A K-12 Guide To Post-Incident Analysis

K-12 cyberattacks are increasing. According to a survey of over 3,000 information technology (IT) and cybersecurity leaders, 80% of school IT professionals experienced ransomware attacks in 2022 — up from just 52% the previous year.

Indeed, school districts are more likely to report ransomware than IT professionals from other industries. Why? Because hackers are targeting them at an unrelenting rate.

Simply put, that’s why incident response plans (IRPs) are a must. However, no IRP is complete without post-incident activity. But what does that mean? How does post-incident analysis work? And why does it matter?

In this guide, we’ll answer all these questions and more. Read on to learn the basics of post-incident review and how it can improve your district’s cybersecurity posture.

What is a post-incident review?

A post-incident review is a detailed retrospective that allows you to comprehensively examine a cybersecurity event, such as a data breach, leak, cyberattack, and so on. It involves closely analyzing each part of an incident from beginning to end to gather insights and strengthen cyber resilience.

Broadly speaking, the goals of post-incident review are threefold:

  1. Find the root cause: Reviews help you identify where incidents began so you can prevent them from happening again in the future.
  2. Scope the damage: They also intend to assess your response holistically, helping you minimize impacts and recover more effectively.
  3. Make improvements: Most importantly, post-incident activities aim to mature your cybersecurity posture and close gaps in your defenses.

Reviews are an essential part of the overall incident response process. If you’re unfamiliar, IRPs provide a structured approach to handling security threats, reducing confusion, and ensuring everyone knows their responsibilities. Moreover, they outline the key actions required to contain incidents as quickly and effectively as possible.

After federal legislators decided K-12 cyber threats had grown so severe they required further study, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) produced a report full of insights and best practices. One of CISA’s foremost recommendations was to implement and/or strengthen existing IRPs. Per the report:

“Every K–12 organization should establish and regularly exercise a written incident response plan (IRP), which should define what the organization needs to do before, during, and after an actual or potential security incident … The lessons learned from these exercises will allow the organization to update and strengthen their IRP as well as their policies, procedures, and even technologies.”

Generally, incident response plans follow a four-step framework:

  1. Preparation
  2. Detection and analysis
  3. Containment, eradication, and recovery
  4. Post-incident activities

Although the first three steps are what many IT professionals think of when they imagine incident response, the final one is perhaps the most important.


Why is post-incident analysis important?

Cyberattacks can have severe consequences for schools. That includes monetary loss and school closure, not to mention the compromise of sensitive information. Unfortunately, these impacts are worsening over time.

The K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 SIX) publishes an annual report on the state of grade-school cybersecurity. In 2022, the organization found that although the overall number of reported attacks dipped in 2021, the price of recovery increased. Some districts have faced nearly $10 million in recovery and upgrade costs following incidents.

One way to curtail these increasing expenditures — while also strengthening resilience — is through post-incident analysis. After attacks, it’s likely your response team, community, and colleagues have feedback and lessons learned. This information is critical to maintaining and refining your IRP.

Think about it: If you’re not conducting a post-incident review, are you getting the full story? Not really. You’re leaving key details left unsaid and ungathered, which could make all the difference next time around.

Post-incident activities are a great opportunity to drive continuous improvement. That way, your IR team can respond to future incidents much faster, more effectively, and without making any avoidable mistakes. Moreover, they’re a chance to answer essential questions that could inform your IR plan, such as:

  • What happened and when?
  • How well did the response team perform?
  • Did they follow documented procedures?
  • Were those procedures adequate?
  • What information was missing when it was needed?
  • What actions slowed recovery?
  • What could be done differently?
  • What can be done to prevent future incidents?
  • What precursors or indicators can be looked for in the future?

Answering these questions will help you in numerous ways. For example, post-incident activities can lead to the following outcomes:

  • Improved response strategies.
  • Increased accountability for staff, students, and team members.
  • Greater awareness of security threats, especially new and emerging ones.
  • Stronger communication among team members can improve effectiveness.
  • More trust and confidence in your school district to protect student data privacy.
  • Simplified compliance and less exposure to regulatory fines and penalties.

Key post-incident response activities

Let’s say you’ve just detected, contained, and eradicated a malware threat. What comes next?

Here are the most essential post-incident response activities you should consider:

1. Analyze data and documented evidence

Security incidents generate a significant amount of data — both about how your team performs and how the threat actor operates. Data sources range from log files and network traffic to system snapshots and user activity. These insights can help you understand the timeline of events, what strategies the hacker used, the root cause of the incident, and the extent of the damage.

Ensure your IRP has procedures in place to gather data and document evidence throughout the response process. Studying information can be useful in developing new policies, identifying vulnerabilities, and justifying additional resources.

2. Hold a team meeting

It’s likely your team members have thoughts and feedback about how they performed during the incident. Allow them to bring their ideas to the table by holding a lessons-learned meeting. As best practice, involve the right people — not just your team, but also any relevant stakeholders, administrators, and staff members. If there’s anyone who can shed light on the incident, it’ll help you identify the appropriate next steps.

Keep in mind that verbal, anecdotal evidence can help support your suspicions as to how the incident began. Cross-referencing this information with your quantitative data is a good way to confirm root causes, impacted systems, etc.


3. Complete an after-action report

Ultimately, you need a way to capture feedback and reflections in a document everyone can reference. That’s where an after-action report comes into play.

According to the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (REMS), the purpose of an after-action report is to synthesize information from the security incident, recognize strengths, determine areas of improvement, and generate corrective measures. You can source this information from lessons-learned meetings and team debriefings in addition to log files and other types of documentation.

Per REMS, the key components of an after-action report include:

  • Overview: The date, time frame/duration, and location of the event; name and type of participants and agencies/organizations in attendance.
  • Goals and objectives: Broad statements that indicate the desired outcome of the IRP and specific, measurable actions for achieving the goals.
  • Analysis of the outcomes: The level to which goals and objectives were or were not met and why, based on observations, surveys, and discussions.
  • Analysis of critical tasks/capacity: Strengths and areas of improvement concerning the capability levels of administrators, faculty, staff, and community partners as well as the adequacy of supplies and equipment.
  • Summary: Lessons learned, including demonstrated capabilities, primary areas for improvement, or required updates to the IRP.
  • Recommendations: Corrective actions to be implemented, person(s) responsible, needed resources, and expected completion date.

It’s best to complete this report shortly after an incident concludes. This ensures you retain as much insight while the event is still fresh on the minds of everyone involved.

4. Update threat intelligence

“Threat intelligence” refers to the aggregated information that provides the necessary context for cybersecurity decision-making processes. More simply, it’s the knowledge you need to understand your attack landscape.

Post-incident reviews will likely unveil new insights about known cyber threats, such as malware or ransomware strains. They may also reveal brand-new threat vectors emerging from the woodwork. Either way, keeping an updated knowledge base is key to staying ahead of evolving attack strategies.

6. Patch vulnerabilities

After identifying root causes and security flaws, take corrective action to plug gaps in your defenses. This prevents bad actors from exploiting vulnerabilities in the future, thereby reducing your chances of experiencing a similar incident.

7. Implement new solutions

Analysis could indicate your current protections aren’t doing the trick. So, identify tools that could help level the playing field. Prioritize solutions that serve your most immediate needs. For example, if you’re lacking cloud security, consider using a cloud monitoring platform.

8. Test, evaluate, repeat

Feed lessons learned back into your IRP, then run exercises to see how it functions. Try plausible scenarios you think are more likely to happen. This is a great way to strengthen your process before an actual event challenges your team.

Enhance threat detection with ManagedMethods

Speed and efficiency are everything when it comes to incident response. That’s why early threat detection is a must-have capability for K-12 IT departments.

With Content Filter, for example, you gain more than just a web filtering solution. You also gain a first line of defense. As an early warning system, it’ll alert you when users are trying to access websites they shouldn’t be. This allows you to enforce policies and train them on why their actions were risky.

Moreover, our Cloud Monitor platform automates threat detection across your entire cloud domain. Whether you use Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or both, you can use data loss prevention policies to identify suspicious behavior and potential breaches before it’s too late. That way, your incident response team can leap into action and eliminate the threat.

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