Building Effective Incident Response Plans

When an organization experiences a cybersecurity event, having an effective incident response plan in place is crucial for minimizing damage and restoring normal operations quickly. This article will explore key considerations for developing and executing an incident response strategy tailored to your organization's needs.  

Defining Incident Response

Incident response refers to the plans, procedures, and teams responsible for detecting cybersecurity events and managing organizational recovery. The overarching goal is containing immediate threats while analyzing root causes to prevent future recurrences. Effective incident response requires both technological defenses and strategic organizational coordination across departments.

Well-designed response plans outline roles and responsibilities for IT, legal, PR, and executives. They also establish policies for internal and external communication, evidence gathering, damage assessments, and integrating lessons learned into improved security postures. Plans should be living documents, updated as technology and threats evolve.

Key Components of Effective Incident Response

Key Components of Effective Incident Response

NIST, SANS, and other leaders have established frameworks outlining best practices for incident response. While specific steps may vary, most expert guidance addresses five core components:

Preparation: Key groundwork includes developing playbooks covering common threats, creating monitoring and data preservation procedures, training staff, and selecting technologies to enhance detection, analysis, containment, and recovery capabilities.

Identification: Detecting anomalies via technological monitoring, user reports, forensic analysis, and other means provides the first signs of potential cybersecurity events. Clear alert procedures enable rapid information gathering when suspicious activities are uncovered.

Containment: Upon event confirmation, limiting its scope is crucial for minimizing organizational damage. This can mean blocking suspicious IP addresses in firewalls, taking compromised systems offline, securing sensitive data archives, or enacting other isolations based on the specifics of an attack.

Eradication & Recovery: Addressing vulnerabilities that allowed the incident is critical for preventing recurrence. Removing malware, patching software, updating access controls and credentials, augmenting monitoring systems with enhanced behavioral analytics and machine learning, and making other improvements bolster resilience. Recovery procedures should aim to methodically restore protected operations.  

Review: Security teams conduct root cause analyses and create executive summaries following containment. These post-mortems capture effective and ineffective response activities, guide security posture improvements, support potential legal proceedings, and enable updated staff training.

Optimizing Incident Response Plans for Your Organization

The most resilient plans account for an organization’s unique digital assets, business model, staff capabilities, regulatory requirements, tolerance for risk, and other attributes.

For example, health systems require emphasis on clinically-validated contingency procedures given threats to human safety and digitized patient records from disrupted operations. Similarly, financial firms face regulatory demands for rapid audit-ready breach reporting and messaging caution around previously-disclosed incidents.  

Consider key questions as you develop and refine response plans:

  • What cybersecurity insurance coverage exists? How do retention rates and policy limits influence response strategies?
  • Which incidents legally must be reported, to whom, and within what timeframes?  
  • How much baseline monitoring is logging user behaviors, network traffic, external scanning attempts, and other activities?
  • What staff has relevant cybersecurity, IT, business continuity, crisis management, and communication experience to participate in response teams? 
  • For critical systems at highest risk, what manual workarounds or redundancy capabilities exist if operations are interrupted? Can temporary outsourcing help bridge gaps?
  • What third parties manage or have access to sensitive data stores, mission-critical applications, underlying infrastructure, or revenue-critical partnerships? How can plans coordinate effective oversight?

Refining Playbooks for Efficiency

While each cybersecurity event has unique attributes, common incident types lend themselves to playbook preparation:

  • Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks interrupting website and application availability
  • Ransomware encrypting data stores and crippling operations until demands are met   
  • Insiders accessing or sharing unauthorized proprietary information 
  • Nation-state groups targeting intellectual property thefts
  • Cloud service or hosting provider disruptions impeding access to external resources
  • Business email compromise incidents tricking staff into fraudulent financial transfers
  • Third party data breaches exposing credentials or sensitive information

Documenting and periodically practicing response procedures for mainstream threats establishes organizational muscle memory to expedite containment and recovery when attacks occur.

Tabletop exercises that walk through scenarios also help identify overlooked recovery difficulties – from technical constraints around rebuilding systems securely to forgotten individuals who should participate in response efforts. Over time, lessons learned enrich resilience through updated detection tools, policies and rules governing access controls and data handling, expanded redundancy for critical systems, cybersecurity awareness education, and other loss prevention investments.  

Incident Response Technology Considerations

A robust technology toolkit is invaluable for promptly detecting, analyzing, containing, eradicating, and reviewing cybersecurity incidents. Core safeguards like firewalls, access controls, data encryption, endpoint scanning, backup verification, and network monitoring provide foundations for response capabilities.

Augmenting these safeguards with specialized incident response technologies enhances threat visibility, accelerates interventions, and provides richer reporting for executives:

  • Security information and event management (SIEM) software centrally aggregates monitoring outputs across applications, devices, and platforms. Machine learning detection identifies subtle attack indicators across billions of data points.
  • Endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools apply advanced behavioral analytics indicative of malware, unauthorized access attempts, privilege escalations, and similar malicious activities occurring locally on individual devices.  
  • Digital forensics tools safely capture suspicious files and heap memory snapshots preserving system integrity and enabling isolated threat analysis.  
  • Deception technology creates fake computing resources, data stores, credentials and other digital assets to divert attackers from production systems and track lateral movements. Traps provide attack intelligence for response teams.   
  • Incident management platforms create centralized collaboration hubs to track impacts, surface data visualizations, document recovery workstreams, and preserve evidence like ips logs, affected user accounts, containment measures, and remediation details.

While investments vary based on organizational maturity and risk tolerance, response technology can pay dividends when incidents strike by limiting damage and speeding operations restoration.

Staffing Incident Response Teams  

Effective incident response requires tight coordination across departments interfacing with technology and managing external communications:

IT and Cybersecurity staff identify, investigate, contain, eradicate, and recover from attacks against digital infrastructure and data stores.  

Legal participates in evidence preservation, breach reporting obligations, liability concerns, and long-term policy improvements.  

Public Relations addresses customer, partner, and public communications around incident transparency, organizational learnings, and updated security commitments.

Business Continuity assesses and contains business operation disruptions, oversees contingency plan activations, and tracks progress towards restored services.

Executive Leadership participation demonstrates organizational commitment, aligns response priorities to strategic goals, and provides resources needed for effective containment and recovery operations.

Cross-department collaboration avoids contradictory public statements, duplicated efforts, evidence mishandling, delays seeking needed approvals, and other missteps prevalent when coordination languishes.  

Common Incident Response Framework Limitations

While NIST, SANS, and other widely-adopted incident response guidelines provide helpful blueprints, real-world security operations frequently encounter scenarios stretching beyond academic guidance:

Coordinating cloud-centric responses across infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and software-as-a-service (SaaS) introduces added complexity around visibility constraints, shared controls, and contractual notification obligations during provider incidents.

Heavily regulated industries like finance and healthcare must adhere to strict legal reporting rules, even when events fall below some frameworks’ formal incident designations. Triggering failover plans or accessing backup data stores may also require special permissions.

Limited technology knowledge slows many organization’s response capabilities, especially smaller businesses lacking specialized IT security skillsets. Capability gaps include threat hunting, IT forensics, data parsing for indicators of compromise, and custom coding for emergency workarounds.

Effective preparation must account for these constraints using creative policy, process, and people strategies tailored to resource realities.

The Role of Deception Technology in Incident Response