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Computer Incident Response and Product Security: Operating an Incident Response Team

  • Sample Chapter is provided courtesy of Cisco Press.
  • Date: Dec 17, 2010.

Chapter Description

This chapter covers aspects of running an incidence response team (IRT) such as team size, team member profiles, cooperating with other groups, preparing for incidents, and measuring success.

New Team Member Profile

There was a time when requirements for becoming a member of the Cisco PSIRT team included, apart from sound security acumen and knowledge, things such as “works 24 hours a day, leaps over tall buildings, and is capable of stopping a running train.” Shirts with the letter “S” were given when you joined the team, but we had to bring our own cape. That was the humorous side of the requirements, but reality, as everyone knows, is much stranger than fiction.

Computer security is not just a job; it is a way of life and a special state of mind. When most people see a new device or an application, they think: “Nice features. How can I use them?” Security-inclined people think: “How can protection be circumvented, and how can someone misuse a feature?” That is what immediately separate security-oriented people from others. Working in the computer security arena requires dedication, an open mind, and knowledge. One comforting thing for people who would like to work in an IRT but are afraid they would not be given the chance because they lack knowledge and experience is that these things are important but are not paramount. You can learn facts, but you cannot “learn” lateral thinking and security acumen.

When hiring, the IRT should look at the way a candidate thinks about problems, the way the problem is approached, and how quickly new information is used to reevaluate it. Often a candidate might be asked some trick questions that are completely unrelated to security, or even computers, just to assess how the candidate thinks. If candidates have the right qualities, they can learn the details afterward. It is always much easier to memorize simple facts such as “/etc/shadow file contains passwords” than to understand reasons why passwords have been moved from /etc/password and placed in this other file.

Obviously, having the knowledge is good and, all things being equal, candidates with more knowledge and experience will probably have an advantage over inexperienced ones. Therefore, for all prospective IRT members, keep on learning and be curious.

Apart from security acumen, a good candidate must also posses the following skills:

  • Good technical skills. Understand operating systems, networks, cryptography, a few programming languages (for example, Perl, C, and Java), and how all these elements interoperate.
  • Have good interpersonal skills.
  • Do not panic easily.
  • Form a mental image of an incident based on sketchy information and make decisions.

Strong Technical Skills

Good understanding does not mean knowing all the details, but it does mean knowing salient details, why things are set up that way, and where to look for full details. Here are two examples of what would be a minimum of knowledge on two topics:

  • Microsoft Windows configuration parameters: Microsoft Windows stores configuration details in the Registry, which is divided into hives. Each Registry hive is further divided into keys, subkeys, and values. A tool Reg.exe is used to edit the Registry. Further details are on the Microsoft website.

  • Border Gateway Protocol (BGP): Transfers routing information in the Internet. The routing information is used by individual routers to make decision where to route a particular packet given its destination. More information about BGP can be found on the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Cisco websites.

In both examples, it is sufficient to know the basic principles about how things are related and what their function is in the overall scheme. Knowing where to look for more information, or who to ask, is also required. Good team members must be able to learn new things fast, and “fast” means in a matter of a few hours. Understanding malware written in a programming language that you never have seen before should slow you down only for how long it takes to locate and download a reference manual for that language.

Effective Interpersonal Skills

Handling incidents requires good interpersonal skills. Electronic mail is used a lot in the communication with other teams, but it is not known for its capability to transfer subtleties. People can interpret the same sentence differently depending on the way it is said and the tone that was used, but none of that can be conveyed by email. Often people who exchange emails are using a common language (English, most of the time) that is not the native tongue for either of them. Adding cultural differences into the mix can make the communication challenges even more demanding. To improve the understanding of the case, you should always consider picking up the telephone and calling the other party.

There are, however, some potential drawbacks when talking to a member of the other IRT. When non-native speakers are involved, there may be disparity on how well the other party mastered the spoken versus written language. Some people might have an excellent command of a written language but a mediocre, if not bad, command of the spoken language. That can happen if the person does not have a sufficient opportunity to practice talking and listening to a foreign language but spends a lot of time reading it. Even if a person is good at speaking a foreign language, it is still a question of the accent. That can occasionally cause problems even for native speakers when one, or both, sides have a heavy local accent. As you can see, there are ample opportunities for misunderstanding, so the members of an IRT must be able to handle the situation well.

One situation that can arise when handling a live incident is that a person reporting the incident says offensive things or becomes abusive. In most cases, when that happens, that kind of behavior is not normal for the reporter but is the consequence of the attack. The attacked person might feel that he is not understood and that the IRT member is taking the situation too lightly, so the reporter might become agitated. The IRT member must be able to recognize when such a behavior is the result of panic and when it is not and adjust the approach accordingly.

Does Not Panic Easily

Occasionally a team needs to handle an ongoing incident. The party from the other side is being attacked right now, its business is disrupted, and it is losing money or sensitive information is being siphoned off. It is understandable if that person is not calm but agitated and panicked. For IRT members, it is important to know how to handle that situation. First, the team members must not be easily agitated herself but have a steady temper. They also must work to calm the person on the phone to get the information on what is happening.

Forms an Incident’s Image

When handling live incidents, the IRT member must be able to quickly form a picture of what is going on. To assess the situation, decide on possible ways to deal with the situation and recommend actions, which must be done in real time with only partial information. Sometimes the information is partial because the person reporting the incident forgot to provide it, and sometimes because she genuinely does not know it.

Apart from creating a picture, the IRT member must be able to make decisions autonomously and confidently. Someone who is indecisive cannot provide effective help during an ongoing incident.

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