Protecting government cloud information with incident response

Preparing for a cloud security incident will ensure that both government and cloud provider IT teams can respond quickly and effectively in a crisis.

The cloud offers a variety of innovative ways to improve productivity, engage users and enhance a government agency’s effectiveness. However, for IT departments, moving government information to the cloud brings many new challenges, including dependence on a cloud service provider to fix critical problems.

Addressing security issues in the cloud has its own challenges. In the event of a cloud security breach, incident response is more complex than when all IT resources are under an agency’s roof. For example, a critical vulnerability that requires a patch may be identified, but the agency may not be able to fix it because it has no authorization to alter the cloud service provider's pre-packaged stack. Additionally, because the agency does not own the network, it has no way to access all the details if an incident requires investigation.

To avoid a major security issue in the cloud, government agencies must have an incident response plan in place. The following are recommended steps:

Craft a joint response plan with the cloud provider. The first step is to establish a joint response process. Responsibilities and roles should be clearly defined, and contact information for primary and secondary contacts should be exchanged. Government agencies must obtain a detailed explanation of what triggers the provider's incident response and how the provider will manage its pre-packaged stack if a forensic investigation is required.

Evaluate the cloud monitoring controls and security measures. Agencies must understand the cloud provider’s  monitoring and security technologies and know what tools they can access. If the provider’s security controls are insufficient, agencies must find ways to deploy supplemental  controls.

Build a recovery plan.  Determine recovery options in the event of a provider outage. The recovery plan must define whether an alternate provider or internal assets should be used, as well the process to collect and move data, including snapshots that should be kept in separate networks.

Evaluate cloud infrastructure forensic tools. Discover what forensics tools are available from the cloud provider or from other sources. An security incident that involves information protected by government regulations may trigger legal and compliance challenges, so having tools that can help with forensics and evidence tracking is essential.

Handling a cloud security incident

Although incident response is similar for attacks in the cloud and on premise, response to cloud attacks requires some additional steps.

  • Contact the cloud provider’s incident response team immediately. While awaiting a response, agencies should work to contain the incident by controlling connections to cloud service and revoking user access to the cloud service in question.
  • Prepare to move to an alternate service or set up an internal server if the incident cannot be controlled or contained.
  • Restore production services by instantiating a new instance in a separate location.

Cloud incident response best practices

Many agencies face a lack of skilled talent to manage security. Finding qualified personnel with experience in a specific cloud solution will be even a bigger challenge. Therefore, enhancing the skills of existing employees and/or bringing new employees up to speed quickly is critical. Some suggestions include:

  • Promote collaboration to help junior analysts benefit from the experience of senior staff. These efforts may reveal duplicate tasks or processes that can be eliminated.
  • Create playbooks that prescribe standard procedures for responding to incidents. Update the playbooks to reflect new lessons and technologies as well as the growing sophistication of the adversaries. While there cannot be a guide for every potential situation, playbooks make excellent training materials.
  • Automate repetitive and routine tasks, which frees staff for more important tasks.
  • Leverage situational awareness from historical and real-time points of view. An effective analysis of past incidents can create a foundation for better decisions about future incidents.
  • Analyze incidents and create a database to help determine the types of problems, the frequency of each type of incident and the skills needed to address each type of issue. Analysis can help identify vulnerabilities and determine where to bolster security.

Like most security best practices related to cloud applications, incident response should be a shared responsibility between the government agency and the cloud provider. Jointly planning incident response for cloud applications ensures both parties have the right contacts, tools and processes in place. Consider using an incident response platform to facilitate collaboration between internal and external teams, track the incident response process and automate key security tasks.  Preparing for a cloud security incident will ensure that  both government and cloud provider IT teams can respond quickly and effectively in a crisis.

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