What to Do After Discovering a Breach at Your Organization

The long walk over to the CEO's office need not be cause for termination or anxiety if you're prepared.

data breach

At some point in every breach investigation, the IT person or executive who has responsibility for an organization's security will need to take a long walk to the CEO's office to explain what happened. While no IT person ever wants to take that walk, modern reality means that it's increasingly likely, according to JB Rambaud, managing director and co-lead of the Security Science Practice at cyber-security consulting firm Stroz Friedberg.

Rambaud advocates that IT professionals prepare now, before any breach event, so that when the day (or night) comes, the long walk to the CEO's office won't be a one-way trip to getting terminated. IT security practitioners and executives need to educate themselves, learn and apply technology and concepts to successfully navigate the walk both to and from the CEO's office after a breach incident, he said.

IT professionals must "educate" themselves so that they are proactive in understanding the threat landscape. That way, if something comes up, the IT professional is not blindsided. Another part of the education piece is to have an incident response life cycle plan in place, so the CEO will have a good set of understandable expectations.

The "learn" piece is actually rehearsing the "walk" to the CEO's office before a breach and practicing the actions and responses that will enable the IT person to be credible when presenting the bad news. The "apply" piece is all about applying steps today to help gain the confidence needed to be able to handle a breach.

"A lot of it is about preparation, but you also have to have confidence," Rambaud said. "A CEO will read you and look at the human signs—that is, will you be terrified or will you provide assurance?"

If the CEO is reassured by IT and the incident response teams, then the CEO in turn can reassure shareholders and other stakeholders, Rambaud said. If the CEO panics, however, it could lead to disaster, he added.

"You want to … articulate clearly what you do know and what you do not know," Rambaud said. "You need to have very systematic description of what is happening with the right words."

Gaining the confidence to make the walk to the CEO's office often can come from preparation, Rambaud said. However, there isn't always a straight line between confidence and preparation, he said.

"Confidence means you know what's going on and you have the breadth, the emotion and experience to be able to stand up in front of the CEO and weather the storm," he said.

One key question that every organization needs to also be prepared to answer is, who will actually make the walk to the CEO's office to talk about a breach? Sometimes that person should be the chief information security officer (CISO), but not always, according to Rambaud. Part of the pre-breach preparation is in fact to first determine who has the right amount of experience and confidence to make the walk.

There are times when a breach is first disclosed through a media report, even prior to an IT executive making the disclosure to the CEO.

Not every threat or media report about a threat means that an IT executive needs to take a walk to the CEO's office, Rambaud added. "Part of a threat management program will validate and then escalate to deal with potential risks, whether they come from a media report or otherwise," he said.

One thing that commonly happens upon discovery of a breach is immediately assigning blame and attempting to determine who is at fault for enabling the organization to be exploited. Laying blame, however, should be a post-mortem activity in which a forensic investigator will attempt to determine what really happened. Rambaud emphasized that in the first 48 to 72 hours of a breach investigation, laying blame is not a helpful activity.

"There is no room for the blame game during a breach event," he said. "There are facts, data and processes that need to be consumed in an organized fashion."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.