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What’s The Deal With Digital Forensics, Incident Response, And Attribution?

Andrew Patel

21.12.16 6 min. read

After several high-profile cyber attacks made big news headlines this year, it’s become evident to me, through online commentary, that there’s some confusion in the public space about how incident response services are utilized, how attribution is performed, and how law enforcement’s role fits into cyber crime investigations. I’m hoping this article helps to clear things up and answer some of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting.

Cyber crime investigations are similar in nature to fraud and financial crime investigations. Nowadays a great deal of financial crimes are, in fact, cyber crimes. Cyber crimes, just like financial crimes, are frequently difficult to spot.

In the case of financial crimes, it might take something like a quarterly financial audit to reveal that something suspect is going on. Some cyber crimes are subtle like this, too. For instance, in the case of a hidden attacker maintaining persistence on a corporate network for purposes of long-term data exfiltration, the intrusion might only be revealed during a network sweep, as part of periodic threat assessment process, or via a newly installed intrusion detection system.  Not all cyber crimes are difficult to spot. Some cyber crimes reveal themselves as part of the operation – an attacker will contact the victim organization and will attempt to extort a ransom, or an attacker will leak data to the public, and the victim company will find out about it.

It’s interesting to note that several high-profile breaches during the past few years were discovered when a cyber security vendor installed their technology stack on the victim’s network as part of a pre-sales demo or trial period.

Regardless of how it’s discovered, once a company suspects that they’re the victim of a financial or cyber crime, they’ll need to collect additional evidence before involving law enforcement. Once an investigation is initiated, a variety of third party auditors are usually brought in to help. In the case of suspected fraud or financial crime, insurance companies can provide some of those services. In the case of a cyber crime, a cyber security firm specialized in digital forensics and incident response will be called in.

The victim organization pays for such services out of their own pocket. Why? Because incident response isn’t just about forensics. It’s about cleaning up affected systems, restoring the network to a non-compromised state, restoring lost data, and often it’s also about providing assistance to the victim organization in adjusting security practices and risk management plans to avoid future incidents. As part of the incident response process, law enforcement are involved once enough evidence has been collected to determine when and how the crime was committed.

Once involved, law enforcement agencies utilize the forensic data collected by privately-run incident response operations as a starting point for their own investigations. Remember that the police have access to additional sources of evidence that private investigators don’t. For instance, law enforcement agencies can subpoena logs from additional private sources (such as Internet Service Providers), and can correlate data from other investigations they’ve run. In our experience, law enforcement will often continue to cooperate with third party first-responders during an ongoing criminal investigation.

Attribution is more of an art than a science. When it comes to cyber crimes, private incident responders perform educated guesswork. This usually involves correlating the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) found at the crime scene with previous casework or open source threat intelligence. This guesswork includes analyzing samples, such as custom tools or malware, found at the scene, language and content patterns found in phishing emails, the locations of C&C servers and phishing sites, techniques used for persistence or lateral movement, IP addresses associated with the attacks, and any other metadata uncovered during the investigation. The motives of suspected criminal groups may also factor into attribution guesswork. It’s not uncommon for private cyber security companies to work with law enforcement when determining attribution. However, due to the confidential nature of ongoing law enforcement work, evidence collected by or provided by law enforcement agencies isn’t normally made public as part of a third-party’s attribution conclusions.

There are a lot fewer cyber security companies in the world than there are insurance and financial services companies. Because of that, the demand for cyber security services companies is high. So high, in fact, that security-conscious organizations will often pay a yearly fee to keep a cyber security firm on retainer. By doing this, they ensure that help will be at hand as soon as an incident happens, and that prices for incident response work are charged at agreed upon rates. This is not unlike keeping law firms or financial services firms on retainer (for emergencies) or having certain special corporate agreements with insurance partners in place. Organizations that don’t have a cyber security firm on retainer typically have difficulty securing incident response and forensics services when they’re needed, and may end up paying rather high prices when they finally find someone who can help.

Incident response work isn’t just about reacting to breaches and cyber crimes. Companies are now able to purchase cyber insurance policies. Here’s how forensics work comes into play in the case of an insurance settlement related to a cyber security incident. Insurance firms employ claims adjusters whose job it is to investigate insurance claims and determine the extent of a company’s liability when the claim is filed. In a traditional sense, claims adjusters gather data in a variety of ways, including interviewing claimants and witnesses, consulting police and hospital records and inspecting property damage. In the case of a cyber crime, cyber claims adjusters, are brought in to run forensics in a similar way to how incident response is carried out. Compensation is awarded to the claimant based on the findings of the cyber claims adjuster. If the cyber claims adjuster were to, for instance, determine that a network was breached via a known vulnerability that should have been patched long ago, the claimant may receive a low amount of compensation. This is completely analogous to how an individual claimant would receive a low amount of compensation if they were burgled and it was later determined that they’d left their front door open.

With cyber security incidents becoming more and more widespread, businesses are learning that they need to adapt. This includes setting aside budget to keep cyber security services on retainer, paying for periodic trainings, threat assessments, and risk assessments, and even bringing experts onto their payroll to properly manage their cyber security practices. The cost of not taking cyber security seriously today is akin to the cost of not having your business properly insured. And yet there are plenty of businesses out there who don’t think they’ll become the victim of the next breach, and who clearly don’t take these costs into account. And they’re most likely going to end up paying through the nose in the long term.

Andrew Patel

21.12.16 6 min. read


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