those risks often exceeds a company’s ability to fight them.

Over the last decade, companies have experienced exponential increases in the volume and type of their digital assets along with an explosion in the types of storage devices that house them. With enterprise resource planning software, email, cloud computing, laptops, iPads, smart phones, and other portable devises, companies may have data storage systems that number in the hundreds. Managing and securing critical information has become a commensurately more daunting task.

As the situation grows worse, many boards and senior management now take a head-in-the-sand approach to cyber-threat management. A recent survey from Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab analyzed the cyber governance policies of the Forbes Global 2000. Its findings are troubling. “Boards and senior management are still not exercising appropriate governance over the privacy and security of their digital assets,” states the report. Less than one-third undertake even the most basic cyber-governance responsibilities.

These findings are supported by an in-depth look at cyber-crime published by PricewaterhouseCoopers late last year. According to the survey, which polled nearly 4000 executives from 78 countries, while cybercrime ranks as one of the top four economic crimes (falling just after asset misappropriation, accounting fraud, and bribery/corruption), 40% of respondents reported that they had not received any cyber-security training. A quarter said that their CEOs and boards do not conduct regular, formal reviews of cyber-crime threats, and a majority reported either that their company does not have – or they do not know whether their company has – a cyber crisis-response plan.

Welcome to the risk management officer’s worst nightmare.

According to the Ponemon Institute’s most recent statistics, the average cost of a data breach is $7.2 million with the average cost per compromised record coming in at $214. But the damage done by a cyber-breach goes well beyond the initial information loss. Real costs from business interruption, intellectual property theft, lost customers and diminished shareholder value due to reputation damage all can — and do — inflate those figures. In fact, for 40% of respondents in the PwC study, it is the reputational damage from cybercrime that is their biggest fear.

As cyber-risks continue to grow, companies must therefore focus on reputation as well as strengthening the mechanisms with which data is secured. A few things are imperative.

Boards and senior management must take responsibility for crisis response. Their objective must be to crystalize the company’s crisis instincts – to make crisis response part of the institutional DNA.

Crisis plans are actually counter-productive if they are created simply to be put on a shelf and read only when they are needed. Particularly in the context of cyber-crime, a realm in which new risks seem to emerge almost daily, the need to revisit and revise the plans is exigent. Regular rehearsals, refinements, discussions and additions transform the culture into one rooted in not the possibility but, rather, the expectation of crisis.

Education of employees is imperative. Employees often assume that securing company information is solely the responsibility of company IT specialists – an assumption fraught with risk. Every employee in an organization has the responsibility and the means to protect company data.

In addition to education, the key for companies is to keep less information in the first place, according to Paul Rosenzweig, Esq., founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting, PLLC. Backing up data on the other end is also vital. And while there are attendant costs involved, they are well worth it, he says. “In a world in which the bottom line is everything and the benefit of your expenditure may be recaptured only over years, if ever, this is hard,” said Rosenzweig. “It may well seem like all cost and no benefit in the beginning – that is, until the day it is all benefit and no cost.”

Companies must also designate a response team and ensure that all participants understand their roles. During a crisis, the response team must make critical decisions with too little notice and too little information. Regular meetings ensure that team members understand their individual responsibilities and develop trust in one another. Periodic crisis team exercises allow companies to capture what goes right and what goes wrong in each simulation. The lessons learned are critical when a real crisis is at hand.

When a data breach does occur, companies must make full disclosure as quickly as possible and let stakeholders know how they plan to remediate the situation so that it will not recur. Focusing on corrective future initiatives can restore trust.

With the advent of new technologies, the risks for companies are now greater than ever. Companies’ ability to recognize this moment and transform the way they think about their information is key to long-term sustainability and brand value.