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You’ve Been Hacked! What’s Your Data Breach Response Plan?

Jun 13, 2023
Data breaches are now an all-too-familiar headline in the digital age. It's not just the big corporations that are targeted. Even after putting together data breach response plans, small to mid-sized businesses are just as susceptible. Reaching an all-time high, the cost of a data breach averaged $4.35 million in 2022, based on the IBM Security analysis of research data compiled by Ponemon Institute.
The good news is that there are many simple steps you can take to prevent hackers from accessing your vital business data. To make planning easier, we've written a guide to help in the prevention of, and preparation for, cyber incidents. 

What Is a Data Breach? 

A data breach means someone unauthorized has gained access to your business's data. This data could be customer information, financial data or intellectual property.
When a data breach happens, you need to take immediate action. The faster you respond, the less damage the cybercriminals can do. Remember, detecting a breach is only the first step. It's what you do next that determines how well you weather the storm. 
Knowing the signs of a data breach and understanding what they mean are key to protecting your personal information and business data.

Take Preemptive Action

You will significantly decrease the likelihood of having to deal with a business data breach if you take the right actions to prevent this from happening. Here are the most important things that you should consider in preparation. 

Conduct a Risk Assessment

Understanding your vulnerabilities is key to creating a robust data breach response plan. A risk assessment helps you identify potential weak points in your digital infrastructure.
It's like checking your house for any cracks or holes that could let in the cold. The risk assessment process involves looking at your current security measures. For example, are your firewalls and antivirus software up to date? Is your data encrypted? Do your employees know the basics of online safety?
A thorough risk assessment not only uncovers dangers but also guides you on where to focus your efforts.

Establish an Incident Response Team

A successful response to a data breach requires team effort. Think of your incident response team as firefighters, ready to put out the blaze when disaster strikes.
Your team should include members from IT, legal, public relations, operations and your outsourced IT, who can handle specific technical issues. The legal team will manage any legal issues that come up. Public relations will communicate with the public and operations will keep the business running. Having a team ready means you won't waste valuable time figuring out who should do what when a breach occurs.

Prepare Incident Response Cybersecurity Software

You can't fight a fire without the right tools. Cybersecurity software is your digital fire extinguisher. It detects breaches, isolates affected systems and helps mitigate damage.
Examples of such software include intrusion detection systems, security information and event management systems and endpoint security solutions. Investing in this software is vital in the modern cybersecurity landscape.

Design an Incident Response Plan

Now, you've assessed your risks, got your team and prepared your tools. The next step is to design your incident response plan. This plan is your roadmap. It outlines what to do and who does what in case of a data breach.
A good plan includes a communication strategy, as well as detailing how and when to inform stakeholders.

Train Your Employees

A plan is only as good as the people who execute it. That's why training your employees is vital. Your staff should understand the common signs of a cyberattack, such as suspicious emails or unusual system behavior. They should know the steps to take if they suspect a breach. Regular cybersecurity training sessions can help keep everyone on the same page.
Remember: while every employee is a potential point of vulnerability, they are also a potential first line of defense.

Know How to Detect a Data Breach

Data breaches can be stealthy, but they often leave clues. It's essential to know what to look for to protect your information and keep your business safe.
Your actions during this period can significantly influence how your business weathers the storm and recovers from the data breach. Here are some signs that might indicate a data breach. 

Bounced Emails with Abnormal Content

Do you notice a sudden increase in returned or bounced emails with strange content? It might be a hint of a data breach.
Cybercriminals may have infiltrated your system and used your email server to send spam or phishing emails. This abnormal activity could harm your company's reputation and signal a more significant problem. 
Buffer Overflow Attempts Against a Database Server
Buffer overflow attempts are like trying to pour too much water into a glass: eventually, it spills over. In the case of your database server, cybercriminals might try to overload it with excessive data.
If successful, they could gain control of your server. Regular system checks can help identify these attempts and prevent a possible data breach.

Lots of Failed Login Attempts 

Seeing multiple failed login attempts from an unfamiliar remote system is like finding unknown footprints in your house: it’s a sign that someone may be trying to force their way into your systems.
If a string of failed login attempts goes unnoticed by your team, you'll be putting your business's vital information at risk.
In line with 2023 cybersecurity trends, implementing and using tools to monitor and notify you of such attempts can help mitigate potential threats.

Take Immediate Incident Response Actions

After discovering a data breach, the more quickly you act, the better. Here are the most important actions that you will need to take within the first 24 hours.

Document the Time and Date of the Breach

The moment you realize a breach has happened, note the time and date. This information is like a timestamp in a detective's notebook. It marks the beginning of your data breach investigation. The exact time can help identify exactly what data was at risk during the breach.

Notify Your Support Team

Alert your incident response team immediately so they can start their work. This team will help you navigate the incident, addressing the cybersecurity threat and managing the consequences.

Stop Continued Data Loss

Preventing further data loss is like plugging a hole in a sinking ship. You need to stop the water (in this case, your business data) from flowing out.
Disconnect affected systems from the internet, change passwords and update security protocols. This phase is often called “containment” in threat-hunting language.

Gather All Possible Relevant Data

Now that you've contained the breach, it's time to gather all the possible relevant data. This step is similar to collecting evidence at a crime scene.
You want to know who the intruders are, how they got in, what they did, and what data they accessed. System logs, user account activities and network traffic data can all offer clues for your data breach investigation.

Perform a Risk Assessment

You've contained the breach and collected data. Now, perform a risk assessment. The purpose of doing this is to understand the severity of the breach: what business data hackers compromised and how it affects your business. 

Get Law Enforcement Involved

If the breach is severe enough, it's time to contact law enforcement. It's like calling the police after a break-in.
Depending on where you live, you might need to report the breach to local, regional or national law enforcement agencies. They can help pursue the cybercriminals. They might also be in a position to provide additional resources for your data breach investigation.

Inform Regulators

Finally, you may need to inform regulators about the breach. This depends on your industry and where your business operates. For instance, these regulatory entities include the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. or the Information Commissioner's Office in the UK.

Analyze the Breach

After your initial response, it's time to understand the full picture. This analysis helps your business learn from the event and strengthen its defenses for the future.
First, take a closer look at how the breach happened. Trace the steps of the cybercriminals. Were they able to exploit a weak password? Did they use a phishing email to trick an employee? Knowing the method of attack shows where your defenses fell short.
Next, identify what data the intruders accessed or stole. Did they take customer credit card information? Did they copy confidential business plans? Understanding the type of data affected can help you gauge the impact on your business and your customers.
Lastly, examine how effective your response was. Did you detect the breach quickly? Were you able to limit the data loss?
Answering these questions will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your current incident response plan.

Recover From the Incident

Taking recovery measures is all about patching up the damage and making your business stronger than before. Containment is the first step. You've already disconnected affected systems to prevent further data loss.
Now, make sure that hackers have not compromised other important systems. You will need to regularly monitor your network to keep it secure.
Next comes eradication. Find the cyber threat, whether it's a virus, malware or unauthorized access, and eliminate it. Update your security software and change passwords to make certain the threat is fully removed.
The final step is recovery. It's about getting back to normal, preferably even better than before. Restore your affected systems and data.
Inform your stakeholders about the situation and what you've done about it. Avoid the mistake of rushing this process. It's not about how fast you recover, but how well.
Learn from the incident. Adjust your security measures and incident response plan based on what you've learned. This will make your business more resilient against future cybersecurity threats.
Many businesses that have recovered from data breaches have chosen to hire cyber threat hunters in order to help safeguard their essential business information from hackers in the future. 

Communicate With Affected Parties

You should first consider notifying your customers. They're your top priority because their personal information may be at risk. Email is usually the quickest way to reach them. Explain what happened, what information was affected and what you're doing about it. Also, advise them on steps they can take to protect themselves.
Second, inform your employees and business partners. They deserve to know, especially if their data was compromised. An internal email or meeting can be an effective way to do this.

Creating a Data Breach Response Plan

If you're worried that your business will be attacked by hackers, it is a great idea to put together a data breach response plan. It is easier to do this than you might think. 
Take time to prepare for a data breach by conducting assessments, putting together an incident response team, and training your employees. You should also familiarize yourself with the best strategies for identifying a data breach. Lastly, prepare yourself for taking immediate incident response actions. 

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Rahul Mahna

Rahul Mahna is a Partner in the firm and leads the Outsourced IT Services team with over 20 years of experience in IT technologies, software development and cybersecurity services.

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