Cyber negotiation: a cyber risk management approach to
defend urban critical infrastructure from cyberattacks
, Alicia Noriega
and Lawrence Susskind
Computer Science and Artiﬁcial Intelligence Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge,
Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge,
Technical tools dominate the cyber risk management market. Social
cybersecurity tools are severely underutilised in helping
organisations defend themselves against cyberattacks. We
investigate a class of non-technical risk mitigation strategies and
tools that might be particularly eﬀective in managing and
mitigating the eﬀects of certain cyberattacks. We call these social-
science-grounded methods Defensive Social Engineering (DSE)
tools. Through interviews with urban critical infrastructure
operators and cross-case analysis, we devise a pre, mid and post
cyber negotiation framework that could help organisations
manage their cyber risks and bolster organisational cyber
resilience, especially in the case of ransomware attacks. The cyber
negotiation framework is grounded in both negotiation theory
and practice. We apply our ideas, ex post, to past ransomware
attacks that have wreaked havoc on urban critical infrastructure.
By evaluating how to use negotiation strategies eﬀectively (even if
no negotiations ever take place), we hope to show how non-
technical DSE tools can give defenders some leverage as they
engage with cyber adversaries who often have little to lose.
Received 12 August 2018
Revised 10 December 2018
Accepted 17 December 2018
Negotiation; cyber risk
critical infrastructure; cyber
Cybersecurity is often portrayed as a ‘cat and mouse’game that tests each side’s relative
technical prowess; however, it can also be considered a battle of social wits. Humans are
behind every hack, and attackers have human motivations. The social science that ought
to inform every eﬀort to deter and engage attackers can easily be overlooked when cyber-
security experts focus exclusively on technical exploits and ways to counter them. We call
the social science tools and techniques available to defenders, ‘Defensive Social Engineer-
ing’. Some DSE tools include using honeypots as decoys (Cohen 2006, 646), announcing
retribution for would-be attackers, also referred to as ‘hack back’(Jayaswal, Yurcik, and
Doss 2002, 380), and raising cybersecurity awareness through training. For this study,
we focus on another underutilised social science strategy: negotiation.
In this paper, we propose applying negotiation practices to cyber defence in order to
improve cyber risk management. We deﬁne cyber negotiation as a three-part process in
© 2019 Chatham House
CONTACT Gregory Falco firstname.lastname@example.org
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY
which a defender prepares for, conducts and reﬂects on a digital interaction with an
anonymous cyberattacker. Cyber negotiation does not require paying a ransom, nor
should it be used in all ransomware situations. Rather, we focus on preparing for
cyber negotiation as a risk-management strategy in ransomware attacks against urban
While many cyberattacks leave defenders with no idea about the attacker they are
dealing with or their whereabouts, ransomware attacks are diﬀerent. Ransomware gen-
erally involves solicitation of a payment in return for the release of data that have been
stolen or the restoration of services that have been rendered inoperable. Some ransom-
ware attackers even provide a channel of communication for the defender to connect
via untraceable means. While this is not always the case, an invitation to communicate
with a hacker provides an opportunity to directly engage in an exchange.
Urban critical infrastructure and services, including electricity grids, water networks,
transportation systems and emergency services including police departments are all vul-
nerable to attack because they are digitised with ‘smart’sensors and control systems con-
nected to the internet (Assante and Bochman 2017). Smart city infrastructure is a prime
target for cyberattackers considering their guardians’(public administrators) poor under-
standing of cyber risk, their vast surface area of attack, the value of their data and their
societal importance (Falco et al. 2018, 48360–48373). For example, 123 of 187 closed
circuit televisions (CCTVs) were compromised across Washington DC prior to the 2017 pre-
sidential inauguration (Williams 2017). The ransomware attack that disabled these CCTVs
aﬀected the police departments and the president’s security detail from overseeing poten-
tial threats while their systems were down.
Even more recently, the US city of Atlanta sustained a ransomware attack on 22
March 2018. The ransomware locked down city computers and their associated services
for many city functions and demanded approximately $51,000 delivered in bitcoin to
return access (Greenemeier 2018). Aﬀected services ranged from payment-acceptance
for ﬁnes or fees to the processing of various online requests. The city jail had to
revert to using pen and paper for operations (McCallister 2018). The city did not pay
the ransom and this resulted in some services being oﬄine for over two weeks. As of
5 May 2018, the total cost to recover from the attack has surpassed $5 million
(Atlanta Department of Procurement 2018).
To test our ideas about the beneﬁts of preparing for cyber negotiation (whether they
exchange anything or not), we conducted an extensive search and evaluation of past ran-
somware attacks. We paid close attention to instances in which negotiation ensued, or in
which there were missed opportunities for cyber negotiation that could have helped miti-
gate the damage caused by the ransomware attack. We also asked critical infrastructure
and services operators to help us understand the cyberattack defences they have in
place by participating in simulated ransomware attacks. The intent of these interviews
was to understand how cyber specialists in a range of urban critical infrastructure agencies
actually implement their cyber defence schemes. We analysed their responses through the
lens of the three-step negotiation process we believe can reduce the risks and costs associ-
ated with malware attacks on critical urban infrastructure. We then assessed how our pro-
posed cyber negotiation strategy might have helped in two well-known ransomware
attacks on urban critical infrastructure.
2G. FALCO ET AL.
The nature of ransomware
Ransomware is a type of malware that takes a cyber asset hostage (Mansﬁeld-Devine 2016,
8–17). A cyber asset has been taken hostage when it has been made unusable by an
attacker but use may be returned after the attacker’s demands have been met. From an
IT perspective, this usually involves encrypting an organiation’s data. Once data are
encrypted, a key is required to decrypt the ﬁles and enable access once again.
Sometimes the data are not encrypted but actually destroyed or exﬁltrated by an
attacker (Carbon Black 2017). Hackers make money by charging a fee for the key to
decrypt the ﬁles they have secretly encrypted.
Ransomware only recently became a major threat, in part because of the emergence of
bitcoin, a pseudo-anonymous payment mechanism, and Tor, a tool used to anonymize
internet activity. Together, bitcoin and Tor provide a means for attackers to extract and
transfer ransom payments while maintaining their anonymity. Prior to bitcoin and Tor, it
was relatively easy to track down a hacker by following a ransom payment back to
them. This new untraceable payment scheme, along with ‘ransomware-as-a-service’kits
make ransomware a proﬁtable and simple attack mechanism. Ransomware kits are sold
on various darkweb/black market sites by criminals, terrorist organisations and even
nation states. While there are many diﬀerent kits available, they are all intended to
make launching a ransomware attack ‘plug and play.’There are even sophisticated econ-
omic models set up by would-be criminals to help fund and distribute ransomware
(Carbon Black 2017).
The simplest method of blunting the eﬀects of a ransomware attack is to be certain that
all of an organisation’s data are continuously backed up and stored on a separate network
or in a location that is remote and entirely disconnected or air-gapped. While it may seem
obvious that organisations should back-up their systems on a regular basis, almost 63 per
cent of organisations do not (Klein 2017). While many IT systems will not suﬀer substan-
tially when a transition is made to a back-up system, most urban infrastructure is classiﬁed
as Operational Technology (OT), not IT. OT involves cyber-physical systems (i.e. digital
devices that impact the physical world), which generally cannot be taken oﬄine while
transitioning to a back-up system without causing a substantial impact on operations.
Taking OT oﬄine can result in severe consequences such as power outages or sewage
leaks. If ransomware infects even a small part of an urban infrastructure network, the
whole system may have to be taken oﬄine to install a back-up. This could have profound
physical and ﬁnancial implications (Krebs 2016). So while backing up systems is, in theory,
a good way to forestall the adverse eﬀects of ransomware attacks, urban critical infrastruc-
ture systems have special features that make this less than an ideal strategy. NIST’s gui-
dance on disaster recovery for OT acknowledges this challenge and proposes the need
for running a parallel system (Stouﬀer, Falco, and Scarfone 2011).
An example of how long it can take to restore an urban critical infrastructure system is
oﬀered by a ransomware attack against a major transportation authority which took place
in 2016 (Rodriguez 2016). The transportation authority was able to maintain system oper-
ations during the attack by resorting to handwritten bus route assignments, but it chose to
take down fare-payment systems from Friday, 25 November to Sunday, 27 November
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 3
while restoring its software. This resulted in revenue losses of about $50,000 (Rodriguez
2016). While the transportation authority refused to pay the 100 bitcoin ($73,000)
demanded by the hacker, many businesses that are ransomwared do pay. According to
a 2016 IBM study, 70 per cent of executives from (private) companies who have been ran-
somwared paid the hacker (IBM 2016).
In the case of ransomware attacks against urban infrastructure, it is not always easy to
gauge the health of a cyber asset that has been or is being held hostage. This is largely
because the defender has no way to determine what is happening to their data while it
is inaccessible to them (it could be posted or sold on the dark web). While data are poten-
tially recoverable once a decryption key is provided by the attacker (after the ransom has
been paid), an asset could be permanently compromised from a reputational and com-
petitive advantage standpoint even if the data are returned intact. Thus, damage
caused by a cyberattack can extend well beyond the immediate damage caused by
After an attacker targets a system and encrypts the data such that the asset is compro-
mised, the operator usually has the option of paying a ransom or restoring functionality by
deploying a back-up system. There is no reason to believe, however, that the hacker won’t
be back. A recent ransomware trend indicates that once a ransom is paid, attackers lie
dormant in the system they hacked and reappear, instigating the same kind of attack
again (Carbon Black 2017). There is no simple way to know if a hacker still has access to
a system after an attack. This is why many organisations choose to re-ﬂash the ﬁrmware
of their devices after an attack and rebuild. This was the case in the CCTV hack in Washing-
ton DC (Williams 2017).
Applying negotiation theory to cyber risk management
There are three stages in a digital, anonymous negotiation: pre-interaction (setting expec-
tations, arranging the situational context and preparing organisationally), during
interaction (whether face-to-face or not) and after interaction (post-assessment and
lesson-learning for organisational improvement) (Köszegi, Kersten, and Vetschera 2002,
418–427). Contrary to popular perceptions, most of a negotiation happens before or
after the actual attack interaction itself. We aim to contextualise and apply this three-
part understanding of negotiation to how urban critical infrastructure operators
manage the risk of being attacked by ransomware. In doing so, we consider leading
theory in hostage and ransom negotiations, described below.
Bans on ransom negotiation
US federal statutes bar the payment of maritime piracy ransoms (Lennox-Gentle 2010,
199). Should the oﬃcial US stance on non-payment of maritime pirates apply to ransom-
ware attacks as well? The basis of the ban rests on the theory that paying ransom
encourages repeat and copycat behaviour. According to the World Bank, as much as 20
per cent of ransom proceeds are put aside to fund future attacks (Dutton and Bellish
2014, 299). Despite investing in deterrence such as navy escort patrols, rerouting shipping
routes and faster steam engines, pirate attacks continue.
The US and UK governments decided that the best way to deter would-be pirates from
choosing piracy as a career ‘and thereby protecting seafarers from continued threat of
4G. FALCO ET AL.
hijackings and hostage-takings’was to eliminate ransom payments. Of course, banning
ransom payments to hostage-takers may have put innocent lives at risk. While banning
piracy ransoms may be good for the world community, it only works if everyone partici-
pates. Thus, the policy raises a collective action problem. Some states or individuals
may prefer to pay ransom in the short-term. If they do, they undermine the eﬀectiveness
of the policy for everyone else (Dutton and Bellish 2014, 299).
Human hostage vs digital hostage
There is substantial literature concerning hostage negotiation. The goal is for the hostage
negotiators to position themselves as deal brokers and identify mutual interests with the
hostage-taker (Vecchi, Van Hasselt, and Romano 2005). Ransom negotiation almost always
involves moving through a communication stage and developing rapport with the
attacker, buying time, defusing intense emotions and gathering intelligence to ascertain
the optimal negotiation or intervention strategy (Lanceley 2003). The Behavior Change
Stairway Model (BCSM) developed by the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit explains how this
kind of relationship-building works (Vecchi, Van Hasselt, and Romano 2005, 533–551).
While many of the ideas from human hostage negotiation can inform negotiation in
ransomware situations, most of the tactics involved assume human contact between
the hostage-taker and the victim and/or between the hostage-taker and the negotiator.
It is this contact that is used to generate empathy that skilled negotiators use to build
trust. It turns out that empathy and trust have also been established in some ransomware
‘experiments’done by a team at F-Secure. They posed as a ransomware victim and got
attacker-agents to extend payment deadlines, lower ransoms (three out of four crypto-ran-
somware gangs negotiated, leading to a 29 per cent average discount), and provide step-
by-step assistance regarding how to pay in bitcoin after feigning ignorance (F-Secure
2016). The hacker who targeted the previously mentioned transportation authority was
himself hacked shortly after his ransomware attack against the transportation authority
(Krebs 2016). The hacked emails of the attacker revealed that other victims besides the
transportation authority had successfully negotiated down their ransom payments.
Another victim, China Construction of America Inc. was ransomed for 40 bitcoin, but
ended up negotiating a payment of only 24 bitcoin (Krebs 2016).
Research plan and interview protocol
To understand how urban critical infrastructure operators are likely to handle a ransom-
ware attack, we developed a hypothetical ransomware scenario and simulated an attack
(with permission) using screen captures from past attacks. Before initiating the simulation,
we asked the operators some questions about their organisation’s cybersecurity posture.
Our pre-simulation questions included:
(1) Do you have a cyberattack response plan in place for your system?
(2) What, if any, technologies do you use to fend oﬀhackers?
(3) What, if any, non-technical strategies do you use to fend oﬀhackers?
These questions set a baseline for our assessment of the urban critical infrastructure
manager’s preparedness. To begin the scenario, we showed the operators an image of
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 5
a port scan detected on an intrusion detection system. This was followed by a series of
questions aimed at ascertaining how the operators would respond if they actually saw
such images. Next, we showed a ransomware screen indicating that ﬁles had been
locked and that a payment in bitcoin was required to unlock them. At this point, we
asked how the operator would respond, and whether (and how) they would engage
the hacker to explore the possibility of negotiation. Finally, we showed the operator a
screen indicating that the attack had been resolved. This was followed with questions
about how the urban infrastructure organisation might incorporate lessons from this
hypothetical attack into their future cybersecurity eﬀorts and whether damage control
might be managed diﬀerently in the future. Our simulation screens and associated ques-
tions are included in Appendix A.
Finding critical urban operators willing to participate was diﬃcult. Some declined
because they did not want to draw attention to themselves or their organisation.
Others appeared not to have a cybersecurity strategy in place, and did want that to
become obvious. Some were unable to get permission from their leadership to speak
with us about cybersecurity strategy (although highly sensitive information was not
requested). We approached 100 organisations by email. The solicited organisations
were selected because they were either a) previously in the media because they had
experienced a ransomware attack or b) within close geographic proximity of members
of our research team in Massachusetts and California. This gave us an opportunity to
conduct our interviews in person. Ultimately, of the 100 organisations we approached,
seven agreed to be interviewed. We are not disclosing their names. They participated
because we promised to preserve their anonymity. We are allowed to say that they rep-
resent police departments, electricity utilities, government agencies, satellite operators
(weather and GPS), emergency management services and transportation departments
and were from the states of California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. All
interviewees answered questions individually, although in one instance three organis-
ations met together to participate in the simulation. We asked that everyone who par-
ticipated respond to our questions individuallyinwritingsowecouldbesurethey
were not inﬂuenced by the other respondents. Each interview took approximately
thirty minutes to complete. Interviews were audio recorded for our review, and the
recordings were later destroyed. We also took written notes during each session. The
individuals we interviewed held positionssuchasChiefExecutiveOﬃcer (CEO), Chief
Information Oﬃcer (CIO) and Chief Information Security Oﬃcer (CISO). Everyone we
talked to had an opportunity to review our study results and correct any misinterpreta-
tions of their inputs. Our research design was approved by MIT’s Committee on the Use
of Humans as Experimental Subjects.
Because of the small number of interviews, we augmented this research method with
cross-case analysis of actual urban critical infrastructure ransomware attacks reported in
the media. The two cases include an attack against Uber and the WannaCry ransomware
attack. We fully acknowledge that the small number of interviewees is a limitation of our
study. The ﬁndings and insights of this research may not be applicable to all urban critical
infrastructure organisations, but we believe it is a strong starting point for understanding
how using a negotiation framework (even if actual negotiations never take place) can help
operators to prepare for, defend and recover from attacks.
6G. FALCO ET AL.
To generate our cyber negotiation-oriented risk management strategy, we analysed our
interview ﬁndings and the results of our cross-case analyses during three time periods:
pre-attack, mid-attack and post-attack. As you will see, the urban critical infrastructure
operators we interviewed did not focus very much on the actual mid-attack phase.
They spent considerably more time describing how they would prepare for a cyberattack
and how they would respond after one occurred. The pre-negotiation, mid-negotiation
and post-negotiation framework seemed very comfortable for the infrastructure managers
with whom we spoke.
Pre-attack cyber negotiation
Pre-cyberattack negotiation seems to be focused mostly on gettingclarity, if not agreement
on the assignment of responsibility and lines of authority. To properly prepare an organis-
ation for the possibility of a cyberattack (and possible negotiations), we learned it is
crucial to develop a cyber incident response plan, build organisational awareness of the
plan and the potential for attack, deploy the proper technology to defend systems, formalise
the internal and external lines of communication that will be activated during an attack, and
establish relationships with selected external organisations (especially the FBI). This pre-
attack phase of cyber negotiation is aimed at establishing points of internal leverage to
use during an attack and subsequent negotiations. Without adequate leverage (e.g. auth-
ority) developed during this phase, few if any negotiation options are likely to emerge. We
brieﬂy discuss each pre-attack component (and the negotiation leverage involved). Again,
those suﬀering a breach may not be willing to pay a ransom, but that doesn’t mean that
they should not seek to interact with their attackers. As you will see below, there are strategic
advantages to be gained by engaging in negotiation even if no deal is reached.
Develop a cyber incident response plan
From our interviews we gathered that many critical infrastructure and service organis-
ations already have general incident response plans. The CISO of a utility said, ‘These [inci-
dent response plans] are the ﬁrst line of defence in case of cyberattack’. While potentially
useful in ransomware situations, they are not speciﬁc to cyberattacks and are aimed at any
kind of ‘incident’that might occur. At present, incident response plans are the go-to guide
for critical infrastructure operators if they are under attack. A CIO we interviewed commen-
ted that ‘Most incident response plans do not oﬀer detailed instructions; instead, they rec-
ommend turning to outside resources such as the FBI and Homeland Security for
assistance. […] They instruct managers under attack to convene a pre-named manage-
ment team of internal authorities relevant to the incident type to make operational
decisions in real time’. The actual response to each event varies considerably (based on
our interview ﬁndings). Organisations typically look to their CIO for guidance on how to
deal with speciﬁc incidents and whether (and when) to consult their ISP or the FBI,
depending on the severity of the event. It appears that the CIO has decision-making
power over what happens during an incident. A CIO from a state agency we interviewed
commented that ‘[Our] ransomware-speciﬁc incident response plan was rather simple –
wipe the system and restore from back-ups’.
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 7
While this might work in some ransomware scenarios, it might not be feasible in all
situations. For example, some organisations do not make back-ups in real time. This
means that critical data could be missing from the back-ups when it comes time to
restore the system. Such cases make more diﬃcult the decision to ‘wipe the system
and restore from back-ups,’as some data might be lost. Therefore, incidents will have
to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We learned that some incident response
plans, depending on the organisation’s sophistication and its CIO’s knowledge of
cyber response, may include only the bureaucratic documentation needed for disclosure
purposes and the reduction of legal liability, instead of a robust guide to how best to
respond to speciﬁc cyber incidents.
Incident response plans are widely available on the internet for organisations to adapt
to their needs. One of the CIOs we spoke to said that ‘It is the responsibility of the CIO to
manage and maintain these plans on an annual basis’. A popular reference resource is the
University of California Berkeley’s Incident Response Planning Guidelines (Berkeley 2018).
All the critical infrastructure operators with whom we spoke indicated that they had
some mandated employee training and awareness campaigns regarding cybersecurity
However, some organisations take this more seriously than others. A utility CEO com-
mented, ‘Building awareness is not suﬃcient’. Instead, he tries to foster a ‘culture of secur-
ity’. He aims to ‘instill cybersecurity thinking across all aspects of his organization’s
employee experience’. This involved aligning employee priorities and success metrics
with cybersecurity best practices. An example would be to report the number of successful
phishing attacks against an employee as part of their annual job performance review. Also,
he insisted that ‘Leadership must support a cybersecurity culture by not only encouraging
it, but outwardly practising good cybersecurity’.
In contrast to this utility CEO, we spoke with a CISO who mentioned that their
cybersecurity awareness programme consisted of a computer-based training programme that
is required when employees complete their annual HR training. The training is 30 min long
and was created by an outside consultant. It explains what a phishing attack is, and
encourages employees not to leave their laptops unlocked. There is a test at the end which
employees must pass to complete the training.
Upon pressing further, we learned that employees can take the test as many times as they
want and there is little accountability for knowing the material after the course is over. The
CISO said ‘Cybersecurity training is seen more as a compliance exercise than as an actual
Despite the varied approaches, four of our seven interviewees acknowledged the
importance of building awareness in advance of possible cyber incidents because
employees are the ﬁrst responders in any attack. The state CIO stressed that ‘When
an employee notices a ransomware attack or some other unusual cyber activity, they
should immediately communicate the incident. A quick response can help limit
damage to the defending organization since ransomware attacks have countdown
timers’. Often, hackers threaten to inﬂict increasing damage to the system if action is
not taken by the deadline.
8G. FALCO ET AL.
Deploy technical defences
The cyber negotiation framework should be used in tandem with technical defence strat-
egies. All seven of our interviewees described the myriad technical defences used by their
organisations. Importantly, the CISO of a transportation agency said, ‘Technical defences
can detect an intrusion on a network, but cannot resolve the problem –especially
when a ransomware attack is underway’. Such tools should provide insight into the attack-
er’s identity such as their IP address or the various attack vectors they used to penetrate
the network. This is important background knowledge that can be used during the attack
post-mortem. It might also provide some insight into the motives of the attackers. The
CISO of a major satellite operator said, ‘A system manager can never have enough infor-
mation about a potential cyber negotiation adversary –especially when so much of the
interaction is cloaked behind layers of anonymity’. This is one reason that four out of
seven of our interviewees’organisations spend millions of dollars a year to keep up
with some of the subscriptions they rely on to enhance their technical security. Some
popular technical security subscriptions named consistently by ﬁve of the seven intervie-
wees included Palo Alto Networks which focus on intrusion detection and network secur-
ity (Palo Alto Networks 2018), Mozy (2018) which provides back-up services, and McAfee
(2018) which provides endpoint antivirus protection. The transportation CISO said,
‘Backing up systems is critical to preparing for the possibility of cyberattack and sub-
sequent negotiation’. Having a back-up system is, in fact, a source of substantial leverage
in a cyberattack negotiation. One may think that there is no need to negotiate if an urban
infrastructure operator has a back-up, but this is not the case. The utility CISO we spoke
Installing back-ups requires taking a system oﬄine and rebooting it. Because of the 24/7 oper-
ational nature of urban critical infrastructure systems, it might be better to negotiate return of
system control than taking the system down to transfer to the back-up. Also, switching to the
back-up and cutting oﬀcommunication with an attacker means that an organization might be
vulnerable to another attack of the same kind.
It might also mean that an organisation has lost control of important conﬁdential infor-
mation. Thus, it would be better to get all that information back, even if that requires
paying a ransom.
Formalise communication channels
The emergency services lead we spoke with from a US state agency said,
It is essential to have clear and formal communication pathways in the event of a cyberattack.
[…] Because a wide range of employees interact with computing systems that can remotely
communicate with urban critical infrastructure, each one must know who to contact (and in
what order) if they are the victims of ransomware.
When speaking with the CIO of an urban transportation authority we learned that their
network is directly connected to other urban infrastructure networks in the state. This is
not uncommon. Networks are designed in this fashion to enhance ease of access for main-
tenance and third-party service providers. She said, ‘This can result in a civil servant unin-
tentionally infecting a system despite having no direct interaction with it’. Therefore, every
employee must know who to contact if there a breach, and what information they will be
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 9
asked to provide. While upward and downward internal communication plans are crucial,
external plans need to be established as well. The utility CEO told us that
Cyberattacks often attract considerable media attention. If information about organizational
chaos is leaked during an attack –as opposed to a clear and calm message about how the
attack is being handled, we will be at a severe disadvantage during any cyber negotiations.
A CEO we interviewed described a very strict external communication protocol their
organisation intends to follow during a breach.
The script for each dialogue will be created in real time by the CIO or CISO and then shared
with the organization’s legal team. General Counsel tends to take a heavy-handed approach to
restructuring such communications. The public relations team is then supposed to approve
the message for external use. Either the CEO or CIO is responsible for communicating the
message to the press. The information that is ultimately conveyed is highly sanitized and
likely to say very little about the actual incident.
We learned that information about what actually happened is often leaked to various
media outlets by employees after the press brieﬁng. The external communication
process described by our interviewee sounded extremely cumbersome. We are not
sure what will actually happen under pressure. Two of our interviewees including
the CIO of the state agency did ‘not know if an external communication protocol
was in place’for their organisation. He said, ‘We would just contact the public relations
Establish external organisational relationships
All seven urban critical infrastructure operators we interviewed indicated that they
would be quick to call in external help if they were targeted by a ransomware
attack. The utility CEO said, ‘It is extremely important to build a relationship with the
authorities and the FBI before we have to deal with ransomware’. Others mentioned
their relationships with national labs that do attack aftermath evaluations. Our utility
interviewees indicated that Idaho National Labs has established a team to help with
post-mortems for cyberattacks on industrial control systems. The transportation
agency CIO said, ‘We have relationships with consultants who specialize in attack for-
ensics and cyber negotiation’who help manage attack issues. We learned that prior
to a ﬁrst cyberattack or cyber negotiation, some urban infrastructure operators establish
relationships with private entities who can assist in case of attack. When an attack is
underway, however, is not the time to try to sort out lines of responsibility with
In summary, most of our respondents have made contact with the FBI and have an
open line of communication to them in the event of a breach. However, ﬁve of the
seven interviewees did not have a clear understanding of what they would do and
what the FBI would do during and after an attack. Some indicated they would ‘turn
over operations’during an incident to an external consultant who would make decisions
for them in conjunction with the FBI. Others thought that the FBI would assist as their own
internal organisation managed the attack. Six of the seven interviewees agreed that their
own organisation is ultimately responsible for deciding when and how to resume
10 G. FALCO ET AL.
During an attack, an urban infrastructure organisation must act quickly; hence the pre-
attack negotiation preparation measures identiﬁed above. Insights about the prospect
of engaging in cyber negotiations varied across our interviewees. Some strongly
opposed the idea of negotiating an exchange with a hacker, saying ‘We are morally
opposed to giving anything to criminals’. Some were open to negotiating ‘if a capable
party [i.e. someone other than themselves] were going to lead the eﬀort’, although they
simultaneously wanted to retain ﬁnal decision-making authority. Others indicated an inter-
est in cyber negotiations as a technique for buying time. A memorable point made by one
utility executive is ‘Urban critical infrastructure operators should never say never to nego-
tiating’. It turns out there are a variety of objectives that can be met through negotiation,
even if the victim has no intention of paying a ransom. Gathering more information about
the attacker so they might be identiﬁed and brought to justice, for instance, may be a
worthwhile objective of negotiation. While not all operators agreed that negotiating is
the right thing to do, all had ideas about how a cyber negotiation would probably
unfold. They envisioned the following steps: convene the incident command structure,
evaluate the severity of the event, consult the legal team and bring in and brief outside
experts to execute the negotiation. Each of these steps is described below based on
Convene the incident command structure
As part of the incident response plan, each urban critical infrastructure organisation
described a team of internal stakeholders and leaders they would convene in the case
of a cyberattack. The utility CISO commented that ‘The incident command structure
must decide how to proceed so that responsibility does not fall on the shoulders of one
(unprepared) individual’. The group is not responsible for problem-solving during the inci-
dent, however; they are the chief decision-makers. For example, this group might ulti-
mately decide that a ransom should be paid. They would also be responsible for
decisions such as when to call in the FBI and report the incident externally. For private
companies, such groups function autonomously. We learned that government-aﬃliated
organisations, however, are unable ‘to refer an incident to a command structure during
such cases. Instead, we need to wait for guidance from our governing body before
responding to a ransomware incident’. This means that they are not able to act until expli-
cit instructions come from the most senior level of the agency.
Determine event severity
After the incident command structure is assembled, the team needs to evaluate the sever-
ity of the attack. Often, the incident command structure team cannot do this on their own,
so they consult operators closest to the system in jeopardy. ‘Severity is determined by the
number and criticality of the systems impacted,’said the CISO of a utility. Criticality
appears to be judged largely on the amount of downtime the infrastructure system can
withstand. If a system is not determined to be highly critical, three of our interviewees
informed us, the ‘infected’system might be taken oﬄine and rebooted using back-ups.
‘If a system is deemed critical, and cannot be taken oﬄine even for a short period
without serious consequences like the potential loss of life caused by turning oﬀpower
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 11
during a freezing night, negotiations might then begin,’according to the utility executive.
In a ransomware incident at one CIO’s transportation agency, ‘Instead of paying a ransom,
we chose to shut all payment systems down. This literally opened the gates of the rapid
transit system, allowing customers to pass through fare-free as we tried to install a
back-up and reboot’. Smaller groups, such as the precinct of a police chief we interviewed
‘do not have complete back-ups, cyber incident response teams or alternate recovery
options. So when we were hit with a ransomware attack, our IT department advised
that we pay the ransom’. Our interviewee’s incident is not inconsistent with other news
stories in which police departments have paid ransoms. One public report describes
how ransomware infected a department’s TriTech software responsible for dispatch and
police records. Without this, they would have been unable to operate. That was not an
option (CNN 2016). This might have been a good opportunity for cyber negotiation, but
that was not tried.
Another interviewee whose agency had experienced a ransomware attack commented,
‘We had to determine the severity of the risk to our system at the time of the incident.
Rather than paying the ransom, we determined that the risk was limited to our ﬁnancial
systems and would not impact operations’. The ﬁnancial system was shut down until
back-ups could be restored. In this interviewee’s case, because the ransomware was iso-
lated in the ﬁnancial system, the risk calculation was based on ﬁnancial losses as
opposed to a potential operational disruption which would involve public safety, negative
publicity and political factors in the risk calculation. There are no standards agreed upon
for calculating cyber risk. This is one reason why the cyber insurance business is still strug-
gling to ﬁnd adequate underwriting (Orcutt 2017). Following on from our own research,
we are hoping to work with the insurance industry to develop a research agenda to
improve the viability of cyber insurance as a strategy to manage cyber risk.
Consult the legal team
According to two of our interviewees, and summarised by the emergency services lead,
‘Before any purposeful action can be taken, the General Counsel or several internal and
external legal advisers need to be consulted’. It is their job to calculate the organisation’s
liability under various scenarios. Lawyers specialising in cyber risk are asked to provide gui-
dance on the organisation’s options. Often, the General Counsel is a member of the inci-
dent command structure, but all seven of our interviewees made it clear that consideration
of legal liability is a distinct step. The utility CISO said, ‘In addition to brieﬁng the incident
command structure on potential liability, the legal team must advise on any cyber insur-
ance coverage the organization might have, and whether it is appropriate to engage the
insurer’. Legal specialists are extremely important in decision-making about cyber nego-
tiation, especially in publicly-owned organisations which in the US have local, state and
federal obligations regarding hack disclosure. Whether it is with legal or other advisers,
infrastructure managers who are the victim of an attack need to ﬁgure out quickly what
their approach to negotiation will be. They could negotiate just to gain enough time to
switch to their back-up systems. Or they could enter into negotiations to see if they can
reduce the ransom request, delay the timing for its payment or avoid it all together.
They could negotiate with the FBI in a way designed to get more information about the
hacker. Negotiation doesn’t assume that a ransom will be paid.
12 G. FALCO ET AL.
None of the interviewees had much conﬁdence in their own organisation’s ability to
proceed with a cyber negotiation in real time. Everyone we interviewed assumed that
negotiation experts would have to be called in. State agencies we spoke with indicated
that the FBI would be called immediately. Private sector urban critical infrastructure oper-
ators also indicated that they would depend on the FBI, in addition to calling on help from
private cybersecurity contractors specialising in ransom attacks and cyber negotiation. A
comment from the lead of a US state emergency management service was that ‘When
the FBI is contacted for a cyber security event involving a public agency, they will immedi-
ately assume control of all systems. The infrastructure operator will no longer have any say
about operations’. Upon speaking with the FBI cybercrime division in Boston, we learned
that this is not the case. This disparity points to the larger issue of the inaccurate expec-
tations of infrastructure operators. The FBI said, ‘Our role is conducting forensic analysis
and trying to catch the hacker’. This is one reason why it might be advisable for urban
infrastructure organisations to call in a private contractor in addition to the FBI so that
the private contractor can help with incident response and system recovery. The FBI’s
oﬃcial stance is that they will not negotiate with cyberattackers (and that urban critical
infrastructure operators should not either). This raises the utility CEO’s comment men-
tioned earlier –never say never. In such critical moments, all options ought to be on
When an attack is over, almost every cyber negotiation continues, although not with the
attackers. All seven of our urban critical infrastructure operator interviewees revealed that
whatever pre-attack measures they had put in place needed to be re-evaluated in light of
what happened (or what has happened to others). Additionally, ﬁve of our interviewees
identiﬁed other post-attack considerations, including putting in place a required post-
mortem attack report, documenting and implementing whatever lessons were learned
and initiating external damage control. Some organisations take post-attack negotiation
steps more seriously than others. For one of our CISO interviewees, ‘Our ransomware
attack motivated a full review of all our systems and security’. The attack prompted
them to launch security awareness training for all new employees. Post-incident, their
information security team prepared a review and recommended that ‘we have stricter
password update policies and rework our ﬁrewall conﬁgurations’. Post-attack negotiations
in the public infrastructure arena often include allocating blame and constructing a narra-
tive for public consumption about what happened and why. Instead, the goal should be to
reduce the risk of further attacks and restructure organisational dynamics that create
Develop a post-mortem attack report
Extensively documenting and conducting a digital forensic investigation of an attack (i.e.
the steps leading to the attack, the attack vector exploited, the response protocol fol-
lowed) was noted by several operators as an essential preparation for subsequent
attacks. ‘Without documenting what happened, there is no way to identify opportunities
for improvement,’said the satellite operator CISO. A post-mortem can elucidate missed
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 13
opportunities for gaining leverage in subsequent negotiations. Six of the seven intervie-
wees agreed that a review is critical following an incident; however, two of the seven
admitted they did not have time to do this following the breaches they had experienced.
This was not surprising because their priority was restoring operations. Once they were
restored, all focus returned to day-to-day management.
After-event review is de-prioritized once the frenzy of an attack is over.
While reconsidering what happened is very useful to an organisation, ﬁve out of our seven
interviewees described their desire to know more about what happened to other victims
of cyberattack in their industry. Unfortunately, every victim’s priority is to protect conﬁden-
tial information, making it hard to aggregate information on attack patterns. At present
there are no US federal or state mandatory reporting requirements. The utility CEO we
interviewed underscored the importance of information-sharing. He commented,
If a post-mortem takes place and stories are shared with the broader security community,
feedback on how the attack was handled could be analysed by both internal and external
experts. Relationships can be built with external experts who will be in a better position to
provide advice and assistance in the future.
Many critical infrastructure sectors such as utilities participate in Information Sharing
Analysis Centers (ISACs). The US National Council of ISACs indicates that there are 24
such organisations developed expressly for the purpose of sharing threat and security
information within industry sectors. The idea behind ISACs is that if one organisation is
breached and notiﬁes others, a vulnerability might be remediated before a hacker takes
advantage of it elsewhere in the community. Our understanding from two interviewees
is that some ISACs have a stronger participation of industry constituents than others.
For example, the utility and ﬁnancial ISACs have a very proactive membership base as
opposed to the newly formed automotive ISAC.
Other external experts that could be called upon are organisations such as the pre-
viously mentioned Idaho National Labs (INL). INL oﬀers a test bed for electric utilities to
simulate attacks and defences. They also have a strong incident response team that can
be ﬂown in to help with post-mortems. They are called the Industrial Control Systems
Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) (INL 2018). CERTs exist all over the world
to aid in cyberattack preparation and post-mortem analysis. Interestingly, only the
utility CEO and CISO mentioned said they might call a CERT.
Document lessons learned
‘Preparing a summary of lessons learned from each attack is essential,’according to the
emergency services lead. The CIO of one US state agency expressed the need after an
attack for a concrete action plan to incorporate lessons learned into existing programmes:
‘Our lessons learned are incorporated to incident response reports and future plans’.
Others indicated that lessons learned should not be theoretical. Instead, action impli-
cations should always be drawn. For example, a US state agency CIO we spoke with
insisted that ‘All lessons learned should be immediately addressed in a highly visible
manner by the leadership of the organization’. He continued,
14 G. FALCO ET AL.
If staﬀin a certain department consistently clicked on phishing scams, that department should
be targeted for additional phishing training, and should either be called out for their failure to
protect cyber assets or commended if their resilience level improves.
The CIO encouraged ‘visible and transparent measures to ﬁll vulnerable security holes’in
the organisation. This could improve the organisation’s future negotiation positioning
because hackers may publicly see the efforts taken to ameliorate past issues and move
on to a different target.
Conduct external reputational damage control
External damage control was among the most discussed topics in our interviews. All of the
urban infrastructure organisations we spoke with expect considerable blowback in the
case of a breach. Both public and private organisations know they have to ﬁnd out
what kinds of information may have been compromised or stolen and the criticality of
that information. Decisions must also be made about the best way of handling communi-
cations and subsequent repair of reputational damage. ‘Handling messaging post-attack is
an extremely sensitive topic that only certain leaders are authorized to handle,’according
to the CIO of the transportation agency. Messages must be carefully crafted. None of the
interviewees wanted to draw attention to their organisation after an attack –even if their
primary message is that they have since fortiﬁed their defences. This type of outward mes-
saging was presumed to invite further hacking against their organisation. Finally, one
transportation CIO we spoke with said that ‘Public agencies need to work with auditors
to establish that they acted in good faith and were doing all they could to protect the tax-
payers’best interest during the breach’. Two of our interviewees noted that ‘Properly
handling reputational damage control could be a form of leverage against future
attacks.’If a hacker’s goal is to undermine an urban infrastructure organisation’s repu-
tation, but the reputation is well-managed after a breach, this might discourage a
future hacker from pursuing the same organisation a second time.
After interviewing and aggregating insights from our interviewees about their attitudes
toward and experience with pre, mid and post cyber negotiation with attackers, we evaluated
two publicly documented cyberattacks using the negotiation framework that emerged. By
reviewing these cases after the fact, wewill show how the failure to treat the attack interaction
as an opportunity for cyber negotiation contributed to suboptimal outcomes for the victim
organisations. In the ﬁrst case, the attack was a ransom cyberattack (without ransomware)
in which the company chose to engage in a negotiation exchange with the hackers (but neg-
lected the pre-and post-negotiation work that would have protected them). The second case
involves a widespread ransomware attack in which there were many missed opportunities to
use a cyber negotiation framework before, during and after the attack.
Modern transportation infrastructure in cities consists of mass transit in the form of buses
and trains, personal vehicles and taxi services. Increasingly, the traditional model of hailing
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 15
a cab to catch a ride has disappeared in favour of calling a cab on a digital platform such as
Uber. In 2017, Uber had between 1 and 2 million active drivers in the United States (Berry
2017). While Uber considers its drivers contractors rather than employees, it collects and
retains considerable amounts of data about all of these contractors –past and present. Not
only does Uber store data about its drivers, but also its users. Uber’s co-founder and former
CEO Travis Kalanick mentioned in 2017 that Uber had 40 million active users each month
(Lynley 2017). This makes Uber a prime target for hackers seeking personally identiﬁable
information about a diverse and large population (e.g. all present and past Uber users and
In 2016, Uber covered up a major data breach that exposed 57 million user accounts,
including data from both drivers and users (Greenberg 2017). Most of the data stolen con-
sisted of names, email addresses and phone numbers. Additionally, 600,000 US driver
licence numbers were stolen (Newcomer 2017). This hack was achieved by two hackers
who accessed a private Github account used by Uber engineers. They stole credentials
embedded in code on the Github site from an Amazon Web Services account where
the data was stored (Greenberg 2017). Interestingly, the hackers did not encrypt or lock
down the information. Nor did they agree to release it if a ﬁne were paid. It is unclear if
this was impossible given the constraints on the hackers, or if it was just not the preferred
negotiation strategy. Instead, the hackers contacted Uber via email requesting funds to
keep the breach quiet and not to disclose the data (Newcomer 2017).
Details are not available about how the negotiation unfolded, but ultimately Uber paid
$100,000 to meet the hackers’demands under the guise of their bug bounty programme
(Newcomer 2017). Bug bounty programmes are generally meant to reward white-hat
hackers to ﬁnd vulnerabilities in a system –not to pay oﬀhackers who threaten the organ-
isation. What we do know is that the hackers kept their side of the bargain after being paid.
The only way the public found out about the hack was when the newly installed CEO, Dara
Khosrowshahi, announced the breach after learning of the incident. The 2016 breach was
hidden from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which, at the time, was investigating
a separate data breach Uber experienced in 2014 (Newcomer 2017).
While we cannot fully ascertain the details of what happened, it is clear that cyber nego-
tiation was used to resolve this exploit and defend the digital platform. As we determined
through our interviews with urban critical infrastructure operators, there were three dis-
creet phases of the negotiation –pre-negotiation, negotiation and post-negotiation.
Our interpretation of how these phases unfolded during the Uber attack are outlined
Based on publicly available information, our understanding is that there was no cyber inci-
dent response plan in place at Uber. If there was, it must have not been followed during
this incident. Before the attack, it seems that Uber did not take appropriate precautionary
measures to secure its credentials on the Github account. Further, formalised communi-
cation pathways for reporting the threat, either internally or externally, did not appear
to be in place or followed. Finally, it seems that no external connection was pre-emptively
established during or after the hack. Uber appeared to have put its energies into hiding
the attack from investors, customers, drivers and the FTC. We assume that Uber had no
help from the FBI or other cyber experts in pursuing the negotiations as they did.
16 G. FALCO ET AL.
During the attack, hackers were able to collect data that were vital to Uber’s reputation.
This was used as leverage in the request for a ransom payment. After the ransom was
demanded, some form of an ad hoc incident command structure was assembled. We
know that a deal was arranged by the CISO and agreed to by the CEO (Benner, Isaac,
and Frenkel 2017). Because of the eventual payout to the hackers, we assume that the
CISO and CEO calculated that the data breach was a severe event. We also assume that
legal counsel was sought because the director of security and law enforcement was
ﬁred along with the CISO after the breach and the ransom payment were exposed.
Further, the CISO was a trained lawyer who had practised law previously and studied
cyberlaw at University of Miami (Benner, Isaac, and Frenkel 2017). To initiate the nego-
tiation, the hackers contacted Uber directly via email. Because they did this, and did not
use a third-party service to issue their ransom demand, we assume that the hackers
were willing to engage in a conversation regarding their ﬁnancial demands and what
they would oﬀer in return. The parties were able to arrive at a mutually agreed amount
After the attack, the hackers maintained their side of the deal as the 57 million users’and
drivers’data were never released (at least not publicly). It is unclear if a post-mortem attack
report was ever made beyond the ﬁnancial documentation indicating the payment made
to the hackers. Uber chose not to engage authorities, share information or notify users of
the breach. This was a missed opportunity for raising awareness of whatever vulnerability
exposed Uber to the attack in the ﬁrst place. It also made Uber continuously vulnerable to
similar attacks until the attack was disclosed broadly. Further, as far as we can tell, no
lessons learned were documented or acted upon. We wonder what precautionary
measures Uber took in case the hackers defaulted on their agreement and released the
user data. Finally, no external reputational damage control was done at the time. This
ended up causing even worse damage for the company when word was ﬁnally released.
In part because of its poor post-attack handling of the breach and its failure to disclose
what happened to users, Uber lost its licence to operate in London (Finkle and Somerville
2017). As of May 2018, there are ﬁnancial repercussions for failing to disclose data breaches
under the European Union’s recently adopted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If
the failed disclosure had occurred after GDPR was instituted, Uber could have been subject
to ﬁnes of up to 4 per cent of their annual revenues (Meyer 2017).
National health services
Healthcare institutions ranging from urgent care centres to hospitals are essential to every-
day life in our urban centres. Such urban critical infrastructure collects and retains sensitive
data about patients. Not only is sensitive data stored by healthcare institutions, but con-
stant access to these data are required in real time to prepare for and perform procedures
and surgeries for patients. Typically, data are stored in electronic medical records (EMRs).
Their paper equivalents have been discontinued in many healthcare systems. These data
consist of highly personal information ranging from social security and insurance details to
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 17
speciﬁc medical diagnoses, lab results and treatment plans. Lack of immediate access to
EMRs could cause chaos in hospitals that rely on these data for most of their operations.
In 2017, healthcare facilities in over 150 countries were attacked by WannaCry ransom-
ware. This attack targeted unpatched Windows 7 operating systems with a speciﬁc vulner-
ability that allowed the attack to spread automatically across many systems. Britain’s
National Health Service (NHS) hospitals were among those particularly aﬀected. Ransom-
ware locked down the use of EMRs, and demanded a payment in bitcoin roughly equiv-
alent to $300 per computer at the time. Reportedly, in England, 6,912 doctors’
appointments (including critical operations) had to be cancelled as a result, and approxi-
mately 19,000 appointments were aﬀected in some way (BBC News 2017). Five acute care
hospitals had to divert emergency ambulances to other nearby hospitals (Morse 2017).
Shortly after WannaCry caused major disruption across healthcare systems, McAfee, a
leading provider of antivirus software, called the WannaCry ransomware ‘pseudo-ransom-
ware’(Ashford 2017). Pseudo-ransomware is malware used by hackers more interested in
causing disruption than in collecting money. This appears to be true for WannaCry
because the ransomware only collected about $150,000 in ransom payments. This is an
astonishingly low amount for an attack impacting so many and such critical systems.
Similar ransomware like CryptoWall was used to collected $325M in ransoms (Ashford
McAfee’s hypothesis that WannaCry’s hackers were more interested in disruption than
ﬁnancial gain was validated in December 2017. The US and UK governments publicly
accused North Korea of unleashing the WannaCry malware to ‘cause havoc and destruc-
tion’(Nakashima and Rucker 2017). Because there was not a ﬁnancial motive behind the
hack, we believe that cyber negotiation might have been an excellent defensive strategy
during the course of this attack. Below we outline an ideal pre-, mid- and post-negotiation
strategy that might have been used in response to WannaCry.
Considering that WannaCry only aﬀected unpatched Windows 7 vulnerabilities, the ideal
pre-attack negotiation strategy would have been to constantly patch EMR operating
systems using the latest security updates. The reality is that many system administrators
in hospitals do not perform such updates and often fail to deploy obvious technical
defences. Before the attack, NHS Digital performed on-site cybersecurity assessments of
88 of the NHS trusts. None passed the cybersecurity standards inspection (Hern 2017).
As part of a pre-attack cyber negotiation strategy, back-ups of all EMRs should have
been made in case systems were corrupted or disabled. Considering how few victims
paid the ransom, we guess that back-ups of the EMRS were available. However, they
were not readily accessible; hence, the disruption of hospital services was severe.
Because of the large-scale nature of the attack against many NHS hospitals, it is unclear
whether individual hospitals had cyber incident response plans in place. The NHS had
issued general guidance on how to handle such attacks, but it was not locally tested
(Birdsey 2017). Considering the level of disruption, we assume that even if there were a
plan in place for certain hospitals, it was poorly executed. We also surmise –based on
how widespread the ransomware attack was –that formal communication pathways
were not followed to ensure that awareness of the attack quickly moved up the organis-
ational ladder and deﬁnitive instructions came back down. Further, it is clear that that
18 G. FALCO ET AL.
proper awareness was not built across the NHS employee base regarding possible phish-
ing attacks because for the ransomware to be successfully installed an employee had to
click on the infected link.
North Korea, the alleged WannaCry attackers, weaponized an exploit originally developed
by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and released to the public by a cybercrime
group called the Shadow Brokers. North Korea allegedly released the attack and then
hired a third-party managed services team to facilitate the ransomware ‘customer’(aka
victim) support encrypted chat to help victims purchase bitcoin and understand how to
get their data back (Ashford 2017). One reason a third-party team was hired to manage
the attack could have been to obfuscate the fact North Korea launched it –providing a
veil of anonymity.
When the attack was launched, it is unclear whether the hospitals involved convened
an incident command team. Some likely did and determined that the attack posed very
serious risks, considering hospital services were shut down entirely at numerous hospitals.
Because of the high level of regulation surrounding national hospitals, legal teams were
certainly convened to address the liability posed by the ransomware attack. While it is
unclear if any hospitals negotiated directly with the hackers, there was an opportunity
to do so. During the WannaCry attack, a McAfee security researcher asked the ransomware
support operator via the customer support chat described above why the ransom was so
low per machine. The operator responded that ‘Those operating the ransomware had
already been paid by someone to create and run the ransomware campaign to disrupt
a competitor’s business’(Ashford 2017). The defender could have used this information
to their advantage considering it reveals the motive of the hacker (North Korea). Rather
than paying the ransom, the defender might have argued that WannaCry had successfully
disrupted their business. Thus, the attacker’s objective was achieved. Depending on how
much autonomy to negotiate the third party agency managing the ransomware has, such
an argument could lead to a ‘Good for You, Great for Me’scenario. The premise being that
a negotiating partner can appreciate the goals of their negotiating partner and oﬀer an
outcome that achieves a good result while allowing their negotiating partner to achieve
their minimum goal (Susskind 2014). In this case, the ‘Good for You, Great for Me’scenario
would have entailed North Korea hearing that they had successfully disrupted the hospi-
tal’s operations, causing substantial damage, while the hospital received the decryption
key it needed to unlock its EMRs and resume business without paying a ransom.
WannaCry illustrates the urgency of understanding the motives of an attacker in
advance of any eﬀort at cyber negotiation. If engagement with a hacker’s agent or emis-
sary is possible, and the right questions are asked, it may be possible to achieve a satisfying
outcome, avoiding considerable ﬁnancial and operational losses.
After the WannaCry attack, unlike the Uber attack, the NHS carefully studied the impact the
attack had on individual hospitals and the NHS’s overall system. It developed a post-
mortem attack report. From this analysis, documented in a National Audit Oﬃce report,
several lessons were drawn and actions were recommended to improve future readiness
and response to cyberattacks. These ranged from developing a response plan for the NHS
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 19
to follow in the case of future cyberattacks, especially to ensure that security updates and
alerts are taken seriously and deployed immediately. The report, including lessons learned,
was publicly shared for all to see. Further, NHS England and NHS Improvement are working
with major trauma centres to allocate $21 million in capital funding to achieve cybersecur-
ity enhancement (Morse 2017). This funding will be going to develop a security operations
centre (SOC) for the NHS at which all security-related incidents will be handled.
These actions should improve the NHS’s negotiation posture and help to foster a more
resilient cybersecurity culture. Also, the widespread announcement of the lessons learned
by the NHS shows the public and hackers that the attack was taken seriously and that the
NHS will be better prepared in the future. This could be the best way to dissuade attackers
from targeting the NHS, given that these measures have ameliorated obvious weaknesses
that other hackers might exploit.
Our interviews provide a clear indication that it helps to think about cyberattacks and
responses to them in terms of the three-phase negotiation framework we have identiﬁed.
By collecting additional interviews from urban critical infrastructure operators, we hope to
reﬁne the framework and our prescriptions further. Our ambition is to develop a compre-
hensive cyber negotiation playbook with the help of an international advisory group. The
kind of person we hope to invite to serve on this panel is someone like Moti Crystal, an
Israeli negotiation expert who has been actively involved in urban critical infrastructure
negotiation in many parts of the world. In addition, we hope that Chris Voss and others
who helped to develop the FBI’s Hostage Negotiation Manual will agree to participate.
Finally, we plan to tap senior members of the many Crisis Negotiation teams managed
by big city police departments throughout the world. In the same way that hostage nego-
tiation has become a skill that every major city and country needs to have available, and
trained negotiators have a well-documented playbook they can use (that builds on care-
fully assembled social science ﬁndings), we believe that helping every urban critical infra-
structure manager prepare properly for cyber negotiations even if they have no intention
of paying ransom is an important goal.
Urban critical infrastructure is composed of complex systems that do not warrant a ‘Band-
Aid’technology solution to cybersecurity challenges. Based on our interviews and case
studies we are convinced that non-technical, defensive social engineering strategies
such as employing a cyber negotiation process can be used to mitigate cyber risk for
urban critical infrastructure. While we propose a series of negotiation steps that can be
used to address urban critical infrastructure cyber risk management as summarised in
Table 1, we have learned from our interviewees that it is important to not treat cyberse-
curity exclusively as a checkbox exercise where operators can pick and choose what
steps are needed. Operationalising the entire cyber negotiation process is important to
bolster organisational cyber resilience.
Cyber resilience is the notion that attacks will inevitably occur and impact the organis-
ation in some way but that operations can continue with limited interruption. Today,
20 G. FALCO ET AL.
operators seem to give little attention to establishing a comprehensive cyber resilience
strategy for urban critical infrastructure because operators are too busy battling daily oper-
ational challenges. To enable cyber resilience, operators should consider the following:
(1) Spend time and money identifying the likely costs and impacts if they lose control of
their systems for any length of time. This will allow them to see that it is worth invest-
ing in system adaptation and enhance resilience;
(2) Make sure that the steps aimed at enhancing the resilience of systems after they are
attacked are built into basic and continuing management operations. Adequate funds
need to be set aside to add system redundancy so that hacked systems can be
replaced immediately by parallel systems, or else resilience is just a pipe dream;
(3) Continuously train relevant staﬀregarding emergency response protocols so that
everyone knows what to do when systems are compromised. An emergency response
plan is useless if continuous training is not supported; and
(4) Formulate cyberattack emergency response plans with other agencies and levels of
government so that eﬀorts to implement these plans at a critical moment are not
thwarted by countervailing eﬀorts that have not been worked out in concert.
Resilience is a product of planning, preparation (training), investment in redundancy
and forging working relationships with relevant partners and regulators.
The cyber negotiation process overlaps with actions needed to enhance resilience in
the face of cyberattack –pre-planning to be sure that lines of authority are clear,
putting an analytic capacity in place so that decisions can be made on whether it is
worth paying a ransom, rehearsal or capacity-building so that negotiation procedures
are ready to go, and added redundancy of systems so that agencies attacked have a
better alternative to no agreement (BATNA). We hope that until comprehensive cyber resi-
lience strategies become widely adopted, urban critical infrastructure operators can
immediately begin to leverage our social-science-driven recommendations for addressing
their infrastructure’s cyber risk. All critical infrastructure managers should invest as much
time, energy and money in Defensive Social Engineering as they do in technical defences
to improve their organisation’s cyber resilience.
Table 1. Cyber negotiation process.
Cyber negotiation process
Pre-attack Attack Post-attack
.Develop a cyber incident response
.Convene the incident command
.Develop a post-mortem attack
.Build awareness .Determine event severity .Share information
.Deploy technical defences .Consult the legal team .Document lessons learned
.Formalise communication channels .Negotiate .Conduct external reputational
.Establish external organisational
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 21
1. GDPR is a regulation that replaces the Data Protection Directive established in 1995. The Data
Protection Directive set a minimum level of requirements concerning personal data privacy,
and in 2012 the directive was recommended for overhaul based on the modern digital age.
The GDPR is a more robust mechanism to protect data privacy built for today’s pervasive tech-
nology environment. In addition to reinforcing previous data privacy rights, the GDPR pro-
vides the right to data portability, the right not be proﬁled using your data, and the right
to be forgotten, among others. GDPR also requires large-scale private and public organisations
to appoint a Data Protection Oﬃcer to ensure compliance with GDPR (European Data Protec-
tion Supervisor. 2018). GDPR requires data protection for all EU citizens, regardless of where
the data is stored or where the company is based. Perhaps the most impactful component
of GDPR is that there will be ﬁnes and penalties levied for non-compliance.
The authors would like to thank the Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI) at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology for funding this important eﬀort. The authors would also like to thank
Adam Hasz for his contributions to the study of Defensive Social Engineering and our broader
research eﬀort. Finally, the authors would like to thank the urban critical infrastructure operators
who agreed to be interviewed for this research and for reviewing the manuscript.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
The work was funded by the Internet Policy Research Initiative @ MIT.
Notes on contributors
Gregory Falco is a hacker and critical infrastructure cybersecurity expert. He is a postdoctoral scholar
at MIT’s CSAIL and Stanford’s FSI having earned his PhD from MIT in Cybersecurity, Urban Science
and Infrastructure Management.
Alicia Noriega is an energy infrastructure expert having earned her Masters in Urban Planning,
Environmental Policy and Energy Planning from MIT’s DUSP.
Lawrence Susskind is the Ford Professor of Environmental and Urban Planning at MIT’s DUSP. He was
one of the Co-founders of the interuniversity Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, where
he now directs the MIT-Harvard Public Negotiations Program, serves as Vice Chair for Education, and
co-directs the Negotiation Pedagogy Initiative.
Gregory Falco http://orcid.org/0000-0002-6463-7719
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24 G. FALCO ET AL.
Simulation screens and associated questions
.Do you have a cyberattack response plan in place for your organisation?
.Can you describe it?
.Is it diﬀerent from your regular crisis response plan?
.What, if any, technologies do you employ to fend oﬀhackers?
.What, if any, non-technical strategies do you use to fend oﬀhackers?
.Have you checked to see if your systems are public on Shodan?
Simulation screen 1: You see someone has run a port scan against your system (Figure A1):
.Do you respond to this?
.If so, how?
.What technical strategies might you deploy?
.What non-technical strategies might you prepare?
Figure A1. Port scanning screenshot.
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 25
Simulation screen 2: Shortly afterwards, one of your operator consoles shows the following attack
.How, if at all, do you respond?
.If a hacker oﬀered an opportunity to negotiate for the ransom, how would you advise others to
.Please describe your negotiation strategy.
.Would you advise others to handle these negotiations themselves?
.Or should they have an arrangement in place that would hand these negotiations over to
.Have you ever experienced a ransomware attack?
.What can you tell me about the experience?
Simulation screen 3: The attack has just ended (Figure A3):
.Who would the organisation turn to create a post-mortem of the attack?
.What kind of ‘after-action’data gathering and discussion might occur?
Figure A2. Ransomware simulation screen.
26 G. FALCO ET AL.
.Who would have responsibility for deciding what the organisation learned from the experience?
.Will your organisation approach attack preparation diﬀerently now that you have been attacked?
.What type of damage control will need to be done?
Figure A3. Ransomware simulation screen.
JOURNAL OF CYBER POLICY 27