Wondering how to tell the world you've been hacked? Here's a handy guide from infosec academics

Pair of England's unis figure out better way of admitting terrible thing


Infosec boffins at the University of Kent have developed a "comprehensive playbook" for companies who, having suffered a computer security breach, want to know how to shrug off the public consequences and pretend everything's fine.

In a new paper titled "A framework for effective corporate communication after cyber security incidents," Kent's Dr Jason Nurse, along with Richard Knight of the University of Warwick, devised a framework for companies figuring out how to publicly respond to data security breaches and similar incidents where servers are hacked and customer records end up in the hands of criminals.

Those hoping the paper will give them a set of tools with which to mug off journalists and others asking pointed questions about a network breach will be disappointed, however: "With incidents involving an unintentional exposure of data, typically the organisation (via its employees or stakeholders) is indisputably at fault and thus cannot reassign blame away from itself or act as a victim."

Published in the Computers and Security journal, the academics' paper draws on previous well-known system breaches and security incidents such as the Ticketmaster hack before devising a flowchart for execs and their PR flunkeys alike to follow when bad things happen.

It also quotes from infosec personalities such as Troy Hunt, Brian Krebs, and Graham Cluley.

The flowchart and process does not advise the use of phrases such as "we take security very seriously," Nurse confirmed to The Register. That phrase has become a standing joke (read the replies to that tweet) within the infosec world whenever a company has suffered a data or security breach affecting individual customers. The framework does, however, advise execs to ask themselves "are you really taking security seriously?" when wording public messages in the aftermath of a breach.

It can be read on this scientific journal website, provided your browser doesn't block cookies.

It's all in the way you say it

Post-hack PR in the last few years has largely ranged from the "Feck, how do we get out of the headlines?" approach to "Crisis? what crisis?”, especially as state authorities turn a blind eye to companies buying off criminals, often with the active help of insurance companies.

One strong example of poor post-hack behaviour is cloud fundraising CRM purveyor Blackbaud, which was not only hacked by miscreants but then bought them off for a pinky promise that they wouldn't make use of the stolen data. Data breach notifications percolated through the world's charities and universities in the following months, while Blackbaud execs ignored the tidal wave of negative publicity and insisted insurance covered the ransom, so all was well.

Another example of behaviour that falls short of ideal is Carlson Wagonlit Travel, aka CWT. When The Register broke the news that CWT had been hacked, the firm issued a contrite statement but insisted personally identifiable information hadn't been stolen – a claim with little credibility (why infect a travel agency's servers with ransomware if you're not intending to steal the most ransom-worthy data it keeps?). At least one of CWT's corporate customers (a big US tech firm) fell into line with this policy of denial.

It is to be hoped that companies become a bit more forthcoming about breaches and a bit less ready to pay off criminals or persuade insurers to do that on their behalf. The current direction of travel, however, suggests the situation will get worse before it gets better. ®

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