By Callum Roxan, Head of Threat Intelligence, F-Secure
If ever 2020 had a lesson, it was that no organization can possibly prepare for every conceivable outcome. Yet building one particular skill will make any crisis easier to handle: operational resilience.
Many financial institutions have already devoted resources to building operational resilience. Unfortunately, this often takes what Miles Celic, Chief Executive Officer of TheCityUK, calls a “near death” experience for this conversion to occur. “Recent years have seen a number of cases of loss of reputation, reduced enterprise value and senior executive casualties from operational incidents that have been badly handled,” he wrote.
But it need not take a disaster to learn this vital lesson.
“Operational resilience means not only planning around specific, identified risks,” Charlotte Gerken, the executive director of the Bank of England, said in a 2017 speech on operational resilience. “We want firms to plan on the assumption that any part of their infrastructure could be impacted, whatever the reason.” Gerken noted that firms that had successfully achieved a level of resilience that survives a crisis had established the necessary mechanisms to bring the business together to respond where and when risks materialised, no matter why or how.
We’ll talk about the bit we know best here; by testing for cyber resilience, a company can do more than prepare for the worst sort of attacks it may face. This process can help any business get a clearer view of how it operates, and how well it is prepared for all kinds of surprises.
Assumptions and the mechanisms they should produce are the best way to prepare for the unknown. But, as the boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The aim of cyber resilience is to build an effective security posture that survives that first punch, and the several that are likely to follow. So how can an institution be confident that they’ve achieved genuine operational resilience?
This requires an organization to honestly assess itself through the motto inscribed at the front of the Temple of Delphi: “Know thyself.” And when it comes to cyber security, there is a way for an organization to test just how thoroughly it comprehends its own strengths and weaknesses.
The Bank of England was the first central bank to help develop the framework for institutions to test the integrity of their systems. CBEST is made up of controlled, bespoke, intelligence-led cyber security tests that replicate behaviours of those threat actors, and often have unforeseen or secondary benefits. Gerken notes that the “firms that did best in the testing tended to be those that really understood their organisations. They understood their own needs, strengths and weaknesses, and reflected this in the way they built resilience.”
In short, testing cyber resilience can provide clear insight into an institution’s operational resilience in general.
Gaining that specific knowledge without a “near-death” experience is obviously a significant win for any establishment. And testing for operational resilience throughout the industry can provide some reminders of the steps every organization should take so that testing provides unique insists about their institution, and not just a checklist of cyber defence basics.
The IIF/McKinsey Cyber Resilience Survey of the financial services industry released in March lasy year provided six sets of immediate actions that institutions could take to improve their cyber security posture. The toplines of these recommendations were:
- Do the basics, patch your vulnerabilities.
- Review your cloud architecture and security capabilities.
- Reduce your supply chain risk.
- Practice your incident response and recovery capabilities.
- Set aside a specific cyber security budget and prioritise it
- Build a skilled talent pool and optimize resources through automation.
But let’s be honest: If simply reading a solid list of recommendations created cyber resilience, cyber criminals would be out of business. Unfortunately, cyber crime as a business is booming and threat actors targeting essential financial institutions through cyber attacks are likely earning billions in the trillion dollar industry of financial crime.A list can’t reveal an institution’s unique weaknesses, those security failings and chokepoints that could shudder operations, not just during a successful cyber attack but during various other crises that challenge their operations. And the failings that lead to flaws in an institution’s cyber defence likely reverberate throughout the organization as liabilities that other crises would likely expose.
The best way to get a sense of operational resilience will always be to simulate the worst that attackers can summon. That’s why the time to test yourself is now, before someone else does.