Cyber-attack! Would your firm handle it better than this?

What's it like being the victim of a live cyber-attack? What should you do to protect your company from further damage? And should you pay that ransom demand? Technology of Business eavesdropped on a "war games" exercise hosted by cyber security firm Forcepoint that was based on lots of real-life experiences.


IT staff at fictional High Street optician Blink Wink's head office have been suckered by a phishing email. Someone clicked on a link to a spoof website because they thought the email looked legitimate. It wasn't. That was two months ago. Today, the proverbial hits the fan...

Tuesday 08:30

Tony Lewis, Blink Wink's IT administrator, starts his day clearing out the company's public email inbox of the usual junk and spam. One message stands out. His stomach lurches.

"I have more where this came from. We will be in touch shortly with our demands," the text says below someone's name, credit card details and email address.

Tony hopes it's a hoax, but can't take the risk. He swallows hard and calls the firm's security officer, Doug Hughes. Doug isn't impressed as he's on holiday in New York where it's 3:30am.

"This better be good," he growls. Tony forwards the suspect email.

"Have we validated the credit card number?" Doug asks, tension evident in his voice now. "Is it one of our customers?"

"I don't know yet," admits Tony.

Cartoon of Doug Hughes with New York skyline in the backgroundImage copyrightTOM HUMBERSTONE
Image caption Security officer Doug Hughes is having a day to forget...

"Well, when did we get this?" Doug snaps.

"Um... well... it seems we got it yesterday just after I'd left work, so I didn't notice it until this morning."

"So we're at least 12 hours into this?"

"Um, yeah," Tony mumbles sheepishly.

Tuesday 13:30

"We've got a second email," Tony tells Doug. "It's a ransom demand for £15,000 in the Litecoin crypto-currency. We have to pay by 22:00 BST or they'll delete all our customer records."

"What?" shouts Doug. "I thought they only had one?"

"Um, no. They claim to have them all."

In a sweat, Doug calls Blink Wink's legal counsel Grace Bolton for advice. She has to dial in several times as her headset is malfunctioning. Her voice keeps cutting out during the conversation.

"This is obviously a potential breach," she says. "So do not respond to that message. I'll need to review existing legislation so we know where we stand."

"What about the police?" asks Doug, his romantic city break now thoroughly ruined. "And the Information Commissioner? What about GDPR, who do we notify?"

Tuesday 15:30

Things are spiralling out of control for Blink Wink. The hackers have posted a tranche of customer names and credit card numbers on Pastebin, a public website for sharing text and source code.

Doug has now confirmed that the data is genuine.

"Shouldn't we shut down the website?" asks Tony. "Then we'll limit the risk."

Grace butts in. "Before we do that, who do we need to tell first? What's our data breach policy?"

"I thought that came from legal," says Doug.

"Aren't you the data protection officer?" Grace asks Tony.

"Nope, not me..."

Cartoon: conference call happening on laptopImage copyrightTOM HUMBERSTONE
Image caption No-one at Blink Wink seems very sure what they should be doing in this situation

"God, is it me?" asks Doug despairingly. "Anyway, if we pull the website that'll just draw attention to ourselves won't it? Not sure that's the right thing to do."

"Me neither," says Grace.

Blink Wink's head of public relations, Sandra Ellis, has been looped in to the conversation.

"This isn't looking good," she says rather obviously. "We've failed to protect our customers' private data. We could get really hammered for this."

She points out that the firm has a "buy one get one free" contact lens promotion running at the moment.

"We're driving people to the website right now. Are their details being stolen too?"

"Very possibly," says Doug. "We've got to shut down the site - or parts of it anyway. And then we've got to decide whether to pay the ransom."

Tuesday 17:00

Sandra Ellis has drafted a public statement but doesn't propose releasing it to the media until people start asking questions.

"We'll just say we are experiencing an incident and do it reactively," she says.

"Not an incident - a breach," Doug advises.

"No, don't use the word 'breach' - not yet anyway," chips in Grace, thinking of the legal ramifications. Tony bursts in on the conference call.

"We've found some malware! We saw an email come in that went to quarantine so we checked it out and it had an attachment. That could be it."

"You didn't click on it did you?" asks Doug, his day going from bad to worse.

"Um... I just thought it would speed things up..."

Doug swears and dips out of the call to get his security staff to check for any more damage.

Grace turns the conversation to informing the Information Commissioner's Office.

"We can phone or report it online," she tells them. "But we need to say what we did to mitigate the problem."

"Well, we were meant to get the latest threat detection software last year, but the guy who was looking into that left and wasn't replaced," says Tony. "It kinda didn't happen."

"Well don't tell the ICO that," Grace barks. "If we can't show we had adequate controls in place we could be in trouble. And the cyber-insurance people might not pay out either."

Later, Doug confirms that the latest phishing email was a red herring, but informs the team: "They did find a phishing email sent two months ago that linked to a log-in page made to look like the one for our cloud provider. That's how they got in.

"We've got to handle things better from now on," Doug concludes. "This will happen again, and it's only going to get worse."

Presentational grey line

So what should Blink Wink have done?

Criminal hacker with multiple computer screensImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption  If you don't react quickly to a cyber-attack, hackers will have the upper hand

Richard Ford, chief scientist at Forcepoint, says: "Reacting late has put Blink Wink on the back foot. You need to move quickly in these situations otherwise the attackers dictate the pace.

"A poor knowledge of data breach laws has made the company vulnerable. They clearly didn't have a breach policy in place nor did they know who was responsible for each role or what they should be doing."

Richard says the firm should have:

  • prepared a data breach plan with step-by-step actions to take
  • rehearsed this plan with staff
  • designated who is responsible for what during a breach
  • regularly circulated and updated the plan so senior staff were familiar with it
  • notified third-parties and suppliers
  • gathered evidence for the Information Commissioner to show how it has handled the issue
  • called its cyber-insurance provider for advice and help
  • prepared a statement for customers demonstrating how it would help deal with any damage
  • refused to pay the ransom - there's no guarantee they'd get their data back.

And if your firm is the victim of a data breach, cyber expert Troy Hunt says it should:

  • identify where the demand/ransomware came from
  • contain infected devices (get them offline)
  • assess how many machines have been affected
  • restore lost data from back-ups
  • tell customers if their data has been compromised
  • plan to make sure this doesn't happen again.


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