In the US, many organizations anxiously awaiting assistance under the CARES Act are becoming the targets of cyberattackers looking to feed off of the massive relief being provided by the US treasury. Yesterday, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issued a joint alert warning of a substantial increase in these attacks, providing helpful guidance concerning the nature of the attacks and related information.

Specifically, the alert provides information on exploitation by cybercriminal and advanced persistent threat (APT) groups of the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic. It includes a non-exhaustive list of indicators of compromise (IOCs) for detection as well as mitigation advice. The alert notes that the surge in teleworking has increased the use of potentially vulnerable services, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), amplifying the threat to individuals and organizations.

Organizations may not be able to prevent all attacks, but there are steps they could take to minimize the chance and impact of a successful attack, and to be prepared to respond. Here are just a few of those steps.

Before an Attack

  1. Build the right team
  • Ensure you have an IT team in place, whether internal or through a third-party vendor, that is well-versed in emerging threats and prepared to support the organization in the event of an attack.
  1. Secure the systems
  • Conduct a risk assessment and penetration test to understand the potential for exposure to malware.
  • Implement technical measures and policies that can prevent an attack, such as endpoint security, multi-factor authentication, regular updates to virus and malware definitions/protections, intrusion prevention software and web browser protection, and monitor user activity for unauthorized and high risk activities.
  1. Make your employees aware of the risks and steps they must take in case of an attack
  • This is particularly critical now – educate employees on how to recognize phishing attacks and dangerous sites — say it, show them, and do it regularly. This includes instructing them to use caution when clicking directly on links in emails, even if the sender appears to be known — verify web addresses independently.
  • Employees should avoid revealing personal or financial information about themselves,  other employees, customers, and the company in email, including wiring instructions. If they must, they should confirm by phone.
  • Direct employees to pay attention to the URL of a website. Malicious websites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain (e.g., .com vs. .net).
  • Instruct employees on what to do immediately if they believe an attack has occurred (e.g., notify IT, disconnect from network, and other measures) and what not to do (e.g., deleting system files, attempting to restore the system to an earlier date, and the like).
  1. Maintain backups
  • Backup data early and often.
  • Keep backup files disconnected from the network and in separate locations.
  1. Develop and practice an “Incident Response Plan”
  • Identify the internal team (e.g., leadership, IT, general counsel, and HR).
  • Identify the external team (e.g., insurance carrier, outside legal counsel, forensic investigator, and public relations).
  • Outline steps for organizational continuity — using backup files and new equipment, safeguarding systems, and updating employees.
  • Plan to involve law enforcement (e.g., FBI, IRS, Office of Civil Rights, and so on).
  • Plan to identify, assess, and comply with legal and contractual obligations.
  • Practice the response plan with the internal and external teams, reviewing and updating the plan to improve performance.

After an Attack

  1. Secure your systems
  • Review and follow your Incident Response Plan.
  • Avoid compromising your investigation! This includes being careful to preserve firewalls, network and other access and activity logs and artifacts on the system that could have valuable information needed to confirm whether or not a breach occurred.
  • Determine whether all malware has been removed and systems are protected from future attacks, including whether the attack is completed or ongoing, and, if ongoing, how to contain it.
  • Evaluate feasibility of restoring the affected systems for normal use, mindful of the need to preserve information necessary for a forensic investigation, litigation defense, and enforcement agency inquiry.
  • Monitor restored systems for a period of time.
  1. Consult legal counsel and other key vendors
  • Data breaches can trigger obligations under federal and state privacy laws, as well as contractual and ethical obligations. Obligations include notifying affected persons and federal and state agencies, as well as providing credit monitoring and identity theft resolutions services. Experienced legal counsel can help the organization navigate the maze of federal and state mandates.
  • In cases of ransomware, recovering encrypted data can be complex and uncomfortable for the organization, particularly if faced with a demand for a ransom payment. Organizations should consider options carefully.
  • Members of IT staff may not have sufficient experience with the latest cybersecurity tools and attack methodologies to provide competent and efficient direction. Be sure your team is experienced.
  • Consulting with your insurance broker or cyber-insurance carrier is important not only to confirm applicable coverage, but because seasoned insurance professionals can provide valuable early guidance.
  1. Investigate the incident
  • Determine what happened, when, and the method the hackers used to carry out the attack.
  • Identify which systems were affected and the nature of the data affected (e.g., protected health information (“PHI”)).
  • Identify the total number of individuals (in each state of residence) whose data was affected.
  • Confirm whether evidence shows that the affected data was accessed, acquired, and/or exfiltrated to the outside of your systems.
  • Evaluate what mitigation measures were in place (e.g., were the affected files encrypted, extent of data backup, and so on).
  1. Provide notifications, if needed, have a communication plan
  • Determine whether state or federal laws, or other obligations, require notification.
  • Federal and state agencies and credit monitoring bureaus may need to be notified based on a number of factors, including the states of residence of the persons affected and the number of persons affected.
  • Be sure notification include mandatory disclosure and are provided within applicable time frames.
  • Credit monitoring, call center, and other services also may be required or appropriate under the circumstances.
  • Consider potential impact on affected customers, patient, employees, students, etc. Have a communication plan ready to reach key constituencies and mitigate harm.
  1. Lessons learned
  • Prepare an Incident Response Report including the Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
  • Review the Incident Response Report with all internal and external team members to learn from and prevent future attacks.

 

No doubt the threat of an attack has increased based on the joint report referenced above. At the same time, hardening an organization’s environment has become particularly more challenging in this environment. Increasing awareness among employees to avoid becoming a victim of a phishing attack could be an excellent initial step.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently leads the firm’s Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently leads the firm’s Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Mr. Lazzarotti also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Mr. Lazzarotti counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Mr. Lazzarotti’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Mr. Lazzarotti speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Mr. Lazzarotti served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.