Crisis Leadership, Part 2: What Are We Learning?

When it comes to cybercrime and crisis leadership, organizations would do well to borrow from the military concept of “left of boom, right of boom.” The boom, in this case, is the discovery of a cyber breach. You can think of it as a point on a timeline along which the attack and its aftermath will play out.

Crisis Leadership From All Sides of Boom

Essentially, when something catastrophic happens, most leaders go “left of boom,” diagnosing what just occurred or scheming to prevent it from happening again. This means trying to stop the bad guys in their tracks. Left of boom is all about prevention and detection. This is akin to the moats built around medieval castles.

However, it is equally important to think of what happens “right of boom,” the period after knowledge of the cyber breach reaches the public. In this case, right of boom means the cyberattack has spilled over into the media, among other places. How are you going to deal with customers? With the media? With regulators? With partners in your supply chain?

Since the opening of IBM’s X-Force Command Centers in mid-November last year, hundreds of individuals and teams have experienced the 360-degree cyberthreat preparedness offered there. Through real-world simulation, they live through a highly sophisticated attack in progress. These early users of the IBM X-Force Command Centers have discovered that in the first hours of an attack, you really don’t know what’s going on — you just know it’s very bad.

Preparing and Rehearsing

That’s when the training and simulation switches to right of boom, the aftermath. Both we at IBM and the early users of the X-Force Command Center were surprised at the reactions to preparing in advance for post-attack communications. One common reaction is, “Wow, you made me talk to a reporter. That was scary, but after rehearsing it a couple times, I feel like not only can I do that, but I can probably script out a lot of my response in advance.”

The truth is, in the initial hours after detecting a breach, details related to what data was lost or how the bad guys got in are scarce. But it is crucial to demonstrate leadership by showing that you have a response plan and the ability to execute it. Crisis leadership means standing up and showing that your team is working hard on the problem. This puts confidence back in the market.

Ditto with training to deal with regulators. In the U.S. alone, 47 states have their own unique breach disclosure laws. If you do business in most or all of them, you must be aware of the requirements of those laws, which often involve filling out a lot of forms after a breach. If you know the basics of the different compliance regulations in advance and complete the forms accordingly, the regulators will be confident that you tried to deal with the attack to the best of your ability. But if in three weeks they have heard nothing from you, or if you stand up to the media and basically dodge questions, regulators will grow suspicious and your problems will multiply.

For many of our IBM X-Force Command Center clients, the value of sharing attack information, practicing communications and rehearsing the proper response becomes very apparent — and is essential to their crisis leadership. It is an exercise in understanding what you need to do and with whom you need to communicate. Then you script as much of your responses as possible in advance of the breach.

Preparing for the Cyberthreats of the Future

That’s not all we’ve learned in the few short months since the IBM X-Force Command Centers opened. Organizations of all stripes may well need to brace themselves for a particularly insidious and potentially highly damaging attack. This is an attack unlike most we see today, wherein cyberthieves gain entry to a data repository then commence to steal select files.

At the IBM X-Force Command Centers, we have the luxury of modeling various types of new attacks, including one of which we have already seen some evidence. In these attacks, data is not stolen but rather changed or manipulated. If that happens, or even if attackers can merely suggest this has happened, that can be enough to sow deep seeds of distrust of your data, customers and supply chain partners. We found that our clients are largely unprepared to deal with such an attack in terms of fashioning a convincing response that restores trust and otherwise calms the waters.

Here again, there is no substitute for preparing, rehearsing and practicing the different responses you’ll need to make to different constituents.

If recent history proved anything, it is that no data on any system in any organization is immune from being compromised. It just makes sense to get out in front of the mission-critical job of rehearsing for the right-of-boom events that are as important as efforts to stop cyberattacks from happening in the first place.

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Caleb Barlow

Vice President - IBM Security

Caleb Barlow is an accomplished security professional and Vice President at IBM Security, where he leads IBM's Threat Intelligence and Incident Response Teams globally. He was the visionary behind X-Force Command, the worlds most sophisticated watch floor and cyber range.Mr. Barlow has a broad background having led technical teams in product development, product management, strategy, marketing and cloud service delivery. He has led multiple acquisitions including Fiberlink MaaS360 and Net Integration Technologies. Mr. Barlow routinely advises chief information security officers, boards of directors and government officials on security practices, frameworks and strategies to manage the business risk associated with cyber security.Mr. Barlow is a sought after speaker on the subject of security. He has appeared on the TED stage, NBC TODAY, NBC News, Bloomberg Television, CNBC Squawk Box, Yahoo News, Al Jazeera America and the BBC World Service. Caleb's views have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, eWeek, FastCompany, Seventeen and dozens of other publications. He has testified to the US Congress and in 2015 he was invited by the President of the UN General Assembly to discuss his views at the United Nations.