Co-authored by Jason Barnes and John Khotsyphom
Some of us in the security community took a step backward last week in our ability to deal with the crisis involving Okta. Instead of exercising well-thought-out and practiced contingency plans to objectively assess risk, many individuals took a trolling posture on social media. The reaction was neither professional nor conducive to our mission as defenders against threat actors seeking to do us harm. We should take a collective look in the mirror and reconsider our attitudes and reactions when one of our partners endures a crisis even when communications are questionable.
Understandably, leaders and practitioners are under intense pressure any time an Okta, SolarWinds, or Target hits the news. We scramble for answers. As humans, that is our nature. But fixing the blame on Okta via social media based on some screenshots proves some in the community have far more improvements to make than we imagined. Some of us seem to have reverted back to the hope that technology will save us all, ignoring the imperative of critical thought required to effectively defend an enterprise.
Key things to remember about crisis response
In a crisis—whether it pertains to a cyber attack, physical disaster, or supply chain logistics—business leaders must focus on people, organizational reputation, and finances. It is a balancing act between the head and the heart. The Board and C-Suite know their values. They prepare and practice for contingencies. As security practitioners, this understanding is table-stakes. The organization hired us with the assumption that we share these interests.
Top mistakes companies make in a crisis
To illustrate how poorly others in the community might have responded to this situation, let’s recall some fundamental mistakes in crisis communication. When a company in crisis rushes to judgment, its ability to respond accurately is crippled. Over-reaction can raise irrelevant questions. Failing to act and communicate induces uncertainty. Bending facts destroys faith—especially in cybersecurity where evidence will eventually bear out the truth. A lack of concern and empathy—or failure to demonstrate them—erodes trust, cohesion, and morale. A lack of teamwork or information transparency dooms your response to failure from the outset. Fixing blame is an empty cop-out that destroys integrity.
Enough of the negative tone. Let’s think critically about how to deal with these situations using a proactive threat-driven approach.
Self-reflection and hunting the unknown
Cybersecurity as a community must constantly review our own shortfalls during times of crisis. Recent months have highlighted areas many struggle with, such as supply-chain management, geopolitical risks, and vulnerability management. Every event presents an opportunity for us to self-reflect and improve our own preparedness.
As news of the Okta breach developed many took to their SIEMs and reviewed Okta logs hunting for suspicious activities. How does one hunt a ghost based on screenshots and speculation? First, cybersecurity teams must have an understanding of their environment. Having a good understanding of the architecture around an Okta deployment can help teams determine their attack model and also identify gaps, such as logging, privilege access, documentation, and/or asset management. The gaps identified can be used to help demystify the ghost. As more information is released your teams will be better prepared to react if needed.
Define normal for your environment and determine how outliers manifest in the logs. A common threat hunting technique, stack counting, can be applied to help teams track down those leads and validate them. If there is new knowledge to inform the overall hunt, leverage that to further refine your insights. Repeat the effort to continually create order and derive understanding from chaos with the help of automation.
Time for an attitude check
If there is a fundamental flaw in an organization’s posture or execution in developing solutions, then that can, and should, be researched and debated. Since security practitioners and leaders have a vested interest in the success of our partners, we should contribute ideas toward those improvements. Before we even get to that, however, we must ensure that our own houses are in order before we cast stones.