Cybersec Essentials

Incident response plan 101: the basics

Learn the basics of incident response planning and develop an effective strategy for responding to cybersecurity incidents in any environment.

March 10, 2023

The basics of incident response

Incident response is a critical component of an organization's cybersecurity strategy. It involves a systematic approach to identifying, investigating, and mitigating potential security incidents. It covers everything from the initial detection of a security threat to the recovery process and the lessons learned from the incident. The goal of incident response is to minimize the impact of a security incident on an organization's operations and reputation.

An effective incident response program requires the involvement of a dedicated incident response team (IRT). The IRT coordinates and executes incident response activities, including containment, investigation, and remediation. In addition, the IRT members are trained to follow corporate policies and best practices to ensure that their response is effective and consistent.

Is an incident response plan essential?

An incident response plan is critical to an organization's cybersecurity strategy. It provides a roadmap for responding to security incidents, ensuring that the organization can detect and respond to incidents promptly and effectively. With an incident response plan, an organization can avoid being caught off guard by security incidents, leading to increased downtime, damage to its reputation, and financial loss.

It is also crucial for any type of organization because it enables its collaborators to respond to security incidents in a structured and coordinated manner. By following the procedures outlined in the plan, the incident response team can quickly and efficiently contain the incident, investigate its root cause, and take the necessary steps to remediate it.

One example of the importance of an incident response plan is the 2017 Equifax data breach. Equifax, one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the United States, suffered a massive data breach that exposed the personal information of over 140 million individuals. It was later revealed that Equifax needed a comprehensive incident response plan, resulting in delayed detection and response to the incident. The lack of an effective plan caused significant reputational damage to Equifax, resulting in a loss of trust from its customers and stakeholders.

Another example is the 2020 SolarWinds supply chain attack. This attack impacted numerous organizations and highlighted the importance of having a well-coordinated incident response plan. Organizations with a well-designed and tested plan in place could detect and respond to the attack more quickly and minimize the damage caused by the incident.

In addition to reducing the impact of security incidents, an incident response plan also helps organizations comply with regulatory requirements. For example, many industry regulations, such as HIPAA, PCI-DSS, and GDPR, require organizations to have a well-developed and structure incident response strategy.

How to build an incident response team

Defining an incident response team is a vital preparatory step that should happen before an incident occurs. Defining team members and briefing them on their responsibilities ensures that they will be ready to respond promptly if an incident is detected.

The composition of an incident response team will depend on an organization's unique needs and the skill sets required. For example, an organization with a massive cloud deployment may need cloud security expertise on the team, while other companies may not.

Every incident response team should have a few key roles, including:

Team Leader: The team leader is responsible for the incident response process and acts as management's primary point of contact (POC). Often, this role is held by a manager or senior security staff member.

Lead Investigator: The lead investigator is the operational head of the incident response operation. This role requires technical expertise and experience with performing incident response activities. Depending on the organization's size and its incident response team, this person may be the only investigator or lead and define assignments for a team.

Communications Lead: A cybersecurity incident has several stakeholders inside and outside the organization. The incident response team may be required to report to management, the board, law enforcement, the company's cybersecurity insurance agency, regulatory authorities, customers, shareholders, and other parties. The communications lead is tasked with opening these communications channels and keeping stakeholders apprised of information relative to them.

Documentation & Timeline Lead: Clear documentation of an incident and the resulting response is essential for law enforcement, regulatory compliance, insurance, and internal records. The documentation and timeline lead ensures that all events and actions are appropriately documented to provide a clear and legally admissible record.

HR/Legal Representation: Cybersecurity incidents can have legal and HR implications, especially if an insider is involved somehow with the incident. The incident response team should have HR and Legal representation available to provide guidance and help communicate with stakeholders.

These high-level and essential roles should be filled on an incident response team, but many corporate incident response teams also have other members. The incident response team should have the knowledge and expertise necessary to investigate and respond to an incident anywhere in an organization's IT environment. In addition, team members should have means of reaching relevant network and systems administrators if needed and if they are not part of the team itself.

Incident response plan team

Incident response in different working environments

The significance of incident response is further amplified by the growing reliance on cloud-based technologies and the surge in remote work. These new technological paradigms have rendered incident response more intricate and demanding. 

Incident response for remote workers

Remote workers face unique cybersecurity challenges, such as using unsecured Wi-Fi networks and accessing company resources from personal devices. As a result, incident response plans for remote workers need to address these challenges and provide specific guidance on how to respond to incidents in a remote work environment.

One essential component of incident response for remote workers is providing training and resources that help employees identify and report potential incidents. This includes providing employees with information on reporting a security incident, what information they should provide, and what steps to take to protect their devices and data.

Another critical component of incident response for remote workers is ensuring that devices used for work are secured. This includes using encryption and access controls to protect sensitive data, installing and regularly updating antivirus software, and enabling multi-factor authentication to protect against unauthorized access.

Incident response for cloud environments

As more organizations move to cloud-based environments, incident response plans must adapt to address these new challenges. Incident response for cloud environments should include specific procedures for detecting and responding to incidents in cloud-based systems, including Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environments.

A crucial consideration for incident response in cloud environments is having a clear understanding of the shared responsibility model. Cloud providers typically have a shared responsibility model, where the provider is responsible for securing the underlying infrastructure. At the same time, the customer is responsible for securing the applications and data running on the cloud infrastructure.

Incident response plans for cloud environments should also include procedures for detecting and responding to incidents in real-time. This includes implementing automated incident response tools that can detect and respond to incidents in real time and having a straightforward process for escalating incidents to the appropriate personnel.

Incident response for industrial control systems

Industrial control systems (ICS) manage critical infrastructure, such as power grids and water treatment plants. As a result, incidents in ICS environments can have severe consequences, including public safety and national security implications. Therefore, incident response for ICS environments must be focused on maintaining the availability and integrity of the systems.

ICS incident response plans should include specific procedures for detecting and responding to incidents in ICS environments. This includes implementing automated threat detection and response tools to identify and respond to incidents in real time and having a straightforward process for escalating incidents to the appropriate personnel.

In addition to incident response procedures, ICS incident response plans should also include business continuity and disaster recovery procedures. This ensures that critical infrastructure systems can be restored quickly in the event of an incident, minimizing the impact on public safety and national security.

Incident response and the future of cybersecurity

In the fast-paced and ever-evolving world of cybersecurity, incident response plans are critical in protecting an organization from potential security incidents. Cybersecurity threats, such as malware, ransomware, phishing attacks, and insider threats, pose a significant risk to organizations' systems and data, making the need for a comprehensive incident response plan more essential than ever.

Developing an incident response plan in the cybersecurity environment requires a thorough understanding of the organization's network, systems, and applications. The plan should include a risk assessment that identifies potential vulnerabilities, an incident response team that comprises members with the necessary technical and forensic skills, and a comprehensive set of procedures that outline the steps for responding to different types of security incidents.

Essential elements of a cybersecurity incident response plan

Threat intelligence: The incident response plan should include procedures for monitoring and analyzing the threat landscape to identify potential risks and vulnerabilities.

Preparation: The incident response team should conduct regular security audits, penetration testing, and vulnerability assessments to ensure that the organization's systems are secure and that the incident response plan is up to date.

Detection and analysis: The incident response plan should provide a clear framework for detecting and analyzing security incidents. This includes identifying the incident type, determining the incident's scope, and evaluating the potential impact on the organization.

Containment and eradication: The incident response plan should outline procedures for preventing the incident from spreading further, as well as for eradicating the threat from the organization's systems.

Recovery and lessons learned: The incident response plan should include steps for restoring normal operations and analyzing the incident to identify areas for improvement and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Training and awareness in incident response plans

One of the critical components of effective incident response is ensuring that all collaborators are aware of the incident response strategy and understand their roles and responsibilities in the event of a security incident. How can organizations make this possible?

Creating a collaborator training program 

To ensure that all collaborators are aware of the incident response plan, it is crucial to develop a comprehensive training program that provides an overview of the plan and explains how each collaborator fits into it. The program should include:

Overview of the incident response plan: The training program should provide an overview of the incident response plan, including the procedures for identifying, containing, and eradicating security incidents, as well as the roles and responsibilities of each collaborator.

Security awareness training: Collaborators should receive regular security awareness training to help them identify potential security threats, such as phishing attacks, malware, and social engineering tactics.

Incident response training: Collaborators should receive training on the specific procedures for responding to different types of security incidents, such as data breaches, ransomware attacks, and network intrusions.

This should be ongoing training to ensure that collaborators are updated on the latest threats, tools, and technologies related to incident response.

Conducting simulations and exercises 

In addition to training, it is vital to conduct regular simulations and exercises to test the incident response plan and ensure that all collaborators understand their roles and responsibilities. The simulations and exercises should be designed to replicate real-world security incidents and should include:

Scenario development: Simulations and exercises should be based on realistic scenarios relevant to the organization's environment and threat landscape.

Incident response team activation: The simulations and exercises should include procedures for activating the incident response team and initiating the incident response plan.

Collaborator participation: All collaborators should participate in the simulations and exercises to understand their roles and responsibilities and effectively carry out their assigned tasks.

Post-exercise debrief: After each simulation or exercise, a debrief should be conducted to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the incident response plan and identify areas for improvement.

Keeping collaborators up to date 

As the threat landscape and the organization's environment change, it is vital to keep collaborators updated on any changes to the incident response plan. This includes updating the plan to reflect new threats, modifying procedures to address emerging threats, and adding new tools and technologies to the incident response team's toolkit.

Collaborators should receive regular updates on any changes to the incident response plan and ongoing training on new procedures, tools, and technologies. This can be achieved through regular meetings, email updates, and online training modules.

Final Thoughts

According to the 2021 Cost of a Data Breach report, having an incident response team and plan in place decreases the average cost of a data breach by $2.46 million or approximately 54%. In addition, by defining a team and preparing them with a plan, tools, and training, an enterprise enables them to quickly and correctly respond to a potential security incident, reducing the time that an intruder has to achieve their objectives and cause damage to the organization.

To be effective, incident responders need tools to prevent security incidents and quickly investigate and respond to intrusions into their networks. Prey solutions provide centralized visibility and management of corporate IT assets, enabling incident responders to quickly determine the scope of a breach and take action to contain and mitigate it.

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