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  • Donald E. Hester

Choosing the Right Participants: A Guide to Inviting Stakeholders for Your Cyber Tabletop Exercise

Introduction

In the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, organizations must prioritize preparedness to effectively mitigate risks and protect their operations. Cyber tabletop exercises have emerged as a valuable tool for assessing and enhancing cybersecurity readiness. One crucial aspect of planning a successful exercise is determining who to invite. In this blog post, we will explore the roles and responsibilities of participants, discuss key stakeholders to consider inviting and address the question of involving elected officials in your cyber tabletop exercise.


Roles and Responsibilities To ensure a comprehensive and productive exercise, it's important to define the roles and responsibilities of the participants. Here are the four main roles typically involved:

Players:

These individuals actively engage in the exercise, assuming their regular roles and responsibilities. They discuss and initiate actions in response to the simulated cyber emergency, allowing for the practical application of their knowledge and skills.

Facilitators:

Facilitators play a crucial role in providing situation updates, moderating discussions, and ensuring the exercise progresses smoothly. They also address any questions, provide additional information, and guide participants when necessary.


Note-takers:

Note-takers document the discussions and outcomes of the exercise. Their role is crucial in capturing valuable insights and lessons learned, which will contribute to the development of the After-Action Report.


Observers:

Observers bring subject matter expertise and support the development of player responses. They can ask relevant questions, provide guidance, and offer feedback during the exercise.

Who Should You Invite?

In order to simulate a realistic cyber incident scenario, it's essential to invite key internal and external stakeholders. Consider the following individuals and organizations:

Internal Stakeholders

In the world of cybersecurity, organizations face a multitude of threats that can have far-reaching impacts on their operations, reputation, and strategic goals. To ensure a comprehensive and effective response to cyber incidents, it is crucial to involve key internal stakeholders in tabletop exercises. These stakeholders play a vital role in understanding, preparing for, and mitigating the consequences of cyber incidents. Let's explore the importance of inviting internal stakeholders to your tabletop exercise and the specific benefits they bring to the table.

Executives: Active Participation and Strategic Insight

When executives are invited to participate in tabletop exercises, it showcases their commitment to cybersecurity and their understanding of its potential impact on the organization's mission and strategic objectives. Their active involvement in the exercise fosters a culture of preparedness and ensures that decision-makers have firsthand experience in handling simulated cyber incidents. Executives' insights, strategic thinking, and decision-making abilities contribute significantly to developing effective response strategies and allocating necessary resources.

Department Heads: Cross-Functional Collaboration and Comprehensive Response

Involving department heads in tabletop exercises promotes cross-functional collaboration, enabling a comprehensive response effort. Each department within an organization has a unique role to play in mitigating the effects of a cyber incident. By inviting department heads, you encourage their active engagement in the exercise, allowing them to contribute their expertise, knowledge of department-specific vulnerabilities, and insights into operational challenges. This collaboration fosters a holistic approach to incident response and facilitates the coordination necessary to address complex cybersecurity issues.

It is essential to invite the heads of departments or divisions that would be adversely affected by a cyber incident. Their participation allows for a better understanding of the operational impact, resource requirements, and recovery needs specific to their areas. This involvement ensures that response strategies account for department-specific considerations, minimizing disruptions and expediting the recovery process.

Public Relations (Communications): Effective Communication Strategies

Effective communication is crucial during a cyber incident to manage internal and external stakeholders, control the narrative, and maintain public trust. By involving public relations or communications professionals in tabletop exercises, you ensure that communication strategies are incorporated into the exercise. These experts can provide guidance on crafting timely and accurate messaging, coordinating public statements, and managing media relations. By practicing communication protocols during the exercise, organizations can refine their crisis communication plans, minimize reputational damage, and enhance stakeholder confidence.

Legal or City Attorney: Navigating Legal Implications and Litigation Risks

Cyber incidents often have legal implications, and understanding the potential legal ramifications is essential. Inviting legal professionals or city attorneys to the tabletop exercise enables organizations to navigate these complexities effectively. They can provide insights into data privacy regulations, compliance requirements, and contractual obligations. Their presence allows for discussions on potential litigation risks, the preservation of evidence, and the appropriate course of action, ensuring that legal considerations are integrated into incident response strategies.

Internal Audit: Strengthening Controls and Identifying Gaps

If your organization has an internal audit function, their involvement in the tabletop exercise can be invaluable. Internal auditors possess a deep understanding of internal controls, risk management frameworks, and regulatory requirements. By participating in the exercise, they can assess the effectiveness of existing controls, identify potential gaps or weaknesses, and provide recommendations for improvement. Their insights can help organizations enhance their cybersecurity posture and ensure compliance with relevant standards and regulations.

Incident Responders or Security Operations (seems obvious)

If your organization has dedicated incident responders or a security operations team, their participation in the tabletop exercise is vital. These experts possess technical knowledge, response protocols, and incident-handling experience. Involving them allows organizations to test and refine their incident response processes, identify bottlenecks, and enhance coordination between incident responders and other stakeholders. Their active participation ensures a realistic simulation and equips them with the necessary skills to effectively address future cyber incidents.

Inviting internal stakeholders to your tabletop exercise brings immense value to the organization's cybersecurity preparedness. Executives, department heads, public relations professionals, city attorneys, internal auditors, and other stakeholders contribute their unique expertise and perspectives to the exercise. Their active participation fosters cross-functional collaboration, aligns strategic goals, strengthens communication strategies, enhances legal considerations, improves internal controls, and ensures a comprehensive response effort. By involving internal stakeholders, organizations can develop robust incident response capabilities and minimize the potential impact of cyber incidents on their operations and reputation.


External Stakeholders

When it comes to cybersecurity, organizations cannot operate in isolation. The ever-evolving threat landscape demands collaboration, knowledge sharing, and coordination with external stakeholders. Inviting external stakeholders to your tabletop exercise brings numerous benefits, ranging from access to expertise and resources to fostering community collaboration. Let's explore the importance of involving external stakeholders in your tabletop exercise and the specific advantages they bring to the table.

Law Enforcement Agencies: Insights and Guidance

Law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), play a crucial role in cyber incident response. By inviting them to your tabletop exercise, you can tap into their expertise in attribution, cybercrime investigations, and advice on critical actions like making ransom payments. Their insights can help your organization make informed decisions during simulated scenarios and understand the legal and regulatory implications associated with cyber incidents.

Cybersecurity Agencies: Collaboration and Resource Access

Involving cybersecurity agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and regional organizations such as Cal-CSIC fosters collaboration and knowledge sharing. These agencies have a wealth of expertise, access to resources, and up-to-date information on emerging threats and best practices. Their participation in tabletop exercises enables organizations to learn from their experience, gain insights into current trends, and receive guidance on incident response strategies. Collaborating with these external stakeholders strengthens the overall cybersecurity posture of your organization.

Regional Fusion Center: Valuable Intelligence and Coordination Support

Engaging the Regional Fusion Center is particularly important for organizations involved in critical infrastructure. Fusion Centers serve as intelligence hubs, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information to enhance situational awareness and response capabilities. By involving the Fusion Center in your tabletop exercise, you can benefit from their valuable intelligence, coordination support, and regional threat insights. This collaboration ensures a more comprehensive and coordinated response to cyber incidents affecting critical infrastructure partners.

Incident Responders: Realistic and Coordinated Response

If your organization has incident responders either on retainer or in-house, their participation in the tabletop exercise is crucial. These responders possess specialized knowledge, technical skills, and experience in handling cyber incidents. Including them in the exercise allows for a realistic simulation and enables coordinated response efforts. They can actively engage in discussions, test incident response plans, identify areas for improvement and enhance coordination between internal and external teams.

SOC-as-a-Service Provider: Evaluating Effectiveness and Coordination

Organizations that outsource their incident response to SOC-as-a-Service providers can benefit from including them in tabletop exercises. Their involvement allows you to assess the effectiveness of their services, evaluate their coordination with internal teams, and identify areas of improvement. By practicing incident response scenarios together, organizations can ensure seamless collaboration, streamline communication channels, and enhance the overall effectiveness of outsourced incident response capabilities.

Cyber Insurance Provider: Evaluating Response and Coverage

Including your cyber insurance provider in the tabletop exercise allows you to assess their response capabilities and evaluate the coverage they provide in the event of a cyber incident. By simulating scenarios, you can gauge how well they align with your incident response plans, understand their communication and claims processes, and identify any gaps in coverage. This involvement ensures that you have a comprehensive understanding of your insurance policies and can make informed decisions regarding risk mitigation and incident response strategies.

Collaboration for Best Practices and Learning Opportunities

In recent tabletop exercises, involving external stakeholders such as CISA Cybersecurity Advisors, CalCISC representatives, county cybersecurity professionals, and observers from other state and local governments has proven beneficial. These exercises serve as opportunities for the community to collaborate, exchange insights, and learn from one another. Observers can provide valuable perspectives on how they would respond to similar situations, and organizations can determine best-of-breed practices by working together. Building strong relationships with external stakeholders strengthens the overall cybersecurity resilience of the community.

Inviting external stakeholders to your tabletop exercise enriches the learning experience and strengthens the cybersecurity preparedness of your organization. Law enforcement agencies, cybersecurity agencies, Fusion Centers, incident responders, SOC-as-a-Service providers, and cyber insurance providers bring valuable expertise, resources, insights, and coordination support. By collaborating with these stakeholders, organizations can enhance their incident response capabilities, stay updated on the latest threats and best practices, and foster a culture of community resilience. Remember, in the face of cyber threats, unity and collaboration are key to staying one step ahead.

Should You Invite Your Elected Officials?

The debate surrounding the participation of elected officials in cyber tabletop exercises is a complex one, with valid arguments on both sides.

On the positive side, involving elected officials can have significant benefits. Their presence can enhance decision-making processes by bringing a broader perspective to the table and ensuring that cybersecurity is given due attention at the highest level of governance. It sends a strong message about the importance of cyber risk management and demonstrates the commitment of the agency to address potential threats effectively. Their involvement in a cyber tabletop exercise would be evidence of effective cyber risk oversight on their part.

However, it's crucial to proceed with caution. There is also a risk that they may attempt to micromanage the event, overstepping their role of providing strategic oversight. It's important to establish clear boundaries and expectations regarding their involvement, ensuring that they understand their role is to observe, learn, and provide guidance rather than delve into operational details.

The presence of elected officials can significantly impact the behavior of department heads and city managers during a tabletop exercise. When elected officials are around, there is often a tendency for city executives to prioritize putting a positive spin on things and presenting the organization in the best possible light. The exercise, however, is designed to uncover weaknesses, assess vulnerabilities, and identify areas for improvement. The temptation to downplay or cover up shortcomings to present a more favorable image to elected bosses can be significant. However, it is crucial to recognize that the primary purpose of the exercise is to identify and address weaknesses, fostering a culture of transparency and continuous improvement.

To ensure the exercise remains effective, it is essential to establish an environment that encourages open and honest discussions, where participants feel comfortable acknowledging challenges and proposing solutions. This requires clear communication about the objectives of the exercise and the importance of uncovering weaknesses for the sake of improvement rather than placing blame. By fostering a culture of accountability and learning, department heads and city managers can overcome the temptation to prioritize a positive spin and instead focus on the genuine discovery and resolution of cybersecurity weaknesses.

Ultimately, the decision to invite elected officials should be based on a careful assessment of their understanding, interest, and potential impact on the exercise. A tabletop exercise can be an opportunity for elected officials to demonstrate their commitment to cyber risk management and practice their oversight responsibilities. However, it's essential to strike a balance between their involvement and maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of the exercise itself.

Conclusion

When it comes to conducting a tabletop exercise, it's important to remember that you don't need an elaborate setup or a large number of participants. You can still achieve valuable outcomes with a minimal team. One crucial question to ask is, "Who would be impacted by a cyber incident, and who would we call for help?" By identifying the key stakeholders within your organization who would be directly affected by an incident, you can determine the essential individuals to invite to the exercise. Additionally, consider reaching out to external parties such as law enforcement agencies, cybersecurity agencies, incident responders, and relevant service providers who can offer assistance during a real incident. While the size of the team may vary, the focus should be on including the right people who can contribute their expertise and help develop effective response strategies.

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