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How to Make the Most of an Incident Response Retainer

With cyber threats continuously looming, there is a good chance you’ll have an incident to respond to in your future – if you haven’t already.

When a breach happens, coordination and timing is everything. Not only should you have a well-rehearsed response plan ready to spring into action, but you should also strongly consider having an outside expert standing by. Looking for a data forensics and incident response (DFIR) provider after you’ve been breached isn’t optimal. A breach is stressful for everyone involved, and botched responses are not uncommon, even among large, seemingly well-resourced businesses.

If you determine you require third-party help, you don’t want to be comparing providers, negotiating prices, and signing contacts during the immediate and tumultuous aftermath of an incident. Besides, most DFIR providers prioritize their retainer clients, so even if you are able to quickly select and sign with someone new, you could experience a delayed response as they work to finish projects for other clients.

Another option is to build your own DFIR team from the ground up, but considering the well-documented paucity of security talent, you may find it difficult and expensive to adequately staff a team with the unique blend of specialized skills necessary to be effective DFIR responders. It’s challenging enough to hire security professionals in general. It gets even tougher when you’re looking for people with the know-how to handle digital forensic evidence, research threats, and analyze and reverse engineer malware.

As you look for a DFIR provider, you should evaluate criteria like the skills and backgrounds of team members, as well as its portfolio to ensure you find the right provider to meet your business needs.

So what questions should you ask a potential partner? Here are a few suggested queries on what to look for so that you can make the most of a retainer.

  • 1) How quickly will you be working for us when you need you?

    A speedy and efficient response to a cyberattack can save you time and money in the long run. Your retainer should spell out how quickly you can be in contact with a responder (ideally, immediately) and on site (ideally within 24 hours globally).

  • 2) Can you help us even if we aren’t suffering a major breach?

    Your DFIR provider should be able to provide services outside of responding to a significant compromise. Let's say your anti-virus or endpoint protection software identifies malware. While there may be no indication that the malware has imparted any serious harm, you should still want to understand what that threat is designed to do. An optimal DFIR team should have the skills to reverse engineer the malware and tell you exactly that. It’s an exercise that might not make sense to engage outside professionals on with a new contract, but ideally is something your provider should offer as part of their retainer services.

  • 3) Can you use unused hours?

    Some DFIR providers offer retainers that state you either use – or lose – the hours at the end of your contract. But who in their right mind wants to root for an incident to occur just so they can avoid pouring money down the drain? Other providers will allow for the transfer of unused hours to proactive incident readiness and response services. While a DFIR team provides tremendous value responding to a breach, you shouldn’t have to sustain an incident to extract value from the relationship.