Games people play: testing cybersecurity plans with table-top exercises

If a picture is worth a thousand words, and video is worth many multiples more, what value is an interactive experience that plants you firmly in the hot seat during a major security incident? Reading about cyberattacks or data breaches is useful, but it can’t replicate the visceral feeling of a table-top exercise. Variously called war-gaming scenarios or simulated attacks, they can be a valuable way of helping boards and senior managers understand the full implications of cyber threats. More importantly, they can shed light on gaps where the business can improve its incident response procedure.

These exercises are designed to be immersive. They might start with a scenario like a board meeting, or a company orientation day. All participants will get a role to play; for the purpose of the session, they might be designated as a head of HR, finance, legal, or IT. As the scenario starts to unfold, a message arrives. The press has been enquiring about a major data breach or a ransomware attack on the company.

Muscles tighten, a wave of nausea passes over the stomach. The fight-or-flight instinct starts to take hold. Your role might say manager, but you don’t feel like you’re in control.

What happens next?

That will depend on how much preparation your business has done for a possible cybersecurity threat. Some companies won’t have anything approaching a plan, so the reaction looks and feels like panic stations. At various points during this exercise, the facilitator might introduce new alerts or information for the group to react to. For example, that could be negative commentary on social media, or a fall in the company stock price.

The exercise should prompt plenty of questions for the participants. What exactly is going on? How do we find out what’s happened? How is this affecting operations? Who’s taking charge? What do we tell staff, or the public, or the media?

A growing sense of helplessness can be a powerful spur to make rapid changes to the current cybersecurity incident response plan (assuming there is one).

Other organisations may already have a series of steps for what to do in the event of an incident or breach. In these cases, the table-top exercise is about testing the viability of those plans. You can be prepared, but do the steps on paper work in practice? Or as Mike Tyson memorably put it, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

The exercise can show the value of having a playbook that documents all procedures to carry out: “if X happens, then do Y”. This will also shed light on missing steps, such as contact numbers for key company executives, an external security consultant, regulators, law enforcement, or media.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

When it comes to developing or refining an incident response plan, the devil is in the detail, says David Prendergast, senior cybersecurity consultant at BH Consulting. Here are some useful questions to ask:

  • If your policy says: ‘contact the regulator’, ask which one(s)
  • Who is the specific point of contact at the regulators office?
  • Does the organisation have the email address or phone numbers for that person?
  • Who in your company or agency is authorised to talk to the regulator?
  • What information are they likely to need to have that conversation?
  • Do you have pre-prepared scripts or statements for when things might go wrong (for customers, stakeholders, staff, and media (including social media channels)?

It might also force the company into making certain decisions about resources. Are there enough internal staff to carry out an investigation? Is that the most appropriate use for those employees, or is it better to focus their efforts on recovering IT systems?

That’s the value in table-top exercises: they afford the time to practice when it’s calm and you can absorb the lessons. There are plenty of examples of companies that handled similar situations spectacularly badly in full public view. (We won’t name names, but the list includes anyone who uttered the words “sophisticated attack” before an investigation even started.)

By the (play)book

It’s more helpful to learn from positive examples of companies that showed leadership in the face of a serious incident. That can be as simple as a statement of business priorities while an organisation copes with the fallout. In 2017, as Maersk reeled from a ransomware infection, CEO Soren Skou gave frontline staff in 130 countries clear instructions. As the Financial Times reported, the message was unequivocal even as the company was forced into shutting down IT systems. “Do what you think is right to serve the customer – don’t wait for the HQ, we’ll accept the cost.”

Some larger companies will run an exercise just for themselves, but some organisations run joint war-gaming scenarios with industry peers. Earlier this month, financial institutions and trade associations from around Europe carried out a simulated ransomware attack.

According to FinExtra, the scenario took the form of an on-site technical and hands-on-keyboard experience. There were 14 participants at CISO and CIO level, along with many more observers from other companies in the financial sector. The aim of the event was to encourage collaboration and information sharing with other teams and organisations to improve collective defences against cyber threats.

Whether it’s a war-gaming exercise or a table-top event, the goal is the same: to be ready for the worst ahead of time, and knowing what steps are available to you when bad things happen for real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.