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CISA Playbooks: Vendor Cybersecurity Takeaways

4 min read
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Six months after the Biden Administration released the May 2021 cybersecurity Executive Order, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) officially launched their Cybersecurity Incident & Vulnerability Response Playbooks. The playbooks are to be used by federal civilian agencies as well as contractors or other organizations that work on behalf of these agencies. Though the private sector is not in scope of these procedures and guidelines, organizations will greatly benefit from staying informed of cybersecurity standards, which may be used as a benchmark for your own environment as well as your third-party vendors.

In this blog, we’ll give a high-level review of the playbooks and provide some practical tips on how to implement these guidelines.

Incident Response Playbook: Responding to Malicious Cyber Activity

The first playbook outlines the process in which an organization should respond to a cybersecurity incident. This begins with the Preparation Phase, which includes documenting policies and procedures, establishing plans around staffing needs and providing users with education on threats and notification procedures.

After this initial Preparation Phase, the incident response process should include the following:
  • Detection & Analysis: This is often the most challenging component of responding to an incident. Activities in this phase include declaring an incident, determining the investigation scope, collecting and preserving data and performing a technical analysis. Third-party analysis support may also be needed for major incidents and tools should be modified by the incident response team to slow the pace of the advance and increase the probability of detection.
  • Containment: After an incident is detected and analyzed, containment is critical. The goal of this phase is to prevent any further damage and reduce the immediate effect of the incident by removing access from the adversary.
  • Eradication & Recovery: Before beginning eradication and recovery activities, it’s important to ensure that all persistent access into the network has been identified. This phase should be focused on returning to normal operations by eliminating any objects of the incident such as malicious code. Ensure that any evidence has been preserved and confirm that the systems are functioning properly.
  • Post-Incident Activities: Documenting, informing and applying lessons learned are the main goals of post-incident activities. In this phase, the playbooks advise to first adjust sensors, alerts and log collection. The final activities include finalizing reports and conducting an analysis of lessons learned to assess effectiveness of the incident handling process.


Coordination with CISA is another key component of effectively responding to an incident. The playbooks state that the affected department or agency should closely collaborate with CISA during each phase of the incident response flow chart.

Vulnerability Response Playbook: Focusing on Active Exploits

The second playbook emphasizes the need to prioritize vulnerabilities that are already being exploited. This will serve as a straightforward and effective method to protect against cyber incidents. As with the Incident Response Playbook, responding to vulnerabilities should also begin with preparation. This includes building and maintaining strong asset management and establishing a process to understand the relevance of vulnerabilities.

The vulnerability response process covers the following four phases:
  • Identification: Monitor threat feeds and information sources such as CISA/US-CERT National Cyber Awareness System (NCAS), CISA Binding Operational Directive (BOD) 22-01, NIST’s National Vulnerability Database and internal Security Operations Center (SOC) monitoring. These will be valuable in proactively identifying any reports of vulnerabilities that are actively being exploited.
  • Evaluation: Determine if the vulnerability exists and the criticality of underlying software or hardware. Patch and asset management tools can be used to automate this detection process. If the vulnerability does exist and was exploited, the organization should take immediate action through incident response activities. The goal of this stage is to understand the status of each system as not affected, susceptible or compromised.
  • Remediation: Most situations with exploited vulnerabilities should include patching. Other activities might include limiting access, isolating vulnerable systems or permanently changing configuration. Each system should then by identified as remediated, mitigated or susceptible/compromised.
  • Reporting: Finally, reporting and notification activities should be used to help federal government defenders prioritize critical vulnerabilities.

How to Ensure CISA Cybersecurity Standards Are Implemented

CISA Playbooks Vendor Cybersecurity Takeaways

After taking these CISA guidelines into consideration, it’s important to understand how to implement them within your own third-party risk management program. Protecting your organization from third-party data breaches is a critical priority, so make sure to evaluate the following components of your vendor’s cybersecurity program:

  • Testing: Confirm that your vendor’s cybersecurity program includes regular vulnerability, penetration and social engineering testing. Regular testing will reveal how secure their environment is so any weaknesses can be quickly secured.
  • Detection and Response Plans: Your vendor’s incident detection and response plans should include details on the notification process and cybersecurity insurance coverage.
  • Employee and Vendor Management: Ensure that your vendor conducts thorough pre-employment screening and annual security awareness training. Your vendor should also be performing their own due diligence on their vendors (your fourth parties).

By ensuring that your third parties adhere to the principles outlined in these playbooks, your organization will be better protected from cybersecurity threats. Identifying vulnerabilities and responding effectively to incidents are important practices that all organizations and their vendors should be prioritizing.

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