Tag Archive: cyber-risk oversight

Questions to Ask After the WannaCry Attack

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Major General (Ret.) Brett Williams

After last week’s devastating global ransomware attack, now known as WannaCry, directors will once again be questioning management teams to make sure the company is protected. The challenge is that most directors do not know what questions they should be asking.

If I were sitting on a board, this attack would prompt me to ask questions about the following three areas:

  • End of Life (EOL) software;
  • patching; and
  • disaster recovery.

EOL Software. EOL software is software that is no longer supported by the company that developed it in the first place, meaning that it is not updated or patched to protect against emerging threats. WannaCry took advantage of versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system that were beyond EOL and had well-known security vulnerabilities.

Typically, a company runs EOL software because they have a critical application that requires customized software that cannot run on a current operating system. This situation might force you to maintain an EOL version of Windows, for example, to run the software. In the instance of WannaCry, Windows XP and 8 in particular were targeted. Boards should be asking what risks are we taking by allowing management to continue running EOL software. Are there other options? Could we contract for the development of a new solution? If not, what measures have we taken to mitigate risks presented by relying on EOL software?

Other times companies run EOL software because they do not want to pay for the new software or they expect a level of unacceptable operational friction to occur during the transition from the old version to the new. Particularly in a large, complex environment the cross-platform dependencies can be difficult to understand and predict. Again, it is a risk assessment. What is the risk of running the outdated software, particularly when it supports a critical business function? If the solution is perceived as unaffordable, how does the cost of a new solution compare to the cost of a breach? Directors should also ask where are we running EOL software and why.

Patching. Software companies regularly release updates to their software called patches. The patches address performance issues, fix software bugs, add functionality, and eliminate security vulnerabilities. At any one time, even a mid-sized company could have a backlog of hundreds of patches that have not been applied. This backlog develops for a variety of reasons, but the most central issue is that information technology staff are concerned that applying the patch may “break” some process or software integration and impact the business. This is a valid concern.

In the case of WannaCry, Microsoft issued a patch in March  that would eliminate the vulnerability that allowed the malware to spread. Two months later, hundreds of thousands of machines remained unpatched and were successfully compromised.

Directors should ask for a high-level description of the risk management framework applied to the patching process. Do we treat critical patches differently than we treat lower-grade patches? Have we identified the software that supports critical business processes and apply a different time standard to apply patches there? If a patch will close a critical security vulnerability, but may also disrupt a strategic business function, are the leaders at the appropriate level of the business planning to manage disruption while also securing the enterprise? Have we invested in solutions that expedite the patching process so that we can patch as efficiently as possible?

Disaster Recovery. It is considered a disaster when your company ceases to execute core business functions because of a cyberattack. In the case of WannaCry, many businesses, including essential medical facilities in the United Kingdom, could not function. WannaCry was a potent example of how a cyberattack, which is an abstract concept for many business leaders, can have devastating impact in the physical world.

One aspect of disaster recovery is how quickly a company can recover data that has been encrypted or destroyed. Directors should have a strategic view of the data backup and recovery process. Have we identified the critical data that must be backed up? Have we determined the period of time the backup needs to cover and how quickly we need to be able to switch to the backup? Have we tested ourselves to prove that we could successfully pivot to the backup? What business impact is likely to occur?

The hospitals impacted by WannaCry present another angle of the disaster recovery scenario. For these hospitals, the disaster wasn’t limited to the loss of data. Most medical devices in use today interface with a computer for command and control of that device. During this attack, those command and control computers were rendered inoperative when the ransomware encrypted the software that allows the control computer to issue commands to the connected device. In many cases there is no way to revert to “manual” control. This scenario is particularly troubling given the potential to cause bodily harm.

It is easy to see a similar attack in a manufacturing plant where a control unit could be disabled bringing an assembly line to a halt. And it is not hard to imagine a threat to life and limb in a scenario where we rely on computer control to maintain temperatures and pressures at a safe level in a nuclear power plant.

Directors should ask about the process to recover control of critical assets. Can we activate backup systems that were not connected to the network at the time of the attack? If we bring the backup system on line, how do we know it will not be infected by the same malware? Have the appropriate departments practiced recovery process scenarios? What was the level of business disruption? Does everyone in the company know his or her role in getting critical operations back up and running?

Directors provide oversight of the risk management process—they do note execute the process. Understanding how the company is managing risk around EOL software, patching, and disaster recovery sets the right tone at the top and ensures that the company is better prepared for the inevitable next round of attacks.


Major General (Retired) Brett Williams is a co-founder of IronNet Cybersecurity and the former Director of Operations at U.S. Cyber Command. He is an NACD Board Governance Fellow and faculty member with NACD’s Board Advisory Services where he conducts in-depth cyber-risk oversight seminars for member boards. Brett is also a noted keynote speaker on a variety of cyber related topics.

Looking to strengthen your board’s cyber-risk oversight? Click here to review NACD’s Cyber-Risk Oversight Board Resource Center.

Ask These Key Questions to Assess Cyber-Risk Oversight

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Jim DeLoach

Jim DeLoach

This special supplement to Jim DeLoach’s recent blog post provides several questions to empower effective conversations about the state of a company’s cyber-risk oversight practices.

I recently shared several business realities that boards should consider as they oversee cybersecurity risk. These realities point to the need for companies and their boards to ensure that cyber-risk management efforts are focused, targeted, cost-effective, and continuously improving. While these realities are important to bear in mind, the board must inform its understanding of the company’s cyber-risk capabilities by asking the right questions.

Following are suggested questions that directors may consider, in the context of the nature of the entity’s risks inherent in its operations.

  • As a board, are we sufficiently engaged in our oversight of cybersecurity? For example:
    • Do we include cybersecurity as a core organizational risk requiring appropriate updates in board meetings?
    • Do we have someone on the board, or someone advising the board, who is the point person this topic?
    • Are we satisfied that the company’s strategies for reducing the risk of security incidents to an acceptable level are proportionate and targeted?
    • Does the board receive key metrics or reporting that present the current state of the security program in an objective manner?
    • Is there a policy on securing board packets and other sensitive material communicated to directors? If not, is there potential exposure from sharing confidential information through directors’ personal and professional email accounts and free file-sharing services that are not covered by the company’s cybersecurity infrastructure?
  • Have we identified the most important business outcomes (both unanticipated successes of the digital initiative, as well as adverse events) involving critical data and information assets (the crown jewels)? With respect to those outcomes occurring:
    • Do we know whether and how they are being managed?
    • Does our security strategy differentiate them from general cybersecurity?
    • Do we assess our threat landscape and tolerance for these matters periodically?
    • Are we proactive in identifying and responding to new cyber threats?
  • Does the company have an incident response plan? If so:
    • Have key stakeholders supported the development of the plan appropriate to the organization’s scale, culture, applicable regulatory obligations and business objectives?
    • Have we thought about the impact specific cyber-events can have and whether management’s response plan is oriented properly and supported sufficiently?
    • Is the plan complemented by procedures providing instructions regarding actions to take in response to specific types of incidents? Do all the stakeholders for a planned response know their respective roles and responsibilities? Is it clear for which events the board should play a key role in overseeing the response efforts?
    • Are effective incident response processes in place to reduce the occurrence, proliferation, and impact of a security breach?
    • Are we proactively and periodically evaluating and testing the plan to determine its effectiveness? For example, does management have regular simulations to determine whether the detective capabilities in place will identify the latest attack techniques?
    • In the event of past significant breaches, have we made the required public disclosures and communicated the appropriate notifications to regulators and law enforcement in accordance with applicable laws and regulations?

The dialogue resulting from these questions stand to lead to improvements in cybersecurity, if any are needed. Be sure to check out my earlier blog for further discussion of this important topic.


Jim DeLoach is managing director at Protiviti. 

Board Oversight of Cyber Risk in the Wake of the Yahoo Breach

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The major cyber breach that Yahoo announced last week has ripple effects not only for the multimedia platform, but for every company. The incident already has caught the attention of a senator who is calling on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate how Yahoo disclosed the breach to shareholders and the public.

Background on the Breach

Ashley Marchand Orme

Ashley Marchand Orme

Account data for at least 500 million users was stolen by what Yahoo has called a “state-sponsored actor” in what CNN Money calls one of the largest data breaches ever. Compromised information includes names, email addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, encrypted passwords, and security questions.

Yahoo has not named a country of origin for the hacker. The company, which Verizon is seeking to acquire, is still one of the busiest online sites, boasting one billion monthly users.

The breach occurred in late 2014, according to Yahoo, but the company just disclosed the incident in a press release dated Sept. 22, 2016. The Financial Times reports that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer may have known about the breach as early as July of this year, raising questions as to why it wasn’t disclosed sooner.

Attention From Lawmakers

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D.-VA), a member of the Senate Intelligence and Banking Committees and cofounder of the Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, sent a letter to the SEC yesterday asking the agency to investigate whether Yahoo complied with federal securities law regarding how and when it disclosed the incident.

“Data security increasingly represents an issue of vital importance to management, customers, and shareholders, with major corporate liability, business continuity, and governance implications,” the senator wrote.

Warner—who cofounded the company that became Nextel, a wireless service operator that merged with Verizon—also told the SEC that “since published reports indicate fewer than 100 of approximately 9,000 publicly listed companies have reported a material data breach since 2010, I encourage you to evaluate the adequacy of current SEC thresholds for disclosing events of this nature.”

And Warner isn’t the only lawmaker pushing for increased cyber regulations. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) announced proposed cybersecurity regulations to increase the responsibility of banks and insurance to protect their information systems and customer information. The regulations, if instated, would apply to companies regulated by the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) and would require them to—among other steps—establish a cybersecurity policy and incident response plan. Companies would also have to notify the NYDFS within 72 hours of any cyber event that is likely to affect operations or nonpublic information.

The Boardroom Response

Any company—whether public, private, or nonprofit—can fall prey to a breach, and even companies with formal cybersecurity plans can find themselves the victims of a breach. Preliminary data from the 2016-2017 NACD Public Company Governance Survey show what corporate directors are already doing to oversee cyber-related risks.

When asked which cybersecurity oversight practices the survey respondents’ boards had performed over the past 12 months—and directors could select multiple answers—the most common responses included:

  • Reviewed the company’s current approach to protecting its most critical data assets (76.6%)
  • Reviewed the technology infrastructure used to protect the company’s most critical data assets (73.6%)
  • Communicated with management about the types of cyber-risk information the board requires (64.4%)
  • Reviewed the company’s response plan in the case of a breach (59.3%).

“Corporate directors should ask management for an accurate and externally validated report on the state of the organization with respect to cyber risk,” said Robert Clyde, a board director for ISACA, which is a global IT and cybersecurity professional association, and White Cloud Security. “They should also ask what framework is being followed for IT governance.”

Aside from high-profile breaches of emails and email providers, Clyde says that breaches related to ransomware are increasing.

“Ransomware encrypts data that can only be decrypted by paying the attacker a fee in Bitcoins.  According to the NACD Cyber-Risk Oversight Handbook and many other organizations, the key control to reduce the risk of attack—including ransomware—is restricting user installation of applications, called ‘whitelisting’ or ‘Trusted App Listing,’” Clyde said. “Yet this highly recommended control is rarely implemented. Boards should ask organizations for their plans to implement this specific control.”

NACD Resources

NACD recently announced a new online cybersecurity learning program for directors. The multi-module course aims to enhance directors’ understanding of cybersecurity, and the difference between the board’s and management’s responsibilities related to cyber risks. Participants in the program, which is the product of partnership between NACD, Ridge Global, and the CERT Division of Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, will work through a cyber-crisis simulation and take a comprehensive exam. Successful completion of the program will earn the participant a CERT Certificate in Cybersecurity Oversight.

For board-level tools and templates to fortify your oversight practices, visit NACD’s Cyber-Risk Oversight Resource Center.