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SMBs Should 'Game' incident-response

Incident-response exercises are valuable at helping companies respond more quickly to security events, but they can also help educate businesses about the importance of being prepared
Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) rarely call up security consultants asking for help in improving their incident-response program. But when they do call, they are usually panicked and in the midst of a real security incident.

While incident-response preparation has become increasingly important, most firms -- especially SMBs -- will push off the creation of an incident-response plan until the future. Playing through an incident-response simulation -- a game -- can help, security experts say. Creating a plausible scenario for a security threat to the business is much easier than trying to create a policy from whole cloth and helps to educate management on the impact of potential security threats.

In essence, gaming can be the first step for a small company to get an incident-response plan off the ground, says Dylan O'Connor, chief technology officer for Thrive Networks, a Staples company.

"A lot of small businesses do not have the help they need to get started, and they tend to think that an incident-response plan is something that has to be done in a certain way," he says. "Instead, they should just break it down into parts and attack the issue systematically."

With companies of all sizes failing to keep out malware and online attackers, security experts are increasingly recommending that businesses focus on detection and incident-response. Business intelligence firm Gartner has perhaps made the case the strongest, calling companies "utterly insane" if they relegate monitoring, detection, and incident-response to second-class citizenship.

[ICS/SCADA experts test continuous monitoring approach as a way to spot denial-of-service, malware, and other attacks. See Experiment Simulated Attacks On Natural Gas Plant.]

For SMBs, incident-response is arguably more important because many do not have the resources to attend to their defenses full- time. Incident-response exercises can help SMBs not only better prepare for potential security pitfalls, but also can convince upper management that the company does need to spend resources on preparing to handle security incidents, says Rob Kraus, director of research for the Solutionary's Engineering Research Team (SERT).

"No incident-response program will get off the ground until the owner buys in," he says. "There is a significant benefit to having an [incident-response] plan in place, but how effective that plan is will determine how short the mitigation time line is."

Many startups and small technology companies are well-acquainted with the idea of agile software development. Porting those ideas to the realm of incident-response can make the process much easier to start up, and then improve along the way. Rather than spending a great deal of money on the creation of a policy and response plan, a simulation can give a company concrete steps towards improving and documenting their response.

When creating a simulation, companies should focus on incidents that may have happened in the past or that could be a real threat to parts of the business, says Ted Julian, chief marketing officer for Co3 Systems, a provider of incident-response cloud services. Co3 sees a lot of clients dealing with lost laptops and phones, faxes and letters sent to the wrong addresses, and distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS).

"There are a million things that you can do, but you should base it on where your risk is," Julian says. "It is always sexy to focus on the cyber break-in, but, at the same time, tons of data is lost through executives losing laptops."

Lost and stolen devices are a problem that should likely be a focus of almost every company, Solutionary's Kraus agrees.

"I have organizations that have never been DDoSed, but lose, on average, eight to 10 laptops per year," he says. "Obviously, DDoS is important, but we want to address the bigger issue first: the potential loss of personally identifiable information [PII]."

Even practicing for nonsecurity events can help companies better handle breaches in their defenses. Taking a page from a disaster-recovery incident, for example, companies may want to establish an account on a group texting service to send information to employees if mail servers are down. While this is most useful during power outages, hurricanes, or earthquakes, a company's e-mail may not be available if they were taken down for forensics or are considered compromised and unreliable, says Thrive's O'Connor.

"Communications during any sort of event is critical," he says.

In the end, companies gain a number of other benefits aside from preparing for an incident. By pulling in groups such as human resources, for example, that may not otherwise have considered security issues, an information-technology manager can better train staff and build support among other groups in the company.

"By definition, you are achieving a whole number of great awareness and education objectives along the way," Julian says. "And that is a much broader objective for any security team."

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Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer