How to conduct a cybersecurity tabletop exercise: enhancing business defense strategies

How to provide a security exercise at your company

Many security experts say that it's not about if a cyber attack will happen but when. This idea stresses the need to be proactive about cybersecurity. The initial response can make or break the situation when faced with a cyber-attack.

That's why being ready for such incidents is crucial. A cybersecurity tabletop exercise prepares your business to ace cyber threats head-on. This exercise is critical for improving response plans and ensuring quick and effective actions during a cyber crisis. In this article, we'll explore how to conduct a company-wide cybersecurity tabletop exercise to prepare your business for incidents, enhancing resilience against cyber crime.

What is a cybersecurity tabletop exercise?

A cybersecurity tabletop exercise is a simulated scenario designed to test an organization's resilience against cyber threats. It's best if it's facilitated by third-party experts knowledgeable about security leadership and experienced in handling threats.

The person organizing the tabletop exercise needs to understand how threats move through a network to make the exercise feel real. These trainings are tailored to the organization's needs, exposing weak spots in how they respond to incidents and making sure important people are aware. The whole activity includes stages before, during, and after the exercise.

Why run a cybersecurity tabletop exercise?

The primary goal of a cybersecurity tabletop exercise is to pinpoint any vulnerabilities or deficiencies within an organization's defenses and incident response plan. TTX also assesses if the current incident response is adequate.

During this exercise, participants navigate the predefined steps of the incident response plan, deciding how to address the simulated incident. This entails identifying the incident, evaluating its impact, determining the appropriate response, and orchestrating efforts to resolve it.

Additionally, the exercise includes strategies for communicating with stakeholders and the public and mitigating potential harm to the organization's reputation. The first 24 hours following the discovery of a data breach are critical for restoring network security, securing evidence for cyber investigations, and meeting legal and contractual obligations.

7 types of cybersecurity tabletop exercises

Determining the type of cyber incident to simulate can be challenging. Which scenarios are most effective for preparing your team? Below are some examples of cyber tabletop exercises to consider for your crisis team.

  • A ransomware attack. In the current threat landscape, ransomware attacks are increasingly common. That's why it's crucial to test and simulate how your organization responds to such threats, including data encryption and exfiltration. This situation prompts critical questions: are backups restorable? How quickly can business operations resume? Who should be notified? Is paying the ransom a viable option? And most importantly, how can future ransomware attacks be prevented?

  • Insider threats. In an insider threat, internal actors commit theft, fraud, or sabotage. Detection and prevention are challenging, but preparedness might involve alerts about stolen assets and identifying accomplices or further malicious activity. Immediate actions include assessing the breach, securing vulnerabilities, and mitigating damage to protect assets and reputation.

  • Breach response. Facing a security breach, the loss or potential compromise of sensitive or personal data is challenging for any risk management team in a simulated environment. The questions worth asking in this scenario are: what details have become public? Are the affected files commercial, or do they contain client or customer data? How can we mitigate the risk of further losses? When is it necessary to report to a regulator? How can we reassure clients?

  • Supply chain/third-party vendor. Some of the most extensive and devastating cyber-attacks in recent memory have resulted from supply chain breaches, where a third party gains access to your network. These situations are often challenging to manage, as critical elements are beyond your control–a compromised third-party grappling with an internal attack. At the same time, other organizations also seek updates and information.

  • Social engineering attack. Phishing is the most prevalent form of social manipulation. Yet, vishing, smishing, and physical impersonation attacks also pose significant threats, often resulting in substantial asset loss and damage to reputation. How an organization responds to such attacks can profoundly impact both internal operations and external perceptions. Key questions include identifying the responsible party, assessing their level of access, and devising strategies to restore trust and confidence.

  • SCADA/IoT security incident. Organizations that rely heavily on automation should consider conducting exercises that simulate a cyber attack disrupting their operations. Evaluating the availability of manual failover procedures and the adequacy of skilled personnel to manage system restoration during downtime is crucial.

    Such tabletop exercises replicate security incidents where intricate technical systems are rendered offline, allowing organizations to effectively test their incident response capabilities and proficiency in restoring IoT devices.

  • Cloud security incident. A cloud security incident is a cyber breach compromising a cloud-based service, often resulting in data exfiltration. These incidents bear similarities to supply chain attacks, as the service and associated data are not under your direct control. Given the frequency of such breaches, a tabletop exercise focusing on cloud security incidents is essential.

How to perform a successful cybersecurity tabletop exercise

During a tabletop exercise, participants from various specialized teams come together to simulate their response to staged crises. This phase is critical because it's an active, hands-on learning experience where team members practice navigating complex scenarios that mimic potential real-life incidents.

Planning a tabletop exercise

Planning a tabletop exercise involves defining the scope and scale, selecting the team, developing a cyber attack scenario, and organizing logistics and resources. With careful planning, you can effectively simulate a cybersecurity incident and strengthen its response capabilities.

Define scope and scale

Tabletop exercises can vary in scope, falling into three overlapping tiers. Here's an overview:

  • Limited scope: a technical/operational tabletop exercise. In this type of scenario, you focus on keeping your systems running. For example, what happens if a server at one location gets compromised? How does your technology keep things going? These exercises are straightforward and usually don't dive into more complex issues.

  • Moderate scope: a logistical/tactical tabletop exercise. These tabletop exercises get more realistic by including how people respond and how security issues can grow. Issues might spread to other areas, and the team might feel pressured to handle things quickly and efficiently.

  • Robust scope: a security breach tabletop exercise. This type involves serious breaches that get top management involved. They mimic real-life scenarios where problems can spread naturally. Participants deal with added stress, like handling public statements and talking to authorities.

Select the team

To ensure your tabletop exercise works well, involve key stakeholders, people from different departments, and a documenter. Having someone taking notes during the exercise is key so you can review them later. It'd be best to have a facilitator to lead the session, answer questions, and keep things moving smoothly. Ideally, this person should know much about security or IT and be good at managing group discussions.

Also, ensure that all relevant stakeholders outlined in the Incident Response Plan (IRP) are included in the exercise. These roles may vary depending on the exercise's scope.

Develop a cybersecurity incident scenario

Writing a spoofed message and then hoping for the best is not enough. Tabletop exercise scenarios should have a detailed script of how the attack will be made. This will help you stick to the hypothesis you're trying to use.

Secondly, this will help to limit your damage as it can be straightforward to go overboard, trying to hack more than was outlined than it was intended.

Plan logistics and resources

Handling several vital logistics and resources ensures a smooth and effective tabletop exercise. First, secure a venue that is suitable and well-equipped for the event. Schedule and coordinate the availability of all participants to ensure full involvement.

Assign knowledgeable facilitators who can guide the exercise effectively and develop realistic, challenging, and engaging scenarios. Document the proceedings thoroughly to facilitate detailed evaluation afterward. Additionally, devise a clear communication plan to keep everyone informed and provide technical support to address any issues that arise during the exercise.

Conducting a tabletop exercise

Role of facilitators

Facilitators lead an interactive role-playing activity where participants respond to hypothetical scenarios. Typically, participants take on familiar roles, such as CEO, IT lead, or communications representative, although they can assume other roles to ensure all bases are covered.

The facilitators present scenarios with details that might initially seem trivial but could later signify more significant issues. They design the format of the exercise, tailoring it to meet specific training objectives or to address particular vulnerabilities. They are responsible for documenting observations, noting significant incidents, and capturing valuable lessons learned for future analysis.

Execution of tabletop scenarios

The exercise typically follows an established scenario. However, because the essence of a tabletop exercise is to prepare teams for unpredictable cyber threats, facilitators often introduce challenges that provoke critical thinking and problem-solving. This may include unexpected developments or information conflicts to test how teams prioritize and handle stress.

Creating an engaging environment with circular or conference-style seating is also essential to enhance interaction. Facilitate deep discussions using open-ended questions and scenario-specific injects. Ensure detailed documentation of these discussions for comprehensive insights for the post-exercise analysis.

Observation and documentation

Observing and documenting interactions is crucial for refining the organization's organization's strategies during the tabletop exercise. The insights gained prepare team members for actual crises and enhance alignment and readiness. This iterative learning highlights the importance of the execution phase in the exercise's overall effectiveness.

Often, these discussions reveal new details and constraints that had not been previously considered. It's essential to record these insights for inclusion in the post-exercise report. Assigning one or more team members as scribes ensures that all significant points are accurately captured, emphasizing the importance of thorough observation and documentation for later analysis.

Post-exercise activities

Debriefing session

To conduct a debriefing session effectively, gather all participants to discuss the findings and lessons learned from the tabletop exercise. This meeting should review the objectives, evaluate whether they were met, and explore reasons for shortcomings. It's crucial to discuss the high points and the areas that need work, fostering an environment of transparent feedback and continuous improvement.

Analyzing results

When analyzing the outcomes of the exercise, focus on identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the current incident response strategies. Evaluate how the existing policies and procedures helped handle the scenarios and pinpoint any gaps hindering effective response. This analysis should culminate in a detailed review that categorizes findings into strengths to be maintained and weaknesses to be addressed.

An action plan for improvement

Developing an action plan involves taking the insights from the debriefing and analysis and translating them into actionable steps. Outline specific improvements needed in policies and procedures and integrate these into a concise gap assessment. This assessment will serve as the foundation for a remediation roadmap, which can help enhance your organization's posture and readiness for future challenges.

Behind the scenes: Nord Security's real-life exercise

As online threats grow, tabletop exercises can simulate cyber-attacks to test how well your business can handle cyber threats such as phishing and social engineering in a controlled setting. These drills offer crucial insights into your organization's organization's health, particularly the staff's ability to respond to potential threats.

LinkedIn phishing exercise

Nord Security regularly conducts resistance testing to assess how well our employees fend off phishing attacks, especially through social media. Given our employees often participate in research and surveys, which appears harmless, this presents a potential risk of leaking sensitive information.

Step 1: establish a fake identity

Creating a new social media profile proved challenging due to LinkedIn's striLinkedIn'ss against new accounts, which were quickly blocked. We resorted to using older, pre-existing accounts we had from previous tests. With these profiles, we set the stage for our phishing exercise.

Step 2: make contact

Posing as researchers gathering information on Nord Security and its products, we began connecting with colleagues on LinkedIn. We limited our requests to 3-5 per day to avoid detection and not appear suspicious. Once we had a few connections, others were more likely to accept our requests, seeing mutual connections as a sign of legitimacy.

Step 3: engage with employees

With connections established, we encouraged employees to join a video call for what we claimed was an online survey. Of 160 employees contacted, 40 responded, and 18 agreed or declined to participate. This exercise highlighted how social media could be used to extract confidential company information.

After we initiated contact, some employees became skeptical about our fake LinkedIn profiles. A few investigated further and decided not to engage, while others mentioned their non-disclosure agreements with the company as a reason for their caution. This response variation highlights how phishing can assume many forms, not just through suspicious emails.

Step 4: analyzing and sharing results

In the final stage, we categorized the responses to our request for a private video call. Employees' reactions varied across four categories: "Very Trustful," "Trustful but questioning," "Suspicious," and "Very suspicious." This classification helped us understand the varying degrees of trust among our team members.

The experiment shows that being too trustful can backfire. The moral of the story is always to double-check each sender contacting you online to ensure you're not being.

Practical tips for a successful cybersecurity exercise

Here are some excellent tips on handling cybersecurity exercises if you want to replicate them in your organization.

1. Don't start with witch hunt trials

You may quickly identify colleagues who took the bait, but it may not be clear what to do with this information. It is also tempting to make an example of them by sending them to mandatory cybersecurity awareness training.

The pitfall is that training as a punishment does more harm than good. A much better alternative is incentivizing the desired behavior. For instance, it rewards the first to report a phishing attempt. That way, you are promoting a healthy environment that will fare better when someone does decide to attack your organization.

2. Keep your attack controlled

Malware may also be used, depending on the attack vector you're testing. Each tool used in the test can have unforeseen consequences. In the case of bringing your device policies, this can be extremely dangerous as you could infect the employee's emails, mix up email addresses, and send malware to your clients.

Also, bear in mind that allowing the testing to spill into other areas can also have legal repercussions. During the write-up of your cyber attack scenario, critically evaluate what could backfire and limit as much collateral damage as possible.

3. Limit your communication when the test is in progress

Public announcements that a phishing test is incoming are a great way to nullify the value of the test. This automatically puts your employees on a higher alert. This can skew your test results, and the data might reflect a reality that doesn't exist.

organization'sIf you aim to get the full picture of an organization's cybersecurity awareness — your test should be a secret. That way you're mimicking real-life scenarios, which are always unannounced. Even if your employees start asking questions about a strange email that they got, answer them, but ask not to spread the message further.

4. Have patience

Depending on your chosen attack vector, the whole operation can drag on for a long time. You may need time to build credibility if you've selected to test social media to reach your targets. Then, there's passing, and there are multiple hoops to avoid being flagged by the service itself.

Email phishing campaigns can take time from a site-building and domain registration perspective. If you rely on a modest cybersecurity team, the work can take longer to set the stage for your test correctly.

5. Don't forget the appropriate code of conduct

As a result of your experiment, you will most likely obtain private data ranging from passwords to payment card details. As a tester, you should accept full responsibility for the gathered data's safety andata'sk to a strict code of conduct.

It would be best to have an action plan for shredding sensitive data. The danger of leaving it unprotected in some hard drives cannot be emphasized enough. Avoid situations when your test materials eventually get used by real hackers.

6. Have cybersecurity as part of your onboarding

Making cybersecurity a part of the company's DNA should be company's Even your onboarding should focus on cybersecurity and present various risks that could affect them.

Cybersecurity tests could function to keep your employees on alert and stay vigilant when receiving a request from an unknown sender. Plus, it's no use testing some it's when the employees have no experience detecting it. This approach helps to balance the two sides—theory and practice.

7. Perform tests regularly

Cybersecurity training exercises shouldn't be done once ashouldn'tompletely forgotten about. This is a muscle that needs constant training. Therefore, you should organize a test every couple of months. After the continuous tests, detecting suspicious stuff will be second nature to them.

This also will have a long-lasting effect on your organization as a whole. Each passed cybersecurity training additionally doubles down as a lesson of what to avoid or where to look for clues. The more your organization has cyber-aware people, the better cybersecurity status it will have.

How NordLayer can help you boost cybersecurity readiness and defense

Cybersecurity tabletop exercises are critical for preparing organizations for cyber threats. By simulating various scenarios, from phishing attacks to data breaches, these exercises help identify vulnerabilities and refine incident response strategies.

Integrated with cybersecurity products like advanced threat protection and network monitoring tools, tabletop exercises strengthen defenses and ensure teams are well-prepared to face real-world cyber threats. If you want to bolster your organization's security and resilience, contact our sales and see how we can help you achieve it.

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