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How to Strengthen Network Defenses Through Tabletop Exercises

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Executives participating in tabletop security exercise

When is the best time to conduct a fire drill? Certainly not while there’s a fire raging all around you. The best time is in advance of an actual emergency when people can practice specific actions and response protocols when they are calm and clearheaded. The same holds true when it comes to cyberattacks. Preparing your organization––and specifically your IT team and vendor partners––can enhance response readiness and mitigate potential damage in the event of a cyberattack. That advice applies to enterprises of all sizes. No matter whether you are a small business that outsources your IT services, or you’re a large enterprise with an internal IT team, or some combination of the two, every organization should be ready for a cyberattack. 

Tabletop exercises, like those recommended by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), offer a structured and interactive approach to evaluate preparedness, strengthen response plans and develop the skills and coordination needed to effectively handle an attack. These exercises simulate real-world scenarios and enable your team to develop and practice a variety of proactive responses. Tabletop exercises do not require a significant investment of time or money; you could set aside as little as 1–3 hours. The ultimate goal is for everyone at the table to practice what to do in the event of a breach, and then learn from the results. Exercises can be facilitated by a third party or by internal resources. 

Here are six steps for conducting tabletop exercises at your organization. 

Step 1: Define Clear Objectives and Scenarios––Start by defining the goals of your tabletop exercise. Are you testing your team's response time, communication protocols or specific procedures related to threats and malware? Make your objectives specific and measurable. Then, develop realistic scenarios that involve those specific threats. Consider how the malware may enter your network, what its potential impacts are and how it can evolve. The scenarios should challenge your team's problem-solving abilities. 

Step 2: Assemble Your Team––Choose individuals from various departments, such as IT, cybersecurity, legal and communications, to ensure a comprehensive response. If you have a Managed Service Provider (MSP) or Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) partner like Hughes, invite them to participate in (and perhaps help guide) the exercises. Assign roles and responsibilities, including incident commanders and decision-makers. 

Step 3: Conduct the Exercise––Introduce the malware scenario to participants, providing them with the necessary background information. Encourage them to think critically and act as they would in a real situation. As the scenario unfolds, guide participants through the decision-making process. Encourage open discussions on how to respond to the threat. What steps should be taken to mitigate the attack? What resources are needed? Who should do what? This is the time to test your team's problem-solving skills. 

Step 4: Evaluate and Assess––During the exercise, monitor how participants handle the situation. Take notes on their decisions, actions and communication. After the exercise concludes, gather participants for a debriefing session. Discuss the outcomes, what went well and what could be improved. Encourage participants to share their thoughts on the process. This lesson’s learned phase is an ideal time to conduct a “hot wash,” which involves a facilitated discussion to capture feedback about any issues, concerns or proposed improvements participants may have following the exercise. A hot wash can also be conducted following real-world incidents. 

Step 5: Analyze and Improve––Analyze the notes and feedback from the exercise. Identify strengths and weaknesses in your team's response to the scenarios. Create a document summarizing the lessons learned. Highlight areas for improvement and action items to enhance future preparedness. 

Step 6: Iterate and Enhance––Conduct tabletop exercises regularly, incorporating lessons learned from each session. This iterative approach ensures your team's readiness to face and adapt to new threats. 

By defining clear objectives, involving the right team members and partners, and regularly refining your efforts, tabletop exercises can help you to better protect your organization from ever-evolving threats and attacks. Through vigilant preparation and readiness training, you can strengthen your network defenses.