How to Respond to an Unexpected IT Security Incident

Whether you're prepared or not, information security incidents happen. At the SOURCE Boston conference, Lenny Zeltser, a SANS senior faculty member, laid out key steps to take if you need to respond

"So many people walk into an incident and start giving orders," according to Lenny Zeltser, a SANS senior faculty member who also sits on the SANS board of directors.

Zeltser was a speaker at this week's SOURCE Boston conference and gave attendees tips on what to do when an unexpected incident hits an organization. Rather than immediately jumping to make rash decisions, ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Zeltser detailed four key stages for response that will help you gain control and proceed with confidence.

Understand the Incident's Background

"You have to expect to walk into a situation blindfolded," said Zeltser, who also recommends asserting authority in a calm manner to claim the situation. "Listen more and talk less."

The first thing to ask: What is the nature of the problem as it has been observed so far?

"Maybe the initial diagnosis was incorrect," he said, noting that a problem initially thought to be with a Web server could end up being a firewall issue.

Some other questions to ask: How was the problem initially detected? When was it detected and by whom? What security infrastructure components exist in the affected environment? (e.g., firewall, anti-virus, etc.)

Zeltser also recommend not being afraid to ask about the components of the affected IT infrastructure.

"Don't be afraid to look ignorant. And don't assume they have anti-virus or firewalls."

Also find out what groups were affected by the incident. Again, if it is the Web server, find out who uses it and let them know about the problem.

Define Communication Parameters

You are going to be working remotely with unfamiliar people, noted Zeltser.

"Understand who has what responsibilities and assign roles. If you are an incident handler, people are going to expect this of you. In many cases people will be glad someone is giving them direction."

Other key questions to ask at this stage: Which individuals are aware of the incident? What are their names and group or company affiliations? Write them all down and assign someone responsibility for communicating with them, said Zeltser.

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