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Incident Response

The ability to respond to a security threat or incident is becoming increasingly more important in today's world. The efficiency with which an organization responds to a given threat can make the difference between a thwarted attack, and tomorrow morning's headline story. Unfortunately, organizations often don't realize this fact until it's too late. However, this shortcoming can be avoided with a pro-active incident response model. Hammering out incident response (IR) policies and procedures beforehand will not only save embarrassment, but time and money as well.

Although today's information security challenges call for a defined IR strategy, the real-world need for incident response pre-dates computers by more then a century. Before taking a look at this need, let's take a brief look at the history and certification of one of the oldest security devices—the safe.

"Tan," a member of the hacker think-tank L0pht, published a paper in the late '90s on the need for a Cyber Underwriters Laboratory. He drew some interesting comparisons between the origins of the UL rating system for safes and the current challenges in the field of security certification. He begins the paper by providing a brief history of the Underwriters Laboratory:

Underwriters Laboratories was founded in 1894 by an electrical inspector from Boston, William Henry Merrill. In 1893, Chicago authorities grew concerned over the public safety due to the proliferation of untamed DC circuits and the new, even more dangerous technology of AC circuits. These new and little-understood technologies threatened our society with frequent fires, which caused critics to question whether the technology could ever be harnessed safely. Merrill was called in and set up a one-room laboratory with $350.00 in electrical test equipment and published his first report on March 24, 1894.

Back in Boston, insurance underwriters rejected Merrill's plans for a non-biased testing facility for certification of electrical devices. Chicago, however, embraced the idea. Merrill took advantage of the situation in Chicago to get up and running and within months had support at the national level.

Today, UL has tested more than 12,500 products world-wide and is a internationally recognized authority on safety and technology. The UL mark of approval has come to provide an earned level of trust between customers and manufacturers and safely allowed our society to leverage hundreds of inventions that would have otherwise been unfit for public use.

Today, the UL labs are famous for testing many products, one of them being industrial-strength safes. Infamous cryptography expert Bruce Schneier has often pointed out that part of the UL rating for safes is based on how long it will take an attacker to break into the unit. For example, a rating of TL-15 signifies 15 minutes with the use of tools (saws, hammers, carbide-tipped drills, and so on), whereas a rating of TRTL-30 signifies 30 minutes with the use of tools (TL) and a torch (TR). Now, in the real world, these times are important because they set some level of expectation regarding how long an organization has to respond to an attack. For example, if you know that the police and your security guards will be able to detect and respond to an intruder in less than 5 minutes, a TL-15 rated safe might be sufficient for your organization. If, however, you will be thwarting skilled attackers and your response ability is closer to 20 minutes, you might be better off with a device touting a rating of TRTL-30.

Now, transferring this over to the world of information security, this method of approaching the problem has its problems. For example, Tan states in his paper:

The first problem is that if a security system is defeated in the physical world, it is typically very obvious to those who come into work on Monday and see that the money is gone and the safe is in pieces. Detection of a cyber intrusion is typically NOT very obvious to those who come into work on Monday. Because of this fact, safe crackers have very limited time to crack a vault. Hackers, on the other hand, have unlimited time to crack a system. Once they get in, safe crackers typically REMOVE items which then become 'missing'. Hackers typically COPY items unless their motives are political rather than financial, leaving the originals and the system intact. For cyber intrusions to become less surreptitious, intrusion detection needs to mature and become more widely deployed if 'time' is to be a meaningful factor in the process.

The author's points are extremely valid. Making matters worse, Tan assumes that you have something watching your systems, and the ability to respond to such cracking attempts if or when you detect them. Most organizations have neither.

If businesses do not have the ability to properly identify and respond to an attack, attackers will always have the upper hand. In order to be effective at thwarting intruders, security officers should

  • Monitor key assets

  • Consider deploying some method of intrusion detection. (See Chapter 12, "Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS).")

  • Possess some type of incident response capability

In addition, at a bare minimum, organizations should look to define

  • Who is responsible for responding to security threats

  • What the escalation procedures are

  • The "call list" for decision making should a business-critical decision need to be made

Again, pro-active measures on the IR front will save organizations both time and money.

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