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Penn State and a Coordinated Response

Penn State was hacked, but returned “a coordinated and¬†deliberate response.”

NOTE: Our firm, Coordinated Response was NOT involved, but we can all learn from Penn State’s response. The response includes a number of best practices highlighted in this article.

On May 15, 2015 Penn State announced the discovery of two sophisticated cyber attacks. “In a coordinated and deliberate response by Penn State, the College of Engineering’s computer network has been disconnected from the Internet and a large-scale operation to securely recover all systems is underway.”

For more details read the announcement on the Penn State web site, but here are some best practices.

An Effective Communications Plan

Penn State announced the breach on May 15. On the same day, they released the web site http://securepennstate.psu.edu/ to keep students and faculty informed of events. The URL suggests they were prepared for any eventuality. Penn State also notified research partners and individuals who may have had sensitive data exposed to the intruder.

Detect and Analyze

On November 21, 2014, the FBI alerted Penn State of a cyber attack with unknown origins and scope. The University’s security experts along with outside experts began an extensive investigation. Mandiant, a FireEye company, was one of the experts. The investigation determined that the earliest confirmed date of intrusion was September 2012 — over 2 years earlier.

Contain: Protect and Preserve

Steps were immediately taken to further protect and preserve critical information and sensitive data on the College of Engineering Systems.

Cone of Silence

No announcements were made to avoid alerting the intruder and to avoid unwanted damage or destruction.

Eradicate and Recover

On May 15, once the scope and nature of the intrusion were known, the engineering systems were taken offline to remove malware, secure the systems, and restore them to operational status. This is expected to take several days. All passwords are being reset to address potentially compromised credentials.

Communicate

Once the investigation was completed the communication plan was launched.

Lessons Learned

Two factor authentication for remote access to the Engineering systems is being implemented now. This will be extended to the rest of the University later this year. Additional measures were taken to improve the security posture.

Coordinated Response

One might question why it took over 2 years and an outside organization to discover the intrusion. But, experience suggests state actors operate “slow and low”. First, the intruders observe without leaving “foot prints” for an extended period. Then, instead of leaving 10 foot prints a day, they leave 1 a day for 10 days. They work hard to make it hard to detect.

But, once alerted, Penn State responded with a well planned and well coordinated response. Let us help your organization with an incident response plan review. Together, we can apply best practices to improve the plan and the outcome of a cyber incident.