IT Operations

Creating an incident response plan: a complete guide

Learn how to make an incident response plan for your business with our comprehensive guide that includes templated creation steps by industry.

June 1, 2023

Due to the large number of highly publicized data breaches that have occurred over the last decade (some coming with class action lawsuits), it is hard to imagine anyone who uses an electronic device for work who is not aware of the vast number of security breach attempts that occur every day. A Clark School study at the University of Maryland was one of the first to be able to quantify the near constant rate of hacker attacks on computers with internet access: every 39 seconds on average, affecting one in three Americans every year.

This is why it is so important to have an Incident Response Plan (IRP) in place. In a perfect world, security processes, protocols, and applications would prevent every threat from becoming a breach. This, of course, is not the case and a well-formed IRP can help mitigate the damage done when a security incident does occur.

IRPs also help organizations know what they are going to do in response to a problem as well as who is going to do it. Having an incident response team in place can ensure risk management controls and procedures are set up for detecting, triaging, responding to, and recovering from an incident. 

No matter how large or small your company may be, if you do not have IRPs in place (which can be specific to your industry), then your data may not be as protected as you think. Learn how to craft an IRP with several industry-specific templated steps below so you’re set up for success. 

How to start an incident response plan

As with many business protocols, creating an IRP using a step-by-step templated procedure will result in a broad, comprehensive, and implementable process to follow when it is time to act. Here are the tasks to review and record when starting to build an incident response plan checklist template.

Identify your potential threats

There are many types of attacks that occur. According to Statista, in 2022, the number of data compromises in the United States stood at 1,802 cases. Meanwhile, over 422 million individuals were affected in the same year by data compromises, including data breaches, leakage, and exposure. 

That’s why it’s important to identify which types of attacks your company may be most affected by. The types of attacks you may experience include:

  • Malware 
  • Phishing
  • Password
  • Man-in-the-middle
  • SQL injection attack
  • Denial-of-service attack
  • Insider threat
  • Cryptojacking

Here are five high-level steps to cover when performing a risk assessment in order to detect potential threats.

  • Identify hazards
  • Assess the risks
  • Control the risks
  • Record your findings
  • Review the controls

Establish an incident response team (IRT)

Several roles are needed in order to create an incident response team that can efficiently and effectively act when an issue arises. But there is no standard IRT size — it all depends on the size and needs of your company. Here are some key players that could be in your incident response team.

  • Team leader
  • Communications liaison
  • Lead investigator
  • Data analysts
  • Researchers
  • Legal representatives

Selecting team members that are familiar with an organization’s systems, structure, industry, and end user community is key. Having backups for each position on the team is also important. 

As you establish your team and document their roles in your IRP, make sure to also include all contact information in case a breach occurs outside of work hours. This includes phone numbers, cell phone numbers, work emails, and personal emails.

Initial and regular training, as well as conducting drills to test response processes, can facilitate quick action during an actual crisis and should be part of an overall IRT plan. 

Work together to develop an incident response plan

Developing incident response plan templates, meaning frameworks for how a type of incident will be addressed across departments in your company, should include well documented components. These can include:

  • A mission statement
  • Formal documentation of roles and responsibilities for those on the incident response team
  • Cyberthreat preparation documentation
  • An incident response threshold determination
  • Management and containment processes
  • Fast, effective recovery plans
  • Post-incident review

Organizations that hold data that fall under the following categories need to prioritize having a robust plan in place.

  • Banking
  • NIST
  • HIPAA

Having an IRP template that can be used in a variety of situations is a good start. However, modifying plans in order to address specific types of data breaches (i.e., an organization could have both healthcare (HIPAA) and financial information) will go a long way to mitigate damage caused by any type of incident. 

Find ways to implement the plan

Communication throughout the process during a crisis is of the utmost importance. This includes sharing information on technical items for the IT team, giving downstream instructions to end users, and providing administrative information to management and legal personnel such as the number of people affected.

Some high-level tips on how to implement an incident response strategy effectively include:

  • Preparation: this includes regular training and test scenarios for incident response team members
  • Detection and analysis: track how you identify and look at issues and keep that information up to date
  • Containment, eradication, and recovery: be prepared to follow your plan completely while also being flexible during the crisis
  • Post-incident activity: thoroughly record information for future use

Remember that part of your process should be to document the response procedure for future use.

Schedule testing and remember to update the plan

Testing the incident response strategy on a regular basis can be one of the key components of successfully mitigating an issue that occurs. Develop a regular testing schedule based on your needs and stick to it. 

It’s important to try several forms of testing as well, such as tabletop exercises and full-scale simulations. Then, you can use these testing lessons to update and improve the incident response strategy. This can include the amount and timeliness of communications, the order of action items, and other essential tasks to remember during a crisis. 

How to create an incident response plan with templated steps

An incident response plan checklist is a comprehensive list of items that should be included in an organization's IRP. It serves as a guide for developing and customizing an IRP that is tailored to the needs and requirements of the organization. 

Below is a templated list of items that should be included in an IRP checklist. They can be modified by industry or a company’s needs, but each basic step is the same in most plans. 

Define the incident response team

The IRT is a group of individuals who are responsible for detecting, analyzing, containing, and mitigating security incidents. 

It is crucial to define the individual roles and responsibilities of the IRT members, determine backup personnel for each position, and ensure their contact information is correct and available to all.

Establish the incident response policy 

The incident response policy should clearly and simply define the scope and goals of the IRT. 

It outlines the organization's approach to incident responses, including its procedures for detecting and responding to incidents.

Define the incident response procedures 

The incident response procedures outline how to respond to various types of incidents in detail. 

This includes: 

  • identifying the incident including how and when it happened
  • reporting on when it was discovered
  • processes to try and contain the incident
  • determining the scope of the damage and risk
  • how to report the incident to the appropriate parties
  • documenting what happened throughout the entire incident 

Define the incident severity levels

The severity levels of incidents define the level of urgency needed by the IRT. This allows the IRT to prioritize its response efforts and allocate resources more effectively.

Establish communication protocols

Communication protocols specify how incidents are reported, escalated, and communicated to internal and external stakeholders. 

Defining who should be notified, how they should be notified, and what information should be communicated are all part of this process.

Develop an IRP testing and maintenance schedule 

Schedules for testing and maintenance ensure that the IRP is reviewed, updated, and evaluated on a regular basis to ensure that it is effective and relevant.

Define the incident documentation procedures

Documentation procedures ensure that all incidents, including their scope, severity, and resolution, are thoroughly recorded. 

This documentation is essential for future incident analysis as well as for meeting legal and regulatory requirements.

Establish external agency and resource contacts

The IRT should have a list of outside agencies and resources that they may need to contact for assistance or to report incidents to based on contractual and legal guidelines.

Develop an evidence search, preservation, and collection plan 

This plan should include procedures for gathering and preserving evidence in case it is needed in court at a later date.

Develop a post-incident analysis and reporting process 

This process should outline the methodologies for analyzing incidents and producing reports that summarize the lessons learned and the IRP improvements that are required.

Incident response plan template for small businesses

It is easy to think that very large companies like Lockheed Martin or Pfizer are the only targets of those who aim to gain access to an organization’s data. However, every year, almost half of cyber-attacks are against small businesses. But due to limited resources, budget constraints, and a lack of cybersecurity expertise, small businesses may face unique challenges when developing an IRP. 

Having an incident response plan in place, on the other hand, can assist small businesses in mitigating the impact of cyber incidents, minimize downtime, and lower associated costs. So it may be easier for small business teams to use templated steps and forms to create an effective incident response plan that works for them. 

To get started, a small business IRP should include the following templated components.

  • the incident response plan's scope and objective
  • the incident response team as well as their distinct roles and responsibilities
  • communication protocols and processes for incident reporting and escalation
  • event classification and severity levels
  • a risk management plan that occurs after identifying possible threats and weaknesses
  • incident response processes for various sorts of occurrences
  • procedures for incident identification and monitoring 
  • procedures for incident containment and elimination 
  • post-incident processes including recuperation and learning opportunities to ensure IRPs are effective and current with the latest cybersecurity threats and best practices

Pre-built incident response plan templates tailored to the needs and requirements of small businesses are available below. You can choose a template based on your company’s specific needs. 

Large organizations can use the above resources from the SANS Institute, CISA, and the FCC as a reference, too, even if they are preparing for incidents across a broader enterprise landscape. It is also important for medium and bigger companies to check off all the templated steps above when preparing a plan.  

Incident response plan template for large businesses

When planning how to respond to an incident, large businesses have their own set of problems. This is mainly because their IT infrastructure is complicated and varied, and many people are involved. But if they have the right incident response plan, they can respond quickly and effectively to cybersecurity incidents, limit damage, and keep business going.

Large businesses should think about the following templated parts when making an effective incident response plan:

  • Scope and goals of the incident response plan: Make sure that the plan's scope and goals are clear so that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities during an incident.
  • Incident response team: Find and set up the incident response team (IRT), which should include people from IT, legal, HR, and public relations, among other departments. Please ensure everyone on the team knows their roles and responsibilities.
  • Communication protocols: Set up communication protocols and processes for employees, customers, and partners to report incidents, escalate them, and talk to each other.
  • Classification of incidents and severity levels: Define the classification of incidents and severity levels so that the IRT can respond to incidents based on their importance and danger.
  • Plan for managing risks: Make a plan that includes finding possible threats and weaknesses and putting ways to deal with them in place.
  • Procedures for responding to an incident: Make procedures for responding to malware attacks, phishing attacks, data breaches, and DDoS attacks, among others.
  • Identifying and keeping track of incidents: Set up procedures for finding and keeping track of incidents in real-time, such as using monitoring tools and threat intelligence.
  • Containing and getting rid of incidents: Make plans for containing and getting rid of incidents as quickly as possible to limit damage and stop them from spreading.
  • Post-incident processes: Set up post-incident processes for recovery, such as restoring data and systems and learning, so that the incident response plan is regularly updated and reflects the latest cybersecurity threats and best practices.

Large businesses can use the templates for small businesses' incident response plans as a starting point, but they should change them to fit their own needs. They may also need outside experts like incident response consultants and legal advisors to ensure the plan is complete and adequate.

HIPAA incident response plan template

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, establishes guidelines for safeguarding sensitive patient health information. So the HIPAA incident response plan is a type of IRP that is designed to address the healthcare industry's unique requirements and regulations. 

Specific procedures for detecting, containing, and responding to incidents involving the potential exposure of patient information should be included in a HIPAA security incident response plan template. 

The following sections are necessary in most HIPAA IRP templates. To tailor your HIPAA IRP template to your organization's specific needs and requirements, examine the plan in the context of your organization's policies, procedures, and regulatory requirements. The plan may need to be modified to reflect the organization's specific technologies, systems, and applications.

Overview and scope 

This section should define: 

  • your incident response plan's purpose (to keep patient information safe and secure) 
  • scope (who is involved and who should be notified) 
  • objectives (what are the processes to identify, address, and stop a breach)
  • organizational structure of the incident response team

Roles and responsibilities 

Next, it’s important to outline the roles and responsibilities of individuals and teams involved in the incident response process, such as the incident response team, IT staff, and management.

Make sure to document who reports on the details of the incident, including when and where it happened, who it affected, and how it was resolved. Documentation is key when it comes to personal client information. 

Incident response procedures

Specific procedures for detecting, containing, and responding to security incidents involving protected health information (PHI) should be included in this section. 

Procedures for reporting incidents to authorities, notifying affected individuals, and conducting forensic investigations may be included as well so that communication measures are clear for the IRT.

Training and awareness 

This section should detail the training and awareness requirements for incident response staff and employees, including regular training on the processes and procedures of incident response plans.

Testing and revision

This section should describe the procedures for testing and revising the incident response plan to ensure that it is current and effective.

Documentation and record keeping 

This section should include procedures for documenting and recording incidents, such as incident reports, investigation reports, and corrective action plans.

Takeaways

Benjamin Franklin said, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” and no truer statement can be made when it comes to creating an incident response plan for each area of your company that deals with any sort of data. 

Having an incident response team in place that can execute your IRP will help ensure that the processes and procedures you have in place to squash an incoming attack are efficient and effective. There are many resources that companies of any size can take advantage of when it comes to properly preparing for the worst. The SANS Institute, CISA, and the FCC all have templated forms for organizations who are putting together IRPs and IRTs. 

If you are a member of senior leadership, IT Management, or in charge of business processes, it’s time to take action and create an incident response plan to protect your data and systems. When you have a templated IRP for your company, you can extend the protection to each area that needs surveillance and guidance with ease.  

And if you need help setting up more detailed security and scans of possible issues, Prey is here to help. Find out more with a free 14 day trial about how you can better protect your personnel, devices, and data across your entire organization. 

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