Security vendors are a noisy bunch. There’s too much hyperbole and alarmism within our industry, and at times this can be self-defeating, muddling the cyber essentials with the nice-to-haves in an incessant din that leaves CISOs resenting the would-be protectors almost as much as they resent the hackers that are attacking them.
Hence it’s important to stick to the facts around the risks posed to your business. The Government tells us that more than two in five UK businesses uncovered breaches in the last year. Given that it takes an average of almost 200 days after the initial occurrence to identify a typical data breach, combined with the truth that not every breach is reported, it seems reasonable to estimate that more than half of UK businesses are now being hacked every single year.
Now, alarmism aside, that means your business is odds-on to be attacked before Santa Claus next comes to town, making it the ideal time to audit your existing cyber defences and ensure you’ve taken every step to minimise the potential entry avenues that could be exploited by hackers. But it’s also high time you created a response strategy in preparation for the event that the business is penetrated at some stage in the future. After all, blind panic is rarely a helpful form of remediation, and a great many companies manage to escalate potentially serious cyber scenarios to out-and-out crises by failing to keep a cool head and thus missing vital response steps – some of which carry their own legal or regulatory ramifications.
So, below we’ve included a short walkthrough of how to avoid panic and address the essentials should you discover that you’ve become a hacking victim:
- Close the door: If it’s an individual machine that has been compromised, disconnect it from the internet and other machines; if you fear multiple points of entry, consider what needs to be disconnected and for how long, to assess the extent of the attack. In extreme cases, a temporary shut-down may be the only viable means of isolating the incident.
- Alert the leadership: Businesses need to assume collective responsibility for cyber breaches from the top down – this is too big a burden to be born by the IT department. Making the wider leadership team aware of the issue is an essential first step, given the range of compliance procedures that will have to be fulfilled further down the line.
- Assess the damage: This may be easier said than done if a hack attack is widespread, but you should attempt to get an early read on the level of damage as this will inform the steps that must follow around comms and legal proceedings. If a broader assessment is needed, assign a team to investigate more thoroughly and/or bring in a trusted third-party to help undertake the work and arrive at certainty.
- Seek legal guidance: You should chat to your company’s legal team about cyber security irrespective of whether you’ve been hacked, in order to formulate a response plan covering as many types of breach as possible and giving your legal eagles the chance to construct well-considered guidance for each scenario about the necessary remedial steps that must be taken to. If in doubt, when the attack happens, get your legal team on the phone at the earliest opportunity.
- Internal and external comms: Every hack will have different ramifications, but it’s likely that employees will have to be informed as quickly as possible – particularly if they need to change practises/behaviours as a consequence. It may be necessary to communicate the information to suppliers, as many cyber attacks originate within firms’ broader supply chain networks. Finally, from regulators to insurers to the media, it’s crucial that your communications strategy considers every audience that needs to know about the hack. Do some advance planning and formulate a communications strategy – again based on a variety of incident types – with a clear timeline for engaging each audience in each circumstance.
- Tell your customers/the public: Informing your customers, or the public at large, should form a central part of the communications strategy. However, it’s worth singling out this audience, as it’s your customers that need to be kept on-side at all costs, particularly if their data has been compromised. Many companies suffer far more reputational damage in the aftermath of a breach than they do during the attack itself, almost always due to a failure to communicate clearly, quickly and honestly with the audiences that matter most.
- Review the causes, plug the gaps: Being hacked once doesn’t make you immune to the risk of future attacks. In fact, if there’s a vulnerability in your organisational defences, whether the result of a poorly patched network of machines or a lack of employee awareness, then hackers will go on exploiting it until the vulnerabilities are eradicated. So once the above mitigation steps have been taken, get to work on figuring out how the hack occurred and how future attacks can be prevented.
Remember, creating an effective response strategy is not a task that can be solved by a simple checklist. This is a serious business; indeed, an entire industry has arisen that is dedicated to helping companies respond to cyber attacks more effectively. But before you shell out for third-party support on building your response strategy, it’s worth checking out the NCSC’s website to help you better determine what the most appropriate steps are for your business. And whatever you do, don’t panic!