How Do You Design an Effective Cyber Exercise?

An MMA fighter needs to practice in low-risk environments before stepping into the ring with their next opponent. Cybersecurity practice exercises use this same logic — give teams an opportunity to practice their skills when the health of the business is not on the line.

Simulations and tests based on expected cyber attacks allow teams to practice responding to them and following incident response plans when the stakes are non-existent. You’ll also allow them to practice technical skills that may not be used in daily operations but are critical during a cyber attack.

How can you develop a cyber exercise that prepares teams for situations they might encounter without warning? Let’s explore everything you need to know about designing and improving an effective cyber exercise.

Types of Cyber Exercises to Utilize

You have several options for your next cyber exercise, each with pros and cons. You should choose the right method for your goals, the type of cyber attack, and employee needs. Common options include:

  • Table-top simulations: Leave the machines behind and gather everyone in a conference room to run through a scenario, focusing on how employees think and react rather than anything virtual.
  • Virtual simulations: A simulated cyber range exercise uses isolated environments to mimic a likely possible cyber attack. You can simulate a ransomware virus, a successful phishing attempt, or a compromised network, then see how your teams respond.
  • Red and blue teaming: Red and blue teaming is a practice that originated in the military and describes a war game-style exercise — the red team attacks, and the blue team defends. Unlike simulations, these competitive games test everyone’s skills and logistical thinking.
  • Penetration testing: While technically a red team specialty, pentesting can also occur outside of a red/blue exercise. White hat hackers (friendly) can be hired or contracted to explore your systems for any vulnerabilities, then let you know about what black hat hackers (malicious) might exploit.

Planning Your Cyber Security Exercise

A cyber exercise is valuable for testing incident response plans, teams’ technical skills, and everyone’s strategic processes. Let’s briefly explore how you can plan a cyber exercise:

  • Create incident response plans: This step is separate from the specific exercise but should be done before you conduct one. Develop a game plan with defined processes, flow charts, and other details that will be used during the cyber training session and real-world scenarios.
  • Understand the participants: Designing a specific exercise begins by identifying the participants involved. Is the exercise intended for infosec specialists or non-technical employees whom attacks may target? 
  • Choose the type of attack: Next, what cyber attacks are you concerned about? Select a likely or high-priority attack as the basis of the exercise. Ideally, previously completed risk assessments will help you understand possible or experienced attacks facing your business.
  • Define success: Establish the win conditions of the game; otherwise, it’s not much different from a typical training session. For example, do teams need to capture the flag, eradicate a virus, or identify affected machines within a certain time frame? 
  • Develop the specific exercise: The rest of the planning focuses on the granular details of the exercise, like building test environments or finding safe versions of a ransomware virus to use. You’ll also need to know how teams will participate, such as in an isolated cyber lab or remotely from their usual work machines.
  • Execute: Once ready, it’s time to put cyber exercise into action. Each of the above steps paves the way for teams to join the scenario and try to achieve success. Trainers or IT managers should observe and stay aware of how the exercise is going — or join in.

Post-Exercise Actions and Analysis

Once you’ve completed the exercise, you must carry out additional processes to understand how it went. Otherwise, while teams did get some experience, you’ll miss out on insights that are ready for the taking.

Since you’ve defined success beforehand, did teams succeed or fail? You may need to provide additional training or redefine success to better reflect real-world situations.

Additionally, ask for feedback from participants. Did they feel like it helped them practice incident responses and technical skills? Was the exercise a good reflection of their past real-world experiences? Are they more confident about taking on the next incident?

Like your cyber security practices, cyber exercises should be continuously refined to be as effective as possible.