Cyber LockDown

Features - Cover Story

A cybersecurity awareness culture is critical to the success of your company. Employees must understand how their actions impact the cybersecurity posture of your company.

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July 22, 2019

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If you are not educating your employees on cybersecurity best practices, you are missing the biggest opportunity for improvement in your entire cybersecurity profile. Your employees have business-need access to a lot of important data, and their ability to protect that data – or to inadvertently let it walk out the door of your organization – is strong.

Lack of education was at the heart of a number of incidents of a major security breach. You have probably heard about the new HR employee that got an email from the president of the organization asking for all the W2 information on every employee, so that person sent them exactly as instructed. The employee did not recognize the fact that the email came from a hacker impersonating the CEO, and a major security breach took place.

Entire business models are based on this kind of fraud. Let’s pretend that I am going to build a site with the world’s best collection of cute pet pictures. I’ll give you the first 10 for free (and those 10 are the most adorable pictures you have ever seen), but to see more, you need to set up a username and password. The access is still free, though.

No big deal, right? Wrong. In this scenario, I own this website and I am a criminal, and my business model is to try to use the username and password you just entered at every major banking website, on all major email providers, on your company’s VPN portal, and anywhere else that I think you might have used the same username and password. I will then extract any valuable information I can from those sites, sell the information for a profit, possibly ransom your own data from you to make even more money, and then move on to the next victim.

Need some numbers to illustrate why educating your employees about cybersecurity practices is important?

  • Per IDG’s 2016 Global State of Information Survey, 48 percent of data security breaches are caused by acts of malicious intent. Human error or system failure account for the rest.
  • According to the Ponemon Institute, 60 percent of employees use the exact same password for everything they access. Meanwhile, 63 percent of confirmed data breaches leverage a weak, default or stolen password.

So where can your company start? Start with a training program. Your employees need to be educated on cybersecurity best practices. One of the issues that any cybersecurity awareness training program should address:

Implement real password policies.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it: Passwords stink. They are no fun to create, no fun to remember, and no fun to type in. That being said, passwords are still the most common authentication method today. It is imperative to implement a password policy requiring complex passwords that can’t easily be guessed, and end-user training to go along with it. Microsoft’s Active Directory “require complex passwords” setting is a start, but end-user training is also mandatory.

Many users use the same passwords for every online system they need a password for. This is a problem. If one site gets hacked, cybercriminals will try your credentials at all common websites, and possibly at your business’s VPN. It is imperative that your cybersecurity awareness training program encourage your team members to use different passwords for different sites, and especially for any system that your company uses.

Most companies have some sort of safety guidelines that their employees must follow or be aware of and cybersecurity should be no different. There are a number of companies that specialize in this type of training, and they may or may not be a good fit for your company culture. Picking the right type of training is critical; having a good cultural fit is more important than the actual content. Be sure to do proper due diligence to ensure that the training content offered by the company or companies you are considering is a good fit for the culture of your company.

Today’s cybercriminals come at your company from many angles. Their motivations are often more practical than many law-abiding citizens would expect:

Profit. They want money, and you have information they can monetize.

Influence. They can use data to manipulate business or personal situations in their favor.

Power. If your company dominates an industry or owns critical trade secrets, others wish to take that power away from you and use it for their own advantage. Cybercrime is one way to accomplish that goal.

Motives such as these change the way cybercriminals operate. They are organized. They share information amongst each other. They are often well-funded. These things make them more dangerous. In the example above, David Yen Lee is an internal cybercriminal. He is one of your employees.

This is a difficult topic. While it’s true that internal employees are responsible for a large number of cybersecurity breaches, it’s also true that most of these are unintentional. They are a result of good people doing something they shouldn’t, either out of ignorance or because a cybercriminal tricked them into doing it (if you saw the movie Catch Me if You Can this is Frank Abagnale’s social-engineering behavior). Statistics on the exact percentage of “insider” cyber breaches that are deliberate vs. inadvertent vary widely, but the opinion can be held that the vast majority of insider threats are not malicious. No matter which statistic you believe, everyone agrees that many insider threats would have been prevented if the insider had understood how his or her behavior allowed a breach to occur. It’s easy to see why a good cybersecurity awareness training program is so important to the success of your company.

That being said, there is a risk of an employee with malicious intent to breach your sensitive data. Whether it be to share sensitive details to a competitor, profit from your data, or a disgruntled employee looking to carry out revenge against your company. If your company falls victim of a malicious-intentioned employee, finding out what happened is even more difficult because they often have high level system privileges that allow them to erase their tracks.

If your company is one of the unlucky ones where an insider deliberately caused a security breach, then you are automatically in the highest risk category of those susceptible to cybercrime. The keys to mitigate this risk are simple:

Educate Your Employees. Establish a strong mandatory and frequent cybersecurity awareness training program for your employees that clearly lays out the policy for cybersecurity and the consequences of violating the policy. Don’t allow employees to take home devices that contain sensitive files due to the risk of the device being stolen or sensitive data being transmitted over insecure networks at their home or other locations. Instruct your employees to never share their passwords.

Know your People. Perform background checks on your employees to assist in identifying those that may take deliberate actions that would harm your company. Know which people have access to the most sensitive data.

Guard your most sensitive data. Limit your employees’ ability to obtain access (intentional or unintentional) to sensitive information via a least-privileged approach to your data. Identify your most sensitive and valuable data. Then assign that data the highest safeguarding and most persistent monitoring.

Remove “local administrator privileges” from your users to their company-provided laptops or desktops. A “local administrator” is someone who can do anything he or she chooses to with a computer, such as install programs, delete files, change sensitive security settings, and so on. Turning on “egress filtering” on your network and limiting the use of USB “thumb drives” will make it harder for anyone to make copies of it and move them outside of your organization.

Ensure that you have forensics available to you. Tracking down an internal cybercriminal requires logging of network activity, especially for any access to sensitive information. Any logs need to be stored in an area that is limited to the fewest number of employees as possible.

In short, your employees are your most valuable asset, but can also be your greatest liability. They need to be trained on best practices to keep your data safe, and they also need to understand that you have forensic systems in place that will likely catch them if they attempt to access data they should not. A “trust but verify” approach regarding employee access to your critical intellectual property is an important part of your company’s cybersecurity program.

Bryce Austin is the CEO of TCE Strategy, and actively advises companies across a wide variety of industries on effective methods to mitigate cyber threats.

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There’s been an incident. Now What?

The critical misstep when dealing with a cyber attack is the failure to have an incident response plan in place to lead you through the crisis.

“I have been investigating a large number of failed logins on your server. Due to the volume of failed attempts, it appears the attempts are coming from an outside source. My company recommends you reach out to a security firm to have your network investigated for a possible breach.”

He couldn’t believe what he was reading. A local cybersecurity professional was forwarded the email above from his new client’s outsourced computer management company. The owner of the business was concerned, and for good reason. They had only brought him onboard as their part-time cybersecurity advisor the month before, and the vendor that manages their network had kicked this ball squarely into his court. He had to figure out what to do – fast.

The priorities were simple:

  • Alert his client’s executive team about the situation.
  • Determine if this is or is not a real hacking attempt.
  • If it is a real hacking attempt, determine how it is occurring.
  • Assess if the hack was successful in any way. Was any damage done? Was any data accessed?
  • If the hack was unsuccessful, terminate the hacker’s access immediately.
  • If the hack was successful, start making calls to his client’s CEO, their cybersecurity insurance carrier, a third-party company that specializes in breach remediation, and my client’s attorney.
  • Follow-up with root-cause analysis and recommend preventive measures.

It took more than 10 hours to determine the extent of the issue. Cybercriminals had breached a single server, and a malicious program was running on that server. It was trying various dictionary words as passwords against common “administrator” level accounts. He breathed a tiny sigh of relief to see it had only started several hours earlier and appeared to be moving ahead at full steam, which meant the bad guys had most likely not yet been successful at cracking an administrator-level password.

The cybercriminals gained access into that server via a combination of a phishing email and a bad firewall configuration. Thankfully, forensics found no evidence of further intrusion.

His blood pressure return to a more reasonable level.

This example is real. And while it represents the best possible outcome of a cybersecurity incident, it was used here to make multiple points. This client didn’t have a playbook on what to do when a cybersecurity incident is suspected, so they had to make it up as they went. Doing so took extra time and might have led them to miss obvious steps.

The company did not have documents outlining how to bring operations back online if the hack had been successful, nor did they have procedures to follow if it was determined sensitive data had been stolen. Their IT services vendor wasn’t well trained in how to get to the bottom of the technical issues quickly, which lengthened the incident by hours. The client didn’t have a list of whom to call if a cybersecurity incident was suspected, which made the phone number to their cybersecurity advisor the only number they thought to use. What if he was unavailable when this took place?

In a nutshell, they didn’t have their act together, and it showed.

After an incident occurs, your company will be judged on the following criteria:

  • Before the incident, did your company take all actions to prevent the incident one would expect of a prudent organization?
  • Did your company respond to the incident using procedures one would expect of a prudent organization?
  • Are there any ways the media could portray your actions around steps 1 and 2 to make your company appear to be culpable or incompetent? If true, expect they will. It attracts more readers.

A robust playbook includes the CEO, legal counsel, and senior leaders will do immeasurable good in your ability to respond to an incident. An incident response playbook needs several key elements to be effective. It must:

  • Identify who in your organization has the authority to declare a cybersecurity incident. Who can initiate the playbook?
  • Spell out how much money that person can authorize to be spent to have an incident investigated or remediated.
  • Have a list of the types of scenarios it is designed to cover. Examples include the loss of sensitive data, a ransomware attack, the loss of a critical system, natural disasters, law enforcement contacting your organization about a warrant or subpoena, and the loss of the use of one or more of your sites due to a natural disaster or because of other issues (such as a crime taking place in the building and the police barring your employees from entering the premises).
  • Have a call tree that includes people or groups to call.
  • Define the people or groups responsible for making the decision on when to bring in law enforcement.
  • List the people authorized to speak to the media about a cybersecurity incident, and what those who are not authorized to speak to the media should say if they are approached by a reporter.
  • List all of your critical systems, the location of the data in those critical systems, and the location of the backups of the data for those systems.
  • Outline your general incident-response process. While every scenario is different, this process normally follows these steps: preparation, detection/analysis, containment, eradication, recovery, incident closure/root-cause analysis, and preventative measures.
  • Be reviewed on a frequent basis. These plans get stale quickly, and need to be reviewed whenever a significant change in your organization takes place.

If the above points are reviewed as a group, an interesting trend emerges. Most of them are non-technical. The majority are operational and financial in nature. That is a critical misstep in many incident response plans. If your technology team manages your incident response plan, they are making business and financial decisions that should be made by CEOs and COOs and CFOs and legal counsel.

Above all, your incident response plan needs to be tested. Unless you have rehearsed an incident response procedure, you’re only able to guess if it will work. This is too important to be left to guesses.