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Ricky Link
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Customers Aren’t the Only Victims: 5 Stages Of Data Breach Grief

What can we learn from organizations that have experienced a data beach? For one thing, infosec teams on the front lines of cyber security are also victims.

Data breaches are now common events that affect an organization in many ways besides attorney fees, lost business, reputational damage, and system remediation costs. Back in 1970, in a now classic book, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, which identified five stages of grieving and emotions that terminally ill patients experience. It is my contention that organizations have to deal with similar data breach grief.

  1. Denial. The organization’s initial reaction helps soften the realization that technology, people or business processes have broken down and customer data has been exposed, leaked, or compromised. This stage may last for a few hours, days, or months depending on when the organization confirmed the breach.     
  2. Anger. All organizations have irate doubters who refuse to acknowledge a data breach was caused by a software programming error or a lost laptop with unencrypted data, or that the compromised system did not follow established security hardening procedures.
  3. Bargaining. There are always people in an organization who will insist that they just need another chance and they insist that a breach will not happen again. This is despite the fact that customer data is already in the “Internet wild.” Promising to do better in the future is neither timely nor practical.
  4. Depression. All organizations wish they had handled things differently. There will be individuals who will be unable to concentrate and second-guess their plan of action to contain the breach.       
  5. Acceptance. It is typically very difficult to recognize when the critical fifth and final stage is reached after a confirmed data breach. However, it is at this point that management understands that security needs to be an ongoing process in order to protect the confidentiality, availability, and integrity of the customer data.   

Table 1: Data Breaches in 2014
Company Month “Loot”
Target January 40M credit cards
Neiman Marcus January 1.1M credit cards
Michaels January 2.6M credit cards
Aaron Brothers February 400,000 credit cards
IRS March 1.4M personal data records
eBay March 233M eBay Customer Rewards
Spec’s Liquor April 550,000 bank credit cards
PF Chang’s June 33 Stores’ credit cards
Community Health Services June 4.5M personal data records
UPS August 60 Stores financial data
JPMorgan Chase August 76M individuals contact information
Goodwill Industries August 868,000 credit cards
Home Deport September 56M credit cards
Apple iCloud September Celebrity photos
SuperValu September Undisclosed number of credit cards
Dairy Queen October 395 Stores credit cards
Sony Pictures November 5 Unreleased movies, lost productivity
Source: Coalfire Systems

Taken together, these breaches total more than 100 million credit card numbers, over 313 million personal records, and at least a few dozen celebrities in shots their publicists did not pre-approve for release.

What can we learn from organizations that have experienced a confirmed data beach? For one thing, individuals on the front line of defending their organizations against the entire world of cyber criminals may be victims themselves. They may experience the same disappointment and grief as a customer whose data is compromised. They are confused. They may feel a lack of focus and confidence in themselves. They may have sleepless nights and an increased level of anxiety.

The modern, real-world cybercrime landscape is dynamic and ever-changing, and the people, processes, and technologies required to remain secure are constantly expanding. There are ingenious and well-orchestrated attacks on various organizations of all types and sizes, as noted in the table above, that cause executives to lose their jobs. Chief information security officers are constantly barraged with demands to do more with less, while keeping the organization secure at the same time.

Data breaches are always costly and disruptive in an emergency situation. They can be just as taxing on an organization’s employees. Of course, most of this stress can be avoided by preventing a security incident before it happens. As painful as an IT audit or security penetration test may feel while you are going through it, it is simple in comparison to the stress and stakes involved in a serious data breach.

Ricky Link is the managing director in the Dallas office of Coalfire Systems. Coalfire is a fast-growing IT governance, risk and compliance firm, serving as a trusted advisor to security-conscious leaders in all industry groups. He is a member of the senior management team ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/27/2015 | 10:16:07 AM
Re: I'll stick with stage 2
I totally agree with you on this. Most companies that have suffered a breach usually transfer the agression to the CSO and his team, which I personnally think is a coward way of coveing their asses. Security is a joint work in process, one that is easier to maintain when it is a top - down approach. I'm all for Ricky on this, if the CSO is going to be fired because of a breach, then the CEO should as well be fired.

Thinking about this, it leads to another discussion of when will mangement start considering CSOs for the CEO position. Like seriously.. why cant CSOs be CEOs?
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
2/26/2015 | 11:05:31 AM
Re: I'll stick with stage 2
Tom, I love your idea of having the punishment fit the crime. In POTUS proposed new data breach regulations, executives of companies that have experienced a data breach should be made to spend the average amount of time it takes for a data breach victim to fill out webforms and wait in a call center queue.. Pefect!
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Ninja
2/25/2015 | 3:31:25 PM
I'll stick with stage 2
I plan on remaining angry at Anthem. The fact that Anthem's incompetence at security costs me time just isn't right. Instead of a fine or legal action, Anthem exectutives should be sentenced to call each of the credit reporting services' support lines, and then to fill out web forms, on behalf of each affected customer. That would amonut to life in voice jail, but it would be an appropriate sentence.
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