What is a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise?

Date: 9 May 2023

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If you read the news, you know that it’s no news at all that cyber attacks are increasing in number and complexity every day. Organisations across the world are recognising this fact and working towards enhancing their cyber resilience to protect critical assets. 

A core component of cyber resilience is having solid Cyber Incident Response Plans, Incident Response Playbooks and strategies in place. But an even more critical element is rehearsing and testing these documents with Cyber Attack Simulation Exercises

But what is a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise? How do you conduct one in your organisation? What exactly do you test and how? And how do you make sure you reap the full benefits of running a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise? 

Do know more about how to plan, produce and conduct an effective Cyber Attack Simulation Drill, check out our Cyber Tabletop Exercise Training.

In this blog, our cybersecurity experts answer all these questions and more. 

  1. What is a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise? 
  2. How do you conduct a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise? 
  3. Why is a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise Important? 

To fully understand how to conduct a successful cyber drill, don't forget to download our invaluable free resources on cybersecurity tabletop exercises created by our experts.

1. Top Cybersecurity Tabletop Exercise Scenarios 
2. Cyber Tabletop Exercise Template 
3. Cyber Table top Exercise PowerPoint 

cyber tabletop scenarios

What is a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise?  

A Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise is known by several different names today. Cyber Drill, Cyber Attack Tabletop Exercise, Cybersecurity Tabletop Exercise and Incident Response Tabletop Exercise. 

All of these monikers essentially refer to the same exercise - a simulated attack that replicates real-life scenarios to test an organisation's incident response plans and preparedness. The breach and attack simulation also tests vulnerabilities to cyber threats and threat actors to an extent. Further, it checks the security team’s readiness to deal with a potential cyber attack.  

An expert facilitator simulates a cyber attack and the organisational Incident Response (IR) team responds to it like they would to a real world attack. 

The core objectives of a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise can be summed up as follows: 

  1. To evaluate the organisation's readiness to defend against a cyber attack. 
  2. To identify security gaps and loopholes in the current incident response plan.
  3. To check how well-versed the IR team members are with the plans and their own individual roles and responsibilities.
  4. To help the stakeholders better understand the kind of impact certain cyber attack scenarios can have on their business. 
  5. To enhance the team’s current ability to respond to a cyber attack. 
  6. To help the team build muscle memory when it comes to the Incident Response Plans and Processes. 
  7. To improve the organization's security posture comprehensively. 

What actually happens in an Incident Response Tabletop Exercise? 

Some of the most common Cyber Attack Tabletop Exercise Scenarios are: 

  1. Phishing Emails 
  2. Ransomware Attacks 
  3. Malware Attacks
  4. Social Engineering Attacks 
  5. Business Email Compromise
  6. Insider Attacks 

The facilitator works with one or two representatives from the client side to decide the scenario that will be rehearsed during the Attack Simulation Exercise. During the actual workshop, the scenario is built up and an atmosphere of real panic and chaos is created. The idea is to put participants under pressure to think and act like the way they would in an actual incident. 

The tabletop exercise then focusses on discussing the simulated attack scenario with relevant stakeholders, such as IT staff, management, and other teams involved in the incident response plan. 

Post the exercise, the facilitator, shares his/her observations on how the team responded to the attack. They also help the team see the current loopholes in their incident response plans and give feedback on how well the participants understood their roles and responsibilities.  

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Why are Cyber Simulation Drills so Important? 

 The benefits of a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise are numerous. Here’s a quick look at the most important ones: 

  1. It allows the organisation to identify weaknesses in its incident response plan and take corrective action to improve its overall security posture. Very often, the organisation may find that their incident response plans are not up to scratch or relevant to the current threat landscape. They can then update their plan with recommendations from the facilitator. 

    In many cases, the organisation may find that they don’t have the internal capability to sufficiently update their IR plans. They may then opt to enlist the help of external cybersecurity specialists such as our Virtual Cyber Assistants. These are deeply experienced cybersecurity consultants who can help you take a hard look at your existing cybersecurity documents and update them in the most cost-effective and flexible way possible.   

  2. It tests the team's ability to respond to a cyber attack, which is crucial in reducing the impact of an attack. The facilitator’s feedback can be further used to assess if any team members need additional training in cyber incident response. Specific members can then be offered a reorientation in how they are expected to respond in case of an attack. 

    The cyber attack tabletop exercise allows the organisation to train its staff in handling a cyber attack and to develop an overall culture of security awareness. 

  3. Most importantly, the cyber attack simulation exercise helps the organisation to comply with regulatory requirements that may be applicable to them in their country or to their specific industry.

    Certain countries expect organisations operating in critical infrastructure to regularly test their incident response plans with cyber drills. 

    It also enables the organisation to comply better with industry best practices, which require organisations to conduct regular cyber drills. 

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In conclusion, a Cyber Attack Simulation Exercise is an essential component of an organisation's cybersecurity strategy. 

It enables the organisation to effectively test its incident response plan, identify gaps, and take corrective action to improve its security posture. 

These exercises  also help the organisation to develop a culture of security awareness and achieve compliance with regulatory requirements. By conducting regular cyber attack simulation exercises, organisations can enhance their ability to respond to cyber attacks and protect themselves from potential threats. 

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