Cyber Resilience Testing: Simulating Real-World Cyber Attacks

Date: 16 February 2024

There are many ways to conduct cyber resilience testing, but cyber attack tabletop exercises stand out as an invaluable tool. At Cyber Management Alliance Ltd, we've facilitated over 300 cyber drills and each one is a testament to the effectiveness of tabletops in testing and highlighting an organisation's ability to respond and recover from cyber attacks and ransomware attacks.

In expert-led and professionally facilitated sessions, we simulate real-world attack scenarios, putting your incident response plans, processes, and playbooks to the test. This controlled environment allows us to identify weaknesses and refine your cyber incident response strategy, ensuring a streamlined and coordinated effort in the face of real threats.

By incorporating professionally planned, expertly facilitated incident response tabletop scenarios into your cyber resilience testing program, you'll be better equipped to weather any cyber storm.

In this blog, we cover: 

  1. Key elements of a successful cyber security tabletop exercise
  2. Effectively simulating Real World Attacks 
  3. How to Test and Validate your Cyber Resilience

The Key Elements of a Successful Cyber Resilience Test

The most important element of a cyber resilience test using cyber drills? In our opinion, it is the facilitation. It is always advisable to bring on board an expert, experienced, external facilitator to conduct your cyber resilience tests and cyber tabletop exercises. There are several reasons for this: 

1. Objective Perspective: An external facilitator will bring an objective, nuanced and highly experienced outsider’s perspective that, frankly, is unmatched by internal teams. External specialists are impartial to any department or team, unbiased and will not deter from calling a spade, a spade. Want a true picture of how prepared your organisation and its various team members are for a cyber attack? Engaging an external experienced facilitator is the way. 

2. Unmatched Experience: Hopefully, your internal team members haven't experienced too many damaging cybersecurity incidents. Our expert facilitators have - because this is what they do, day in and day out. They bring the kind of real-world expertise to your cyber drill that can only be accumulated when you've been in the trenches of cyber war fare.

Our facilitators don't just conduct cyber tabletop exercises. They also provide trusted advisory to global businesses on their cybersecurity posture, support their teams during cyber attacks, help them implement lessons learned, prepare them for industry certifications and standards. And they bring all this rich experience to the cyber tabletop exercise they can conduct for you. 

cyber tabletop scenarios

3.  Seasoned Scenario Building: The make or break aspect of a cyber simulation drill is the scenario it is based on. An external facilitator is always ahead of the curve when it comes to anticipating the kind of threats and risks a business faces. They're much better placed to create a scenario that will be deeply relevant to your business. Through their global experience, they'll be able to inject these scenarios with the right layered elements such as those from the media, regulators etc.

Most importantly, as they're experts at conducting cyber attack tabletop exercises, they'll also be far more adept at delivering the scenario, making it at once compelling and daunting for the participants.  It is only when the scenario feels real that participants display the kind of responses they would in an actual attack scenario. This, then, becomes the best way to judge their preparedness and also provide robust decision-making practice for real-world situations. 

4. Improved Outcomes: The recommendations of an external expert are always taken well by all participants - senior or junior. The external facilitator and/or observer has no qualms about giving absolutely unbiased opinions on how the exercise went - who responded well, how effective the plan is and who needs additional training. They're unaffected by organisational hierarchies and culture. They're there to be completely honest and transparent and the organisation can greatly benefit from this.  

However, we understand that in some cases it may not be possible to hire an external expert. And that’s why we have created a Masterclass on Conducting a Successful Cyber Crisis Tabletop Exercise.   

You could also download any of our FREE resources on Cyber Resilience Testing created by the CEO of Cyber Management Alliance and the world’s #1 Cyber Tabletop Exercise Facilitator: 

  1. Top cybersecurity tabletop exercise scenarios - The ultimate list of cyber attack tabletop exercise examples, threat actors and asset categories to prioritise.
  2. Cyber Security Tabletop Exercise Template - Easy to use, customisable cyber tabletop exercise template created by the world's leading cyber drill facilitator.  
  3. Cyber Tabletop Exercise PPT - Ensure greater engagement with this cyber tabletop exercise PowerPoint which contains the distilled insights and guidance from our cybersecurity experts.

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Simulating Real World Attacks 

Simulating real-world attacks that are relevant to your business is the absolute essential for successful resilience testing. Without a well-curated Cyber Attack Tabletop Exercise Scenario, the chances of your exercise failing are high. A generic or poorly designed scenario will fail to hold the attention of the participants. They won’t feel engaged enough to exercise their full powers of cybersecurity decision-making because the scenario will lack the ability to create a sense of panic in them. 

A scenario that isn’t truly compelling will also not be able to effectively show the true merit of your Cybersecurity Incident Response Plan

So how do you go about creating a scenario that will actually work at testing your cyber resilience? 

Here are a few points to keep in mind: 

#1. Organisational Risk Profile

Before diving right into creating the scenario, assess your organisational risk profile. Consider the kind of data your store/process and what are the legal and regulatory implications in case of a data breach. 

What could happen to your organisation that would be most damaging in terms of finance and reputation? Once you have clarity on the above, start designing a scenario that takes these considerations into account. It’s always best to rehearse for the worst case scenario. 

#2. Clear Objectives

Once you have evaluated your risk profile, define clear objectives for the cyber crisis tabletop exercise. What are you really hoping to test and improve upon? The objectives could range from testing specific cyber incident response, team communications, internal coordination, communication with external stakeholders. 

If your objectives are more specific such as, executive response or technical response, then consider conducting a specific kind of tabletop exercise. 

At Cyber Management Alliance, we conduct three types of specific cyber drills:
  1. Technical Cyber Attack Tabletop Exercise
  2. Cyber Attack Tabletop Exercises for Executives
  3. Cyber Tabletop Exercises for Operational and Business Continuity 

You must know what you’re looking to achieve through the cyber attack simulation exercise to make the most of it. In the post-exercise analysis, you can then assess the response of your team against the objectives you set out initially, making the process of outcome documentation and recommendation that much more precise. 

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#3. Bespoke Scenario 

The simulated attack scenario which will be the cornerstone of your cyber resilience exercise must be relevant and specific to your business as reiterated earlier.  

It should contain: 
a) A detailed and realistic potential cybersecurity incident. 
b) Finer points on the nature of the attack and the targeted assets. 
c) A narrative on how the attack unfolded and a step-by-step description of the potential impact. 
d) A range of complexities that test various aspects of the organisation's response, from technical to communication-based.
e) Some flexibility so it can be improvised upon based on the response of the participants and layered injects based on the facilitator’s judgement. 
f) The ability to involve different departments including but not limited to public relations, legal, and the executive.

#4. Post-Exercise Debrief and Recommendations

The post-exercise analysis of the cyber drill is as critical as the drill itself. All participants must be encouraged to share their feedback on the exercise. With the facilitator at the helm of the discussions, questions such as “What went well” or “What should have been done differently” must be asked. 

The learnings from the exercise must be properly documented so as to formalise the lessons learned. This documentation can then be used to update the existing cyber incident response plans, processes and policies to bring about actionable improvement in the overall organisational cyber resilience. 

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Test and Validate Your Cyber Resilience 

In the above two sections, we covered the essential components of a successful Cyber Resilience Test and Simulating Real World Tests. In this section, we share some insights on how you can test and validate your cyber resilience.  

Workshop with Specialists: Sounds straightforward, but to validate  key artefacts like your IR Plan and/or Incident Response playbooks, you need all relevant stakeholders around the table. These stakeholders should, in most cases, be specialists in their field, an attribute that allows them to 'validate'  the process and flows. You must ensure that the list of participants is curated. Do not invite a techie to an executive tabletop and vice-versa. In our experience, unsuitable attendees are amongst the top 3 mistakes people make which have a direct impact on the quality of the session. 

Professional Facilitation: A professional and experienced facilitator brings their knowledge and practice to the cyber resilience testing process. Whether the testing is done via one of our tabletop sessions or through a regular audit.

Don't Audit, Tabletop: We prefer to conduct a cyber resilience test via a cyber crisis tabletop exercise. This is, for several reasons, including:

  • Cost Effective: Our cyber tabletop exercises are more cost effective when compared to a traditional audit and offer significant value. In most cases, we have fixed costs for our three types of tabletop exercises. 

  • Faster: An Incident Response Tabletop approach allows us to test your cyber resilience at a much faster rate than a regular audit.  

  • Focused: We focus on the most critical assets and threats when planning and conducting a tabletop exercise. 

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Last Word

Simulating real-world cyber attack scenarios is the absolute key to proper organisation resilience testing. The scenarios provide a practical and immersive experience for teams to rehearse their responses and practise decision making for actual events. 

Cyber resilience testing is imperative for having a realistic picture of your business’s preparedness for cyber attacks. It lays bare your vulnerabilities and gaps in your response strategies. It also helps identify any training needs for your team.

The simulations foster a deeper understanding of the complexities and dynamics of cyber incidents, encouraging a proactive approach to cybersecurity. They also enhance communication and collaboration across different departments, ensuring a unified and comprehensive response to cyber threats. 

Any organisation, therefore, that is truly committed to its cyber resilience must be proactive in conducting cyber tabletop exercises regularly in 2024. And when you’re doing so, make sure you pay attention to the scenario that your exercise rests on. 

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