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The Coalfire Blog

Exercise your Incident Response Plan

November 07, 2011, Mike Weber, Vice President, Coalfire Labs

Mike Weber

So you’ve finally completed your Incident Response Plan.  You’ve named your team, defined roles, documented standard operating procedures, and establishing escalation processes.  Heck, you’ve even got training material.  So now what?  

Just like Disaster Recovery plans, you really never know if it works until something happens.  Or until you make something happen – in the form of an exercise.  Exercises are critical to ensure your plan actually meets real-world scenarios, and continues to do so as threats evolve and technology changes.   But exercises are hard to coordinate, can be very time-consuming, and could be quite costly depending on the testing methodology chosen.  Thus, most enterprises settle on table-top walkthroughs.  

Some say exercise planning is the hardest part of Incident Response planning.  They need to be meaningful to your business and comprehensive in their design, yet remaining engaging to your team and still practical to execute.  So where do you start?

Some ‘best-practice’ guidance for carrying out tabletop testing can be found in publications from NIST and US-CERT.  These guides document best practices approaches and considerations for conducting the testing and how to handle the outcomes.  NIST has a special publication that addresses some best practice methods to conduct tabletop testing, and US-CERT has a presentation that was geared toward industrial control systems, but provides good “bullet” formatted advice.  These are both great overall guides, but they don’t specifically address scenario development.  So how do you plan scenarios?   

Coalfire has seen many approaches to scenario planning, some better than others.  The most effective approaches all share similar characteristics:

  1. Work Backwards – Exercise scenarios should have recognizable impact to the business.  A good place to start is by reviewing the company’s Business Impact Assessment that the Disaster Recovery Plan is built from.  The BIA contains the functions that the business requires to operate and the systems that are most important to supporting that mission.  If you start by identifying a business objective that relies on IT services and could be impacted by an incident, you can work “outward” from the objective, to the systems and processes that support it, to their exposure to cyber security incidents.  
  2. Use the News – A key to getting team members engaged is to design scenarios that mimic security events that are in recent news.  I’ve worked with companies that have used things as trivial as cell phone hacking due to media coverage of Paris Hilton to base scenarios around.  These types of scenarios keep your team engaged and sometimes entertained throughout the exercise.
  3. Plan to Succeed – In scenario planning, it’s important to emphasize the positive.  If there are things that your environment will be able to follow through on well, be sure to work them into your scenario.  For example, if you have a Public Information Officer or Marketing group that provides public relations which your other team members may not be familiar with, it can help promote internal awareness.
  4. Plan to Fail – If you’re procedures have some perceived holes, craft scenarios that point them out so they can be addressed in the ‘lessons-learned’ process after the test.  Perhaps that would involve staff members that rely on portable or bring-your-own-device approaches that would point out coverage gaps under specific instances.  An example could be an intellectual property theft incident that might require forensic evaluation within the individual’s home – maybe in a different state – that your plan may be ill-equipped to handle.
  5. Leverage the Last One – Any testing you’ve done, whether it’s Disaster Recovery, Business Continuity, Incident Response – or even physical security tests – are sure to have findings that likely resulted in remediation.  IR tests can be leveraged to test other plans and/or effectiveness of remediation in other areas as well.

While this isn’t a comprehensive list, following just these five philosophical principles will allow you to develop scenarios that provide value to the business by being meaningful, current, engaging, and effective tests of your plan.

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