It finally happened. You’ve sensed your organization was at risk of a breach, but leadership wasn’t prepared to invest in the tools and develop the skills needed to properly defend your systems and assets. Now you’re on your heels, trying to contain the damage. What next? Consider taking a quick deep dive into the critical cybersecurity domain of Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR).
What Is (and Isn’t) Digital Forensics and Incident Response?
Digital Forensics is the process of acquiring, preserving, and interpreting digital evidence. It involves a thorough analysis of the evidence to determine what actions were taken by the threat actor to establish a clean understanding of the attack timeline, providing valuable insights into the incident to to help prevent similar occurrences in the future. Incident Response (IR) focuses on preparing to respond to and remediate a cybersecurity incident. It’s the overarching process an organization uses to detect, contain, and recover from an incident. The goal of an IR program is to minimize the damages from data loss, disruptions to business operations, outages related to critical system infrastructure, and brand reputation that can accommodate a cyber incident.
While these are separate disciplines, they go hand in hand. Consider what you’d need to do if your organization was compromised, and it’s easy to understand why. After an incident is detected, knowing its full extent and preparing a response strategy will depend on processes related to digital forensics. You need to understand precisely how an adversary initially penetrated your environment, which systems they got into, what was their attack vector, how they laterally moved between systems, and how they ultimately exfiltrated your critical assets. After containing it, full recovery and remediation relies on optimal digital forensics processes.
You might be thinking, “this all sounds good, but isn’t this what all cybersecurity teams do?” Not quite. A couple full-time employees on your cybersecurity staff, or even a full SOC with a team of analysts, is a great start, but it doesn’t mean your organization actually does DFIR. Reviewing event logs and identifying and triaging incidents is just the tip of the iceberg. A leading-edge DFIR program goes much deeper by preparing your organization to fully remediate a breach and hold the adversaries accountable.
How Do You Know Your Organization Is Ready for DFIR?
An effective DFIR program requires a serious commitment in time and resources, so take some time evaluating your organization’s need, business risk, and overall maturity and readiness before diving in the deep end.
Organizational Need and Business Risk
A breach actually impacting your organization and causing serious damage is an obvious indicator that your organization needs some level of DFIR. That’s what drives most organizations to implement a DFIR program. But by then it’s too late, and the damage can be significant. The average cost of a data breach was $4.35 million globally in 2022, and a fully tested incident response plan can reduce these costs by $2.66 million on average, according to [IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach Report](https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/3R8N1DZJ).
That said, not every organization has the same level of risk to justify the time and investment DFIR requires, so consider factors that may increase your organization’s risk profile. Digital transformation initiatives like cloud migration, BYOD, remote work, digital collaboration and productivity applications expand attack surfaces and increase risk. Mergers and acquisitions introduce new risks. Separate teams merging means different systems and databases coming together too, and unknowns about how the other systems work can lead to gaps in configuration and other errors that leave critical assets exposed. Another risk is when your organization has witnessed rapid pace for a long time. This scenario often prioritizes supporting continued growth over scaling processes to ensure operational security.
Think about how these or similar scenarios may relate to your organization’s risk profile. Even if it’s not quite time to fully implement
Maturity and Readiness
Not all cybersecurity teams are mature enough for DFIR. You can assess your team’s maturity by reviewing three pillars: process, technology, and people. For a DFIR program to be successful, you need all three to be strong.
Process is a key component of any program, but especially DFIR. Leading-edge DFIR processes depend on fundamentally solid defensive security procedures. This varies for every team, but you want to ensure your team is using industry standard operating procedures, such as continuous network traffic monitoring, processes for incident handling, internal and external communications in the event of a breach, and target timelines / KPIs for mean time to detect and mean time to respond.
Those are the more tangible processes to consider, but you should also consider softer “cultural” processes. It’s crucial to set up an environment that encourages team development and growth. The best DFIR practitioners will be open to different perspectives, committed to developing new skills, and keen to experiment with new tactics. Make sure you’re accommodating them with processes that promote growth, like budgeting for ongoing skills development and dedicating time each week or month for practitioners to engage with training content.
Technology for a DFIR program relies on having fundamental tools already in place. For more advanced DFIR technical workflows, you need a solid foundation. A security information and event management (SIEM) system is a key initial requirement. Critical for SOC processes, SIEMs enable the monitoring, logging, reporting, and analysis of security events, or any time something happens where protected data might have been exposed.
An endpoint detection and response (EDR) tool is a more advanced, DFIR-centric platform. EDRs detect suspicious behavior on network and user devices, going beyond the SIEM tool’s capabilities by incorporating automated response workflows. EDRs help operationalize IR processes to contain an incident and prepare for investigation and remediation. If you don’t have one, plan on implementing one for a true IR program. There are even more specialized DFIR tools that go even deeper than the capabilities of an EDR. Whereas EDR covers the “what” and “when” of a security incident, dedicated DFIR tools go into the “how” “who” and even “why” by acquiring and analyzing the most granular data on the incident to triangulate these details.
People are arguably the most important of the three pillars. DFIR requires a specific skill set and experience, going beyond the basic blocking and tackling of offensive security. If you’re not sure your team has these skills, a good qualifying question is to ask whether someone on your team really knows how to perform forensic acquisition and is prepared to navigate the legal proceedings related to a data breach. You can take this further by implementing a DFIR-centric skills assessment for key team members and identifying any gaps. Prioritizing skills development by giving team members dedicated time to engage with DFIR-related training content will go a long way in closing these gaps.
How Do You Implement a DFIR Program?
A successful DFIR implementation will look a lot like any other new organizational priority. It starts with a business case that helps align stakeholders on the organization’s need, educates them on key benefits of the DFIR program, and secures budget for new investments in people and technology.
As you’re working through your implementation plan, go back to the three pillars discussed in the previous section and identify what you need to refine and improve to set yourself up for success.
For process, take some time to fine tune your standard operating procedures to get the most benefit from your DFIR program. The details of what these process improvements entail will depend on your organization. In general you want to follow a consistent, efficient process that allows your team to respond to incidents as quickly as possible, contain damages, rapidly recover and restore systems to their pre-breach status, investigate root causes to eliminate similar threats moving forward, and thoroughly acquire and document evidence to ensure you can prosecute attackers.
For technology, refine your existing SIEM configuration to support more advanced DFIR use cases. Again, this varies by organization, but you’ll want to explore automating response workflows based on alerts for specific security event types detected by your SIEM. Your SIEM’s capabilities may come up short in supporting more advanced use cases. As discussed in the above section, adding dedicated EDR and DFIR tools to your security tech stack will enable you to not only respond to an incident, but quickly contain the damage and streamlining the investigation and acquisition process to hold attackers accountable.
For people, consider whether your best path forward is hiring new team members or developing DFIR skills within your existing team. If your current staff isn’t quite up to task, recruit a seasoned practitioner with specialized DFIR experience. Ideally, you’ll want a cybersecurity professional with varied experience across different company sizes and industries, with exposure to a variety of different breach response and investigation scenarios.
Take your time with the interviewing process and make sure they feel like a fit within your team dynamics, but if you feel like you’ve found a match, move fast with an offer. When top cybersecurity professionals put themselves on the job market, they don’t last long.
How Do You Develop DFIR Skills Within Your Team?
With a commitment to a robust skills development program, it’s entirely possible to upskill your existing staff to fill the role(s) needed for a DFIR program. Start by identifying who is best suited. Potential candidates could be a high-performing junior SOC analyst with a strong command of incident response tactics or an intermediate practitioner who has excelled across several functions and is looking to specialize.
Ensure you’re giving them sufficient time to engage with training content to develop the necessary skills. You’ll also want to ensure they’re following a thorough curriculum that covers the key components of DFIR. This includes incident response theory and detailed forensics techniques spanning key systems and platforms like Windows, Linux, MacOS, memory, cloud, and mobile. Mission-ready skills development requires sufficient exposure to labs that offer hands-on experience using these techniques. You also need to ensure they understand how to navigate legal proceedings and fully grasp the broader context of DFIR’s importance to the business.
At Cybrary, we’re helping ensure organizations are ready to respond when security incidents escalate to the highest levels. Our Digital Forensics and Incident Response series is a new flagship set of courses within our new Cybrary Select advanced content program. Exclusively available to Cybrary for Teams accounts, this series covers a comprehensive DFIR curriculum spanning all enterprise systems and scenarios to ensure your defenses are ready.
With Cybrary Select, your staff can confidently fill advanced DFIR roles and position your organization for success. If you’re an existing Teams customer, check out our DFIR series overview for a deeper look at the curriculum. If you’re interested in learning how Cybrary for Teams and Cybrary Select can upskill your staff to ensure you're prepared to respond, remediate, and recover from breaches, request a demo today.