Incident Response Plan: Steps and 8 Critical Considerations

What is an Incident Response Plan?

An incident response plan determines the steps, roles, and responsibilities required to handle cybersecurity incidents. It ensures all responders know what actions to take when a breach or another security-related incident occurs.

An incident response plan should not just passively document information. Effective incident response requires regular training and process checks to drill response into the memory muscles of all team members. Post-mortem processes are essential to learn from every incident and continuously improve the process, making the incident response plan a living document.

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Why is Incident Response Planning Important?

Here are key benefits of incident response planning:

Provides a Standard Process for Incident Response

Incident response planning involves creating an outline that explains how the organization minimizes the damage and duration of security incidents. It helps identify the relevant stakeholders, streamline digital forensics, reduce negative publicity and customer churn, and improve recovery time.

Helps Respond Quickly and Effectively

Any incident—small to big—can escalate into a data breach, disruption to business operations, and data loss. Incident response planning helps organizations plan to respond quickly. It informs responders on how to patch vulnerabilities, minimize losses, close attack vectors, and restore affected systems.

Prepares Teams for Key Scenarios

Incident response plans include scenarios that prepare the organization to respond to known and unknown threats. It helps identify the root causes of security incidents and perform post-incident disaster recovery. It outlines best practices for incident handling and provides a communication plan for notifying employees, law enforcement, and relevant stakeholders.

Protects Sensitive Information

Incident response planning helps prevent incidents and protect data. It involves identifying important data, such as personally identifiable information (PII), biometrics, protected health information (PHI), financial information, and trade secrets. Identifying this data helps keep it safe and secure for compliance, data loss prevention, and business continuity.

Incident Response Plan Steps

Organizations can and should customize their incident response plan according to their unique business needs and compliance requirements. However, according to the SANS Institute, every incident response plan should include the following steps:

  1. Preparation—during this step, you help prepare all relevant parties, users, and IT personnel to handle potential security incidents.

  2. Identification—this step involves determining which events qualify as a security incident to ensure responders spend time on incidents that truly threaten the organization.

  3. Containment—this step aims to limit the damage of an incident and isolate affected systems to prevent additional damage.

  4. Eradication—this crucial step helps identify the root cause of an incident and remove all affected systems from production.

  5. Recovery—after you eradicate the threat, you can permit affected systems back into production.

  6. Lessons learned—this step involves keeping comprehensive incident documentation and performing analysis to learn from the incident. The goal is to improve future response efforts.

Related content: Read our guide to incident response policies.

8 Critical Considerations for Cybersecurity Incident Response Planning

Here are the key elements of an efficient incident response plan:

  1. Senior management support—recruit the best talent for your response teams by having the right input and information. Management support creates processes and practices that help manage incidents more effectively.

  2. Test your plan—strengthen and test your incident response plan with best practices, table-top exercises, realistic incident drills, and performance reviews. Calibrate your plan for real-world threats, testing your process and tools at each phase.

  3. Detail and flexibility—an incident response team needs specific instructions to follow when an incident happens. If a plan is too complex or rigid, teams will not be able to handle unexpected situations. Create a detailed plan with the flexibility to support different types of incidents. Review the plan at least every six months. Be prepared for new security issues and attacks affecting your industry.

  4. Communication channels—the incident response team should know exactly who to contact, which communication channels to use, and what information to share—these details are critical and must be included explicitly in the plan. Use the plan to guide the level of detail communicated to IT management, senior management, departments affected, customers affected, and the press.

  5. Stakeholders—it is vital to know the organization’s key roles and responsibilities during a security incident. Department managers, senior management, partners, customers, and legal can all be stakeholders.

  6. Simplicity—your response plan should be simple. No one can follow a plan that is too complicated in real-time. You should minimize procedures, steps, and details. Ensure your team can process and apply the plan to an incident.

  7. Incident playbooks—in any given situation, playbooks offer step-by-step guidance. Playbooks are important in a scenario where a system expert is unavailable to a rotating on-call team. They allow teams to respond faster and leverage incident response practices gathered by the organization’s security team or other teams. Runbooks provide the necessary steps to accomplish a particular task or troubleshoot a specific issue.

  8. Skill gap—teams with limited resources, overwhelmed with alerts, cannot prioritize credible threats and critical incidents. Tools with advanced analytics and automation capabilities allow unskilled security team members to respond to security incidents more effectively. Help your analysts focus their energies on investigation and response by automating data sorting and enrichment tasks. Prefer to have security analysts conduct all investigation and response steps from a single interface.

How to Test an Incident Response Plan

An incident response plan is a document. It requires testing to ensure its validity and effectiveness. Ideally, organizations should perform testing regularly to ensure that the plan is effective and updated with compliance requirements and security standards.

Incident response plan testing typically involves running simulations to ensure that responders understand their respective roles and responsibilities. It includes various threat scenarios, such as Distributed denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, ransomware, and system sabotage.

Here are common testing options:

  • Discussion-based, tabletop exercises—a group of responders talks through the procedures they must apply and any issues that may arise during a certain security event.

  • Hands-on operational exercises—involves running through functional incident response plan processes and procedures. It offers practical and in-depth training for responders.

Ideally, organizations should utilize both testing approaches and run these testing exercises regularly. It is also important to keep records of these tests and compare results to ensure responders continue improving their performance and adjust the plan as needed.


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