How to Respond to a Cyber Security Incident

Every day another company is caught off guard by a data breach. While avoiding an attack is ideal, it’s not always possible. There’s no such thing as perfect security. Even...
Michael Buckbee
4 min read
Last updated December 29, 2022

Every day another company is caught off guard by a data breach. While avoiding an attack is ideal, it’s not always possible. There’s no such thing as perfect security. Even if you’ve outsourced your IT or your data lives in the cloud, ultimately the responsibility for keeping your customer data safe falls on your shoulders.

In the unfortunate case that your company suffers a breach, you should be prepared to address it swiftly. To help, we created an easy to implement plan that outlines ways to proactively respond and recover from a cyber security incident.

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Avoid

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Avoiding an attack is best whenever possible – but it’s just as important to have a cyber incident response plan in place in anticipation of an attack.

Take Inventory

What information is mission critical to your organization? Where does it live? How quickly can it be reinstated if it’s taken out in an attack?
Perform a complete audit of your systems, take note of the most important components, and track everything . Make sure you are not the only person aware of this document.

Pick a Team (or Two)

Now that you know what is most important, make sure all the relevant players are aware as well. Nominate one person as the IT owner in the event of a cyber attack. This individual needs to be readily available in case of an emergency, and equipped to manage the many internal technical components involved with recovering from a breach.  Nominate a second person to own the management of external needs of a breach – such as outreaching to public relations, getting in touch with the organization legal counsel, etc. Both of these roles are critical for a timely and effective response. Just to be safe – pick a second in command for both teams. After all, no man is an island.

Make a Plan

You know the data, you have the right people in place – now it’s time to develop an actionable plan and provide specific, concrete procedures to follow during a cyber incident. The procedures should address:

  • Who has lead responsibility?
  • How to contact critical personnel, and what data, networks, and services should be prioritized for recovery.
  • How to preserve data that was compromised by the intrusion and perform forensics to review for gaps in security and insights into the actual attack.
  • Who needs to be notified (data owners, customers, or partner companies) if their data or data affecting their networks is stolen.
  • When and what law enforcement will be brought into the picture, as well as any regulated reporting organizations.

Need a little more guidance? The California Department of Technology has a wonderful outline available online that is a great starting point!

Once developed, this plan should NOT live in a bubble. Make sure everyone on the team is aware and has read and reviewed. In addition, take time to appraise the plan every quarter for relevancy and update as necessary. Unfortunately, security is not static. Also, this is important; it should be tested PRIOR to an actual cyber incident. Tornado, zombie apocalypse or biblical flooding is NOT the time for a try-out.

Address

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Despite all your planning, preparation, and good intentions – what happens if (when) you are struck by a cyber attack? First things first – implement your cyber incident plan as soon as possible. Take a critical assessment of the situation. Does it appear to be a malicious attack or a simple tech glitch or misconfiguration? Once you’ve determined intent (and it’s not good), it’s time to collect and preserve the impacted data, and put the rest of your plan into action.

Who You Gonna Call?

Shhh…it’s not Ghostbusters! You should already have this information in place and readily available in your cyber incident plan. Start your outreach right away and begin with your response owners and work your way down the line. For example, the “external” owner at your organization should notify law enforcement, possible victims and the Department of Homeland Security, if necessary. Overall, the best approach is transparency. No one wants to admit to a breach. However, hiding critical information or delaying notification can backfire. A good approach involves being as direct as possible, highlighting the known and promising a timely follow up on any unknown. As always, keep it simple and straightforward. Don’t make promises you cannot keep or address concerns that are not valid.

You Might Need a Professional

Sometimes an internal response team just isn’t enough. Fortunately, there are many third-party organizations that specialize in incident response and can help you navigate through the breach. The fresh set of eyes can look at the breach in a way internal staff – already vested in the company and outcome – cannot. They can help you discover exactly what has been accessed and compromised, identify what vulnerabilities caused the data breach, and re-mediate so the issue doesn’t happen again.

Verify, then Reinstate

Finally, verify that your backup data was NOT compromised. It would be “no es bueno” to restore your system using data that you believe is valid, only to discover that your backup was just as bad as your compromised data.

Action

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Even after a cyber incident appears to be under control, remain vigilant. Many intruders return and attempt to regain access to networks that they previously compromised. It’s possible that, despite your best efforts, a hacker could STILL find a way into your system. They are a slick, determined bunch.

Monitor & More

Continue to monitor your system for out of the ordinary activity. Invest in a software solution that utilizes User Behavior Analytics to recognize unusual behavior and notify prior to an actual attack. Varonis, for instance, will recognize and notify about both external and internal threats before irreparable damage can be done.

Just the Facts Ma’am

Once your organization has recovered from the attack, it’s time to thoroughly review what happened, and take steps to prevent similar attacks. What went well with the cyber incident response plan? What may need just a wee bit of tweaking? Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the plan, and determine what needs adjusting. Implement the changes. You’ll be glad you did if (when) you are attacked again.

React, Revise & Revisit

Protecting against a cyber incident is a full-time job. As ransomware evolves and the insider becomes a consistent threat, it’s important to continuously revise and revisit your Cyber Incident Response plan:

  • Keep your plan up to date.
  •  Have the right technology in place (including lawful network monitoring) to address an incident.
  • Hire legal counsel that is familiar with the complex issues associated with cyber incidents.
  • Make sure existing corporate policies align with your incident response plan.

A cyber incident is never something you want to face. However, being proactive and prepared will make a huge difference in your response.

What should I do now?

Below are three ways you can continue your journey to reduce data risk at your company:

1

Schedule a demo with us to see Varonis in action. We'll personalize the session to your org's data security needs and answer any questions.

2

See a sample of our Data Risk Assessment and learn the risks that could be lingering in your environment. Varonis' DRA is completely free and offers a clear path to automated remediation.

3

Follow us on LinkedIn, YouTube, and X (Twitter) for bite-sized insights on all things data security, including DSPM, threat detection, AI security, and more.

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