Cybersecurity governance and the empowerment of corporate leadership

I had the honour of presenting on cybersecurity oversight today at the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada annual Governance Summit. The theme ended up being about leadership and empowerment. I’d like board members to believe that the information security knowledge they require to meet their duties is well within their grasp and to feel a little excited about the learning process. Slides below FYI.

Manitoba Ombudsman blesses response to e-mail incident

Manitoba Ombudsman Jill Perron has issued her report into Manitoba Families’ 2020 e-mail incident. The incident involved the inadvertent e-mailing of personal health information belonging to 8,900 children in receipt of disability services to approximately 100 external agencies and community advocates. It is such a common incident that it is worth outlining the Ombudsman’s incident response findings.

Manitoba Families meant to transfer the information to the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth to support a program review. It included information about services received. Some records included diagnoses.

Manitoba Families mistakenly blind copied the external agencies and advocates on an e-mail that included the information in an encrypted file and a follow-up e-mail that included the password to the file. It had made the same mistake about a week earlier. Several agencies alerted Manitoba Families to its error, and it began containment within a half hour.

The Ombudsman held that Manitoba Families’ containment effort was reasonable. She described it as follows.

Attempts at recalling the email began minutes later at 8:29 a.m. and continued at various intervals. Also, at 8:35 a.m., CDS sent an email to all unintended recipients noting in bold that they were incorrectly included on a confidential email from Children’s disAbility Services and requested immediate deletion of the email and any attachments. Follow up calls to the unintended recipients by CDS program staff began to occur that morning to request deletion of the emails and a list was created to track these calls and the outcomes. A communication outline was created for these calls which included a request to delete emails, a further request that emails be deleted from the deleted folder and that any emails that went to a junk email folder also be deleted…

In January 2021, we received additional written communication from the program stating that all agency service providers and advocates were contacted and verified deletion of the personal health information received in error. The log form created to track and monitor the name of the organization, the date and details of the contact was provided to our office.

The Ombudsman reached a similar finding regarding Manitoba Families’ notification effort, though she needed to recommend that Manitoba Families identify the agencies and advocates to affected individuals, which Manitoba Families agreed to do upon request.

What’s most significant – especially given class action proceedings have been commenced – is a point the Ombudsman made about evidence that Manitoba Families appears not to have gathered.

In addition to assuring families about the deletion of the email, additional information such as who viewed the email, if the attachment was opened and read, whether it was forwarded to anyone else or printed, whether it was stored in any other network drive or paper file or, conversely, that no records exist – can be helpful information to provide those affected by a privacy breach. It is best practice, therefore, to provide families with as much assurance as possible about the security of their child’s health information.

The question is, what is one to make of an arguable shortcoming in an incident response investigation? I say “arguable” because the probability of any of these actions occurring is very low in the unique circumstances of this incident, which involved trusted individuals receiving a password-protected and encrypted file. Manitoba Families ought to have collected this evidence because they called the e-mail recipients anyway, it is helpful and was probably available for collection. If it did not do so, however, I believe it is perfectly acceptable to for Manitoba Families to stand by the scope of a narrower investigation and and put the plaintiff to proof.

PHIA Case 2020-1304

Ontario BPS cyber expert panel raises alarm

Last autumn, the Ontario government struck an expert panel of cyber advisors. Among other things, it gave the panel a mandate to “assess and identify common and sector-specific cyber security themes and challenges encountered by Broader Public Sector (BPS) agencies and service delivery partners in Ontario.”

The panel got quickly to work, and in late 2020 gathered feedback from panel members and BPS stakeholders to produce an interim report under the name of its Chair, Robert Wong. The interim report is as unsurprising as it is alarming, speaking to wide-ranging maturity levels derived from under-resourcing as well as failures of governance. It includes characterizations of well-understood governance challenges in the university, school board and health care sectors. On universities, for example, the Chair reports:

Even in institutions with relatively strong and mature corporate governance practices, there are still significant challenges to effectively manage cyber security risks that result from competing priorities and inconsistent application of oversight and policies. For example, funding in higher education comes from various sources and is allocated based on various criteria. Some university research groups that have successfully secured grants or private sponsorship dollars often have a sense of entitlement and feel that because it is their money, they get to call the shots and ignore cyber security concerns when they procure technology tools. Why don’t universities impose the same cyber security requirements on their researchers as they do on other faculty and staff?

Notably, the Chair says, “A regional-based shared-services model may be the only viable option for the smaller players to be able to afford and gain access to the limited availability of technical expertise in the marketplace.”

He also makes the following two interim recommendations, one to government and another to BPS entities themselves:

1. That the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework be endorsed by the Government of Ontario for the Broader Public Sector’s cyber security practices. If an entity has already adopted a cyber security framework other than that of NIST, the expectation is that they map the framework they are using to the NIST framework to ensure alignment and consistency. Understanding that BPS entities vary in size and risk-profile, it is reasonable to expect that the breadth and depth to which the NIST Cybersecurity Framework is implemented will also vary accordingly, following a risk-based approach. To assist small- and medium-sized organizations in adopting and implementing the NIST framework, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security’s “Baseline Cyber Security Controls for Small and Medium Organizations” is a useful guide that provides the fundamental requirements for an effective cyber security practice that aligns with the NIST framework.

2. That all BPS entities implement a Cyber Security Education and Awareness Training Program. The content of the training materials shall be maintained to ensure currency of information. New employees shall receive the training immediately after joining the company as part of their orientation program, and all existing employees shall receive refresher training on an annual basis, at a minimum. Information Technology and cyber security specialists shall receive regular cyber security technical training to ensure their skills are kept current. Specialized educational materials may be developed that would be appropriate for boards of directors, senior executives and any other key decision-makers. Effective management of cyber security risks requires the efforts and commitment of everyone and cannot simply be delegated to the cyber security professionals. A strong “tone-at-the-top” is a critical success factor to strengthen the cyber security resilience of BPS service delivery partners.

The panel is not a standard setting entity, but the second recommendation does establish something to which BPS entities now ought to strive. Of course, this raises the question of resourcing. Minister Lisa Thompson’s response to the interim report suggests that the government’s assistance will be indirect, via the Cyber Security Centre of Excellence’s learning portal.

Cyber Risks and M&A Transactions

We have just posted all the content for our BLG series “Privacy & Cyber Risks, Trends & Opportunities for Business.” See here for some very good content by our privacy and data security team.

Here is a direct link to our most recent webinar, which I delivered together with my partner Patrice Martin. It was very rewarding to work with and learn from Patrice, a very well established technology industry and transactions lawyer.

Enjoy. Learn. Get in touch.

When it happens, will you be ready? How to excel in handling your next cyber incident

I like speaking about incident response because there are so many important practical points to convey. Every so often I re-consolidate my thinking on the topic and do up a new slide deck. Here is one such deck from this week’s presentation at Canadian Society of Association Executives Winter Summit. It includes an adjusted four step description of the response process that I’m content with.

We’ve been having some team discussions over here about how incident response plans can be horribly over-built and unusable. I made the point in presenting this that one could take the four step model asset out in this deck, add add a modest amount of “meat” to the process (starting with assigning responsibilities) and append some points on how specific scenarios might be handled based on simple discussion if not a bona fide tabletop exercise.

Preparing for a cyber incident isn’t and shouldn’t be hard, and simple guidance is often most useful for dealing with complex problems.

Alberta OIPC finds Blackbaud incident gives rise to RROSH

Hat tip to my good colleague Francois Joli-Coeur, who let our group know yesterday that the OIPC Alberta has issued a number of breach notification decisions about the Blackbaud incident, finding in each one that it gave rise to a “real risk of significant harm” that warrants notification and reporting under Alberta PIPA.

Blackbaud is a cloud service provider to organizations engaged in fundraising who suffered a ransomware incident last spring in which hackers exfiltrated the personal information of donors and educational institution alumni. The true scope of the incident is unknown, but likely large, affecting millions of individuals across the globe.

Blackbaud issued notably strong communications that de-emphasized the risk of harm. It rested primarily on the payment of a ransom, assurances by the threat actors that they would delete all data in exchange for payment and its ongoing dark web searches. Most affected institutions (Blackbaud clients) notified anyway.

On my count the OIPC issued seven breach notification decisions about the incident late last year, each time finding a “real risk.” In a decision involving an American college with donors or alumni in Alberta, the OIPC said:

In my view, a reasonable person would consider the likelihood of significant harm resulting from this incident is increased because the personal information was compromised due to a deliberate unauthorized intrusion by a cybercriminal. The Organization reported that the cybercriminal both accessed and stole the personal information at issue. The Organization can only assume that cybercriminal did not or will not misuse, disseminate or otherwise make available publicly the personal information at issue.

This is not surprising, but tells us how the OIPC feels about the assurance gained from paying a ransom to recover stolen data.

See e.g. P2020-ND-201 (File #017205).

The Five Whys, the discomfort of root cause analysis and the discipline of incident response

Here is a non-law post to pass on some ideas about root cause analysis, The Five Whys, and incident response.

This is inspired by having finished reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It’s a good book end-to-end, but Ries’ chapter on adaptive organizations and The Five Whys was most interesting to me – inspiring even!

The Five Whys is a well-known analytical tool that supports root cause analysis. Taichii Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, described it as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach.” By asking why a problem has occurred five times – therefore probing five causes deep – Ohno says, “the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” Pushing to deeper causes of a failure is plainly important; if only the surface causes of a failure are addressed, the failure is near certain to recur.

Reis, in a book geared to startups, explains how to use The Five Whys as an “automatic speed regulator” in businesses that face failures in driving rapidly to market. The outcome of The Five Whys process, according to Ries, is to make a “proportional” investment in corrections at each five layers of the causal analysis – proportional in relation to to the significance of the problem.

Of course, root cause analysis is part of security incident response. The National Institute of Standards and Technology suggests that taking steps to prevent recurrences is both part of eradication and recovery and the post-incident phase. My own experience is that root cause analysis in incident response is often done poorly – with remedial measures almost always targeted at surface level causes. What I did not understand until reading Ries, is that conducting the kind of good root cause analysis associated with The Five Whys is HARD.

Ries explains that conducting root cause analysis without a strong culture of mutual trust can devolve into The Five Blames. He gives some good tips on how to implement The Five Whys despite this challenge: establishing norms around accepting the first mistake, starting with less than the full analytical process and using a “master” from the executive ranks to sponsor root cause analysis.

From my perspective, I’ll now expect a little less insight out of clients who are in the heat of crises. It may be okay to go a couple levels deep while an incident is still live and while some process owners are not even apprised of the incident – just deep enough to find some meaningful resolutions to communicate to regulators and other stakeholders. It may be okay to tell these stakeholders “we will [also] look into our processes and make appropriate improvements to prevent a recurrence” – text frequently proposed by clients for notification letters and reports.

What clients should do, however is commit to conducting good root cause analysis as part of the post-incident phase:

*Write The Five Whys into your incident response policy.

*Stipulate that a meeting will be held.

*Stipulate that everyone with a share of the problem will be invited.

*Commit to making a proportional investment to address each identified cause.

Ries would lead us to believe that this will be both unenjoyable yet invaluable – good reason to use your incident response policy to help it become part of your organization’s discipline.

Cyber defence basics – Maritime Connections

I was pleased to do a cyber defence basics presentation to privacy professionals attending the Public Service Information Community Connection “Maritime Connections” event yesterday. The presentation (below) is based off of recent publications by the New York Department of Financial Services and the Information Commissioner’s Office (UK) as as the (significant) Coveware Q3 ransomware report.

As I said to the attendees, I am not a technical expert and no substitute for one, but those of us outside of IT and IT security who work in this space (along with the predominantly non-technical management teams we serve) must engage with the key technical concepts underpinning IT security if we are to succeed at cyber defence.

I’ll do an updated version next week at Saskatchewan Connections next week. Join us!

The role of legal counsel in ransomware response – cyber divergence on display

Two publications released earlier this month illustrate different views on how to structure ransomware response, and in particular on how to structure the involvement of legal counsel.

On Wednesday of last week, the Ontario Ministry of Government Services issued a bulletin entitled “What is Ransomware and How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks” to the broader public sector. It features a preparation and response playbook that will be much appreciated by the hospitals, universities, colleges, school boards and municipalities targeted by the MGS.

The playbook treats ransomware response as primarily a technical problem – i.e., a problem about restoration of IT services. Legal counsel is mentioned in a statement about incident preparation, but is assigned no role in the heart of the response process. Indeed, the MGS suggests that the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario is the source of advice, even “early on” in an incident:

If you are unable to rule out whether or not PII was compromised (which will likely be the case early on in an incident), contact the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (416) 326-3333.

Contrast this with what Coveware says in its very significant Q3 ransomware trends report that it released on November 4th. Coveware – arguably the best source of ransomware data – explains that data exfiltration threats now feature in 50% of ransomware incidents and that ransom payments are a poor (and becoming poorer) method of preventing threat actors from leaking what they take. Coveware says:

Accordingly, we strongly advise all victims of data exfiltration to take the hard, but responsible steps. Those include getting the advice of competent privacy attorneys, performing an investigation into what data was taken, and performing the necessary notifications that result from that investigation and counsel.  Paying a threat actor does not discharge any of the above, and given the outcomes that we have recently seen, paying a threat actor not to leak stolen data provides almost no benefit to the victim. There may be other reasons to consider, such as brand damage or longer term liability, and all considerations should be made before a strategy is set.

The Coveware view, shared by Canadian cyber-insurers, is that ransomware is primarily a legal and reputational problem, with significant downside legal risks for institutions who do not engage early with legal counsel.

I favor this latter view, and will say quite clearly that it is bad practice to call a privacy regulator about a potentially significant privacy problem before calling a privacy lawyer. A regulator is not an advisor in this context.

This is not a position I take out of self-interest, nor do I believe that lawyers should always be engaged to coordinate incident response. As I’ve argued, the routine use of lawyers as incident coordinators can create problems in claiming privilege when lawyer engagement truly is for the “dominant purpose of existing or anticipated litigation.” My point is that ransomware attacks, especially how they are trending, leave institutions in a legal minefield. Institutions – though they may not know it – have a deep need to involve trusted counsel from the very start.

DFS report shows how to double down on remote access security

On October 15th, the New York State Department of Financial Services issued a report on the June 2020 cybersecurity incident in which a 17-year old hacker his friends gained access to Twitter’s account management tools and hijacked over 100 accounts.

The report stresses the critical risk against which social media companies employ their security measures and the simplicity of the hacker’s methods. The DFS raises the link between social media account security and election security and also notes that the S&P500 lost $135.5 billion in value in 2013 when hackers tweeted false information from the Associated Press’s Twitter account. Despite this risk, the 2020 hackers gained access based on a well-executed but simple social engineering campaign, without the aide of malware, exploits or backdoors.

The hackers conducted intelligence. They impersonated the Twitter IT department and called employees to help with VPN problems, which were prevalent following Twitter’s shift to remote work. The hackers directed employees to a fake login page, which allowed them to capture credentials and circumvent multifactor authentication.

The event lasted about 24 hours. The DFS explains that Twitter employed a password re-set protocol that required every employee to attend a video conference with a supervisor and manually change their passwords.

The event and the report are about the remote workforce risk we face today. Twitter had all the components of a good defence in place, but according to the DFS it could have done better given the high consequences of a failure. Here is a summary of some of the DFS recommendations:

  • Employ stricter privilege limitations, with access being re-certified regularly. Following the incident Twitter did just this, even though it apparently slowed down some job functions.
  • While multifactor authentication is a given, the DFS noted, “Another possible control for high-risk functions is to require certification or approval by a second employee before the action can be taken.”
  • The DFS points out that not all multifactor authentication is created equal: “The most secure form of MFA is a physical security key, or hardware MFA, involving a USB key that is plugged into a computer to authenticate users.”
  • The DFS says organizations should establish uniform standards of communications and educate employees about them. Employees should know, for example, exactly how the organization will contact them about suspicious account activity.
  • The DFS endorses “robust” monitoring via security information and event management systems – monitoring in “near real-time.”

These recommendations could make for very strong remote access and account security, but are worth note.

Report on Investigation of Twitter’s July 15, 2020 Cybersecurity Incident and the Implications for Election Security.