Redefining Breach Recovery

For too long, the definition of “breach recovery” has focused on returning information systems to a trustworthy state. The purpose of an incident response operation was to scope the extent of a compromise, remove the intruder if still present, and return the business information systems to pre-breach status. This is completely acceptable from the point of view of the computing architecture.

During the last ten years we have witnessed an evolution in thinking about the likelihood of breaches. When I published my first book in 2004, critics complained that my “assumption of breach” paradigm was defeatist and unrealistic. “Of course you could keep intruders out of the network, if you combined the right controls and technology,” they claimed. A decade of massive breaches have demonstrated that preventing all intrusions is impossible, given the right combination of adversary skill and persistence, and lack of proper defensive strategy and operations.

We need to now move beyond the arena of breach recovery as a technical and computing problem. Every organization needs to think about how to recover the interests of its constituents, should the organization lose their data to an adversary. Data custodians need to change their business practices such that breaches are survivable from the perspective of the constituent. (By constituent I mean customers, employees, partners, vendors — anyone dependent upon the practices of the data custodian.)

Compare the following scenarios.

If an intruder compromises your credit card, it is fairly painless for a consumer to recover. There is a $50 or less financial penalty. The bank or credit card company handles replacing the card. Credit monitoring and related services are generally adequate for limiting damage. Your new credit card is as functional as the old credit card.

If an intruder compromises your Social Security number, recovery may not be possible. The financial penalties are unbounded. There is no way to replace a stolen SSN. Credit monitoring and related services can only alert citizens to derivative misuse, and the victim must do most of the work to recover — if possible. The citizen is at risk wherever other data custodians rely on SSNs for authentication purposes.

This SSN situation, and others, must change. All organizations who act as data custodians must evaluate the data in their control, and work to improve the breach recovery status for their constituents. For SSNs, this means eliminating their secrecy as a means of authentication. This will be a massive undertaking, but it is necessary.

It’s time to redefine what it means to recover from a breach, and put constituent benefit at the heart of the matter, where it belongs.