An incident response plan prepares an organization by outlining the steps to take in case of a cyberattack or other security threat.
With an ever-increasing threat sophistication and frequency, even organizations with the strongest security solutions can suffer from a cyber-attack.
How do you ensure continuity after a security incident that compromises your systems and data?
By developing an effective incident response plan, you enable your organization to quickly recover from security threats or attacks. It helps the teams to effectively deal with any incident, minimizing downtime, financial losses, and the impact of a breach.
In this article, you will learn about an incident response plan, what it is, its main objectives, and why it is important to develop and regularly review the plan. Additionally, we will look at some standard templates that you can use to create an effective plan.
What is an Incident Response Plan?
An incident response plan (IRP) is a well-structured set of procedures that outline actions an organization should take whenever there is an attack or security breach. The objective of an incident response plan is to ensure the quick elimination of a threat with minimal or no disruption and damage.
A typical plan describes the steps to take to detect, contain, and eradicate a threat. Additionally, it specifies the roles and responsibilities of the individuals, teams, and other stakeholders in addition to outlining how to recover from an attack and resume normal operations.
In practice, the plan, which provides guidelines on what to do before, during, and after a security incident, must be approved by the management.
Why is an Incident Response Plan Important?
An incident response plan is a big step towards reducing the effect of a security breach. It prepares the organization and those responsible on how to quickly respond, stop the attack, and restore normal services with minimal, if any, damage.
The plan defines the incidents while outlining the personnel responsibilities, steps to follow, escalation requirements, and reporting structure, including who to communicate to when there is an incident. Ideally, a plan allows businesses to quickly recover from an incident, ensuring minimal disruption to their services and preventing financial and reputation losses.
A good incident response plan provides a comprehensive and effective set of steps organizations can follow to address a security threat. It includes procedures on how to detect and respond to a security threat, assess its severity, and notify specific individuals within and sometimes outside the organization.
The plan outlines how to eradicate the threat and escalate it to other teams or third-party providers, depending on the severity and complexity. Finally, it specifies steps to recover from an incident and reviews existing measures to identify and address any gaps.
Benefits of an Incident Response Plan
An incident response plan provides a wide range of benefits to the organization and its customers. Some of the major benefits include:
#1. Faster Response Time and Reduced Downtimes
An incident response plan prepares everyone so that in the event of a threat, the teams can quickly detect and address them before they compromise the systems. This ensures business continuity and minimal downtime.
Additionally, it prevents invoking costly disaster recovery processes that would mean more downtime and financial losses. However, it is essential to still have a disaster recovery system in place just in case the attack compromises the entire system, and there is a need to restore a full backup.
#2. Ensure Compliance with Legal, Industry, And Regulatory Standards
A security incident plan helps an organization comply with a wide range of industrial and regulatory standards. By protecting data and complying with privacy rules and other requirements, the organization avoids potential financial losses, penalties, and reputation damage.
Additionally, it makes it easier to obtain certification from the relevant industrial and regulatory bodies. Complying with regulations also means protecting sensitive data and privacy, hence maintaining good customer service, reputation, and trust.
#3. Streamline Internal and External Communication
Clear communication is one of the main components of an incident response plan. It outlines how the communication flows between the security teams, IT staff, employees, management, and third-party solution providers where applicable. In the event of an incident, the plan ensures that everyone is on the same page. Consequently, this enables faster recovery from an incident while reducing the confusion and blame games.
Besides enhancing internal communication, it makes it easy to quickly and seamlessly contact and engage external stakeholders, such as first responders, when an incident is beyond the organization’s capacity.
#4. Strengthen Cyber Resilience
When an organization develops an effective incident response plan, it helps to promote a culture of security awareness. Typically, it empowers the employees by enabling them to understand potential and existing security threats and what to do in the event of a breach. Consequently, the company becomes more resilient to security threats and breaches.
#5. Reduce the Impact of a Cyberattack
An effective incident response plan is critical in minimizing the effect of a security breach. It outlines the procedures security teams should follow to quickly and effectively stop the breach and reduce its spread and effect.
Consequently, it helps the organization to reduce downtime, further damage to the systems, and financial losses. It also minimizes reputation damage and potential fines.
#6. Enhance Detection of Security Incidents
A good plan includes continuous security monitoring of the systems to detect and address any threat as early as possible. Additionally, it requires regular reviews and improvements to identify and address any gaps. As such, this ensures that an organization is continuously improving its security systems, including the ability to quickly detect and address any security threat before it affects the systems.
Key Phases of an Incident Response Plan
An incident response plan comprises a sequence of phases. These specify the steps and procedures, actions to take, roles, responsibilities, and more.
The preparation phase is the most crucial phase and includes providing employees with proper training relevant to their roles and responsibilities. Additionally, it includes ensuring the approval and availability of required hardware, software, training, and other resources in advance. You will also need to evaluate the plan by conducting tabletop exercises.
Preparation means a thorough risk assessment of all resources, including assets to protect, staff training, contacts, software, hardware, and other requirements. It also addresses communication and alternatives in case the primary channel is compromised.
This concentrates on how to spot unusual behaviors such as abnormal network activity, large downloads, or uploads indicative of a threat. Most organizations struggle at this phase as there is a need to properly identify and classify a threat while avoiding false positives.
The phase requires advanced technical skills and experience. Additionally, the phase should outline the severity and potential damage caused by a specific threat, including how to respond to such an event. The phase should also identify critical assets, potential risks, threats, and their impact.
The containment phase lays out the actions to take in the event of an incident. But there is a need to be careful to avoid under-reaction or over-reaction, which are equally damaging. It is essential to determine the potential action based on the severity and potential impact.
An ideal strategy, such as taking the right steps using the right people, helps to prevent unnecessary outages. Additionally, it should outline how to maintain the forensic data so that investigators can determine what happened and prevent a recurrence in the future.
After the containment, the next phase is to identify and address the procedures, technology, and policies that contributed to the breach. For example, it should outline how to remove threats such as malware and how to improve security to prevent future occurrences. The process should ensure that all the compromised systems are thoroughly cleaned, updated, and hardened.
The phase deals with how to restore the compromised systems to normal operations. Ideally, this should also include dealing with the vulnerabilities to prevent a similar attack.
Typically, after identifying and eradicating the threat, teams must harden, patch, and update the systems. Also, it is important to test all the systems to ensure that they are clean and secure before re-connecting the previously compromised system.
This phase documents the events after a breach and is useful in reviewing current incident response plans and identifying weaknesses. Consequently, the phase helps the teams identify and address gaps, preventing similar incidences from happening in the future.
The review should be done regularly, followed by staff training, drills, attack simulations, and other exercises to better prepare teams and address the weak areas.
The review helps teams determine what works well and what does not so that teams can address the gaps and revise the plan.
How to Create and Implement an Incident Response Plan
Creating and implementing an incident response plan enables your organization to quickly and efficiently address any threat, hence minimizing the impact. Below are the instructions on how to develop a good plan.
#1. Identify and Prioritize Your Digital Assets
The first step is to perform a risk analysis where you identify and document all the organization’s critical data assets. Establish the sensitive and most important data that would result in heavy financial and reputation losses if compromised, stolen, or corrupted.
You then need to prioritize the critical assets based on their role and those that face the highest risk. This makes it easier to get the management’s approval and budget once they understand the importance of protecting sensitive and critical assets.
#2. Identify Potential Security Risks
Each organization has unique risks that criminals can exploit and cause the most damage and losses. Additionally, different threats vary from one industry to the other.
Some risk areas include:
Unauthorized access, hacking, password cracking, etc.
Data loss, corruption, theft, virus transmission via removable media, etc.
Phishing, malware, malicious downloads, etc.
Theft or loss of laptops, smartphones, removable media, etc.
#3. Develop Incident Response Policies and Procedures
Establish easy-to-follow and effective procedures to ensure that the staff responsible for handling the incident will know what to do in the event of a threat. Without a set of procedures, the staff may focus elsewhere instead of the critical area. The key procedures include:
Provide a bassline of how the systems behave during normal operations. Any deviation from this is indicative of an attack or break and requires further investigation
How to identify and contain a threat
How to document the information about an attack
How to communicate and notify staff responsible, third-party providers, and all stakeholders
How to defend the systems after a breach
How to train security staff and other employees
Ideally, outline easy-to-read and well-defined processes that IT staff, security team members, and all stakeholders can understand. The instructions and procedures should be clear and straightforward with easy-to-follow and implement actionable steps. In practice, the procedures keep on changing as the organization needs to evolve. As such, it is important to adjust the procedures accordingly.
#4. Create an Incident Response Team and Clearly Define Responsibilities
The next step is to put together a response team to address the incident upon detecting a threat. The team should coordinate the response operation to ensure minimal downtime and impact. Key responsibilities include:
A team leader
Senior management representative
The Lead investigator
Threat or breach response experts
Ideally, the team should cover all aspects of the incident response with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. All stakeholders and responders must know and understand their roles and responsibilities whenever there is an incident.
The plan should ensure that there are no conflicts and that there is a proper escalation policy based on the incident, severity, skills requirements, and individual capabilities.
#5. Develop a Proper Communication Strategy
Clear communication is essential in ensuring everyone is on the same page whenever there is an issue. The strategy should specify the channels to use to communicate and members to know about an incident. Clearly outline the steps and procedures while keeping this as simple as possible.
Also, develop a plan with a centralized location where security team members and other stakeholders can access the incident response plans, respond to incidents, log incidents, and find useful information. Avoid a situation where the staff have to log in to several different systems to respond to an incident since this reduces productivity and can create some confusion.
Also, clearly define how security teams communicate with the operations, management, third-party providers, and other organizations such as the press and law enforcement bodies. Also, it is important to establish a backup communication channel just in case the primary one is compromised.
#6. Sell The Incident Response Plan to Management
You need the management’s approval, support, and budget to implement your plan. Once you have the plan in place, it is time to present it to the senior management and convince them about its importance in safeguarding the organization’s assets.
Ideally, regardless of the size of the organization, the senior management must support the incident response plan for you to move forward. They must approve the additional finances and resources required to address security breaches. Make them understand how implementing the plan ensures continuity, compliance, and reduced downtime and losses.
#7. Train the Staff
After creating the incident response plan, it is time to train the IT staff and other employees to create awareness and let them know what to do in case of a breach.
All employees, including the management, should be aware of the risks of unsafe online practices and should be trained on how to identify phishing emails and other social engineering tricks attackers exploit. After the training, it is important to test the effectiveness of the IRP and training.
#8. Test the Incident Response Plan
After developing the incident response plan, test it and ensure it works as intended. Ideally, you could simulate an attack and establish if the plan is effective. This provides an opportunity to address any gaps, whether it is the tools, skills, or other requirements. Additionally, it helps to verify if the intrusion detection and security systems can detect and send prompt alerts whenever a threat occurs.
Incident Response Templates
The incident response plan template is a detailed checklist that describes the steps, actions, roles, and responsibilities required to handle security incidents. It provides a general framework that any organization can customize to suit its unique requirements.
Instead of creating your plan from scratch, you can use a standard template to define the exact and effective steps to detect, mitigate, and minimize the effect of an attack.
It allows you to customize and develop a plan that addresses your organization’s unique needs. However, for the plan to be effective, you must regularly test and review it with all stakeholders, including internal departments and external teams such as solution providers.
The available templates have various components that organizations can customize to suit their unique structure and requirements. However, below are some non-negotiable aspects that every plan must include.
Purpose and scope of the plan
The incident response team
Individual roles, responsibilities, and contacts
Incident response procedures
Threat containment, mitigation, and recovery
Below are some popular templates you can download and customize for your organization.
An effective incident response plan minimizes the impact of a security breach, disruption, possible legal and industrial fines, reputation loss, and more. Most importantly, it enables the organization to recover from incidents quickly and comply with various regulations.
Outlining all the steps helps to streamline the processes and reduce the response time. Further, it allows the organization to evaluate its systems, understand its security posture, and address gaps.