Security Experts:

Why a Dog Bite is a Lesson in Handling Cyberattacks

A few weekends ago, my dog bit me. In his defense, it was dark and I had tackled him unexpectedly to stop him from walking off our under-construction, railing-less deck. It hurt, but at the time I didn’t realize how critical my next actions would be. It was late, I had house guests, and I decided to dress the wound myself. But by the following afternoon, my hand was in clear need of professional medical attention—and antibiotics—fast. 

Like dog bites, the negative impact of cyber incidents can go from bad to worse quickly—and the first 48 hours are critical. Here are four areas to consider when attacks occur:

Assess the scope and scale of the impact: Discovering a cyber incident can be a challenging time for any company but calling on a seasoned incident response (IR) team can help. Typically, an IR team would begin an engagement with a scoping or triage call to get a better understanding of what’s happened. They would need to know what activity has been identified, what technology is used in the environment, and whether any external parties have been involved, for example, solution vendors or law enforcement organizations.

Plan and act to limit damage: Following an initial assessment, the IR team (often, a primary IR investigator and a support investigator) would meet with a system administrator, IT manager, or a member of the C-suite to define objectives for the first 24, 48, 72 hours, and the longer term.

The IR team’s efforts generally focus on the basics—getting critical systems up and running, restoring normal operations, expelling the attacker. Dependent on the type of incident, these workstreams could include data collection, acquisition of memory and hard drive images, and log and triage-level analysis. Of course, incidents are highly stressful, meaning they are rarely , straightforward or issue-free. For example, a company may have never looked at the data that the IR team is requesting or, worse, does not know where the data exists within the environment, in which case the team may need to spend precious hours working with the company to identify the location.

Be aware of the big picture: A common mistake many organizations make is trying to respond to an incident without first understanding its full scope. Too often, initial steps to block an attacker or “contain” an incident can backfire and give attackers the advantage. For example, if an attacker senses an intervention, he could easily embed deeper into the environment and become harder to track and stop.  

It’s important not to declare victory too soon. Incident responders can often discover that a compromise is much broader than initially thought. Some victims may think that if they’ve identified where or how an attacker got in—for example, they’ve discovered patient zero—only remediation is necessary. But an attacker has likely used more than one method to gain access to systems and without further investigation and a proper root cause analysis (RCA), it’s unlikely the organization is seeing the big picture.  Adversaries who make the effort to get into an organization will make even more effort to maintain their foothold. To improve cyber resilience, it’s imperative for organizations to gather as much intelligence about an incident as possible, and to feed that intelligence back into an overall security program. 

Expect the unexpected: Every company, environment, and incident is different. Some companies will have a more mature cybersecurity model and better understanding of their environment, making the IR team’s job easier, while others will need a lot of help to navigate the crisis.

Like seasoned emergency room doctors, IR professionals have “seen it all”; they are calm in a crisis and can apply their knowledge and skills to put things right.  So, although many of us like to think that cyber incidents can resolve themselves, the truth is that seeking professional help from the outset is more likely to deliver the best outcomes—not to mention the peace of mind that comes from acting fast.

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Erin O’Malley is an incident response delivery support manager at Accenture Security, FusionX, Cyber Investigation and Forensics Response (CIFR), where she teams with incident responders and threat hunters to document and catalog incident report findings and highlight the value of taking an adversary-based approach to minimize the risk, exposure, and damage of cybersecurity incidents. Prior to joining Accenture, Erin was a security solutions marketing manager at Gigamon. Other past roles have included product marketing for virtualization and cloud security solutions at Juniper Networks and customer marketing at VMware. She has written and edited for GE Digital, WSGR, Business Objects, and the TDA Group, and holds a B.A. in French from Penn State University and an M.A. in French from Middlebury College. The opinions and statements in this column are solely those of the individual author, and do not constitute professional or legal advice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of Accenture, its subsidiaries, or affiliates. No representations or warranties are provided, and the reader is responsible for determining whether or not to follow any of the suggestions or recommendations, entirely at their own discretion.