What to do (and not do) in a data breach response

While all data breaches take time to resolve, forward-thinking measures can reduce time and cost

The moment that you realize an intruder has broken in to your network, your first response might be: PANIC!  But your response should be to call your first responders — a response team that has been preselected by you before a crisis hits.

Inside the company, that will usually include IT, Security, and Legal, as well as the chief information officer, chief information security officer, and leadership from human resources and corporate communications. But that is only part of the team; your external partners may well include forensic experts to analyze and respond to the breach, outside counsel, your insurer, insurance broker and coverage counsel.

Cyber insurance is valuable protection for a company trying to protect against the risks of a data breach or privacy incident. But in the days or weeks of first response, it is vital that your company take the correct steps to ensure that the coverage that has been purchased will be available, possibly including using first responders identified by your insurers.

Here’s what you should expect in a data breach incident response:

Do not power down. Your first instinct may be to shut down your network. But this could destroy valuable, volatile data, and the loss could hamper the investigation. In some cases, taking the affected servers or computers offline might be reasonable. But, if possible, this determination should be made after consultation with the incident responders and with consideration for the impact on business operations.

A rapid response still takes time. In the first hours and days after discovering a data breach, you may think you see little progress. But this is not the case. Rather, the first responders are busy collecting data. To gain an understanding of the networking environment, they will interview key IT and network security personnel. In an active breach in particular, they also must gain an understanding of the business, what is considered sensitive data, and where it resides. Beyond these in-person meetings, they will be assessing data sources and collecting large volumes of data from firewalls, routers and switches, the Security Incident Event Manager (SIEM) console, and servers. It could be three or more days before a picture of the breach and its consequences begins to emerge.

Determining the breadth of attack is an iterative process. Incident responders will run automated search tools on sections of your network and computers on the network looking for known signatures of intruders, called indicators of compromise (IOCs). Once an IOC, such as a piece of malware, is identified, they will search your larger network for other instances of that IOC in order to determine the breadth of the breach and the remediation plan.

Remediation time depends on the complexity of the breach. Attackers often attempt to cover their tracks by deleting files used in the exploit or files that log network activity. They may have created new user accounts with deep root access. If they have been in your network for a long time, they may have built multiple backdoors for themselves. In the most sophisticated attacks, incident responders battle the attackers in real time. In cases like these, a data breach may take weeks or months to fully understand and remediate. But in the more simple scenarios, the team should know how the intruder got in, the scope of the breach, and steps for remediation within about a week.

While all data breaches take time to resolve, forward-thinking measures can reduce time and cost. Investing in cyber insurance is one way to do this. Insurance plans will often cover liability for loss or breach of data and remediation costs to respond to the breach — including forensic investigation, public relations, customer notification and credit monitoring, and coverage for costs to investigate, defend and settle fines and penalties. Long before any data breach, you should undertake a risk-based information security assessment that identifies and prioritizes the greatest risks facing your organization.

Because no two organizations are identical, it’s unlikely that any two companies will effectively prepare for and respond to attack in the exact same way. Coordinating your response team with an incident response plan will prevent confusion and ensure efficacy. If you’re prepared for an attack, it will be quicker and easier to fight one, and your chances for a good outcome will improve.

Contributing Author

author image

Miriam Smolen

Miriam Smolen is a partner at the Washington, D.C. law firm of Gilbert LLP. She represents policyholders in complex insurance coverage litigation, dispute resolution, and...

Additional Contributors: Tom Hibarger

Bio and more articles

Join the Conversation

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.