What is Incident Response? Ultimate Guide + Templates

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Incident Response is a systematic method for addressing and managing security incidents in organizations, focused on minimizing and investigating the impact of events and restoring normal operations.

When an incident is spotted, typically by an alert or observation, response teams swing into action to address any damage and prevent it from spreading. They may disconnect infected systems, disable services, or prevent suspicious connections. Response teams also conduct an investigation into the incident, gathering evidence and studying the causes in order to determine the nature of the threat and any vulnerabilities exploited. Communication is critical, with response teams keeping everyone informed, including management, IT staff, victims, law enforcement agencies, and other stakeholders.

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Featured Incident Response Software

How Does Incident Response Work?

Incident response inside an organization often depends on a specialized security team that is tasked with quickly identifying and addressing active security incidents and notifying the business of potential security risks. These diligent defenders need to be well-prepared and have a thorough response plan. In smaller organizations, IT staffers may have to switch hats when incidents occur. In either case, preparation is critical.

Organizations must practice incident response if they want to stop data breaches and cyberattacks. To be effective, incident response must quickly determine the type and scope of the attack, investigate the impacted systems, stop the source of the attack, and contain the potential damage by isolating affected systems and networks to avoid additional compromise.

After eliminating immediate dangers, incident response activities move to thorough remediation, determining the issue’s fundamental cause and taking urgent action to remedy it. This lessens the possibility that instances like these may occur again in the future.

Incident response also involves an in-depth assessment of the incident aftermath, where a continuous learning process occurs. By analyzing the response, evaluating the effectiveness of measures, and identifying areas for improvement, organizations can further enhance their security posture and be better prepared to face future potential incidents.

Six Steps to Incident Response Success infographic by eSecurity Planet.

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​​10 Common Types of Security Incidents

Understanding the dynamic nature of cyber threats is important, as they can manifest a single isolated attack or multiple simultaneous attacks at the same time. By familiarizing ourselves with these 10 common types of security incidents, we can improve our defenses that ensure the security of our digital space.

  • Insider threats: This refers to the risk posed by individuals within an organization who have authorized access but misuse it to intentionally or unintentionally harm the organization’s security, systems, or data.
  • Malware: Malicious software that can damage computer systems and data, and even steal data, credentials and other critical information. There are many types of malware, such as viruses, trojans and ransomware.
  • Phishing attacks: Deceptive techniques, such as fraudulent emails or websites, trick individuals into revealing sensitive information like credit card and payment information, passwords, or login credentials.
  • Ransomware attacks: Ransomware is an extortion attack that encrypts a victim’s files, demanding a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key, often causing significant disruptions and data loss to the company. Recent tactics have shifted to data theft and threats to release sensitive data if the ransom isn’t paid.
  • Malvertising: Malicious advertisements that are distributed through legitimate ad networks, including paid search results, and can lead users to infected websites or trigger downloads of malware.
  • Distributed denial-of-service attacks: DDoS attacks overwhelm a target’s network or website with a flood of incoming traffic, rendering it inaccessible to legitimate users with the use of a botnet.
  • Social engineering attacks: These involve manipulating individuals to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information or systems. Examples include baiting, pretexting, and impersonation.
  • Data breaches: A data breach occurs when unauthorized individuals gain access to sensitive data, such as personal information, credit card or other payment information, and intellectual property.
  • Password attacks: These involve various methods to obtain or crack passwords, including brute force attacks, dictionary attacks, or credential stuffing. There are multiple password management solutions that are readily available in the market to help you protect your passwords, with the help of passkeys too.
  • Web application attacks: An attacker can gain unauthorized access to sensitive user information, compromise a website’s data, manipulate content, and disrupt functionality through web application attacks and vulnerabilities such as cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, cross-site request forgery (CSRF), and server-side request forgery (SSRF).

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Incident Response Steps

Planning for incidents proactively ensures the smooth operation of your business and helps protect against risks, security breaches and unanticipated disruption. Developing a thorough incident response strategy is important for identifying and incorporating the main components that will ensure the efficacy of your plan.

  1. Preparation: This step involves establishing a comprehensive incident response plan, educating team members, and executing essential preventative steps to limit potential risks.
  2. Identification: The purpose of identification is to discover and assess the type and breadth of a cyber event as quickly as possible to identify impacted systems, networks, or data.
  3. Containment: Once the incident has been recognized, urgent steps are required to mitigate its impact and prevent its spread by isolating affected systems or networks.
  4. Eradication: This entails addressing the incident’s fundamental cause, removing any harmful presence, and returning impacted systems or networks to their normal working condition.
  5. Recovery: Here the focus shifts to restoring regular services, including data recovery, system reconfiguration, and business continuity.
  6. Learning: Following the resolution of the incident, a detailed analysis is performed to determine the incident’s causes, identify vulnerabilities, and adopt steps to prevent such problems in the future.
  7. Retesting: This final step is where systems and networks are carefully evaluated to assess the effectiveness of security fixes and the comprehensiveness and reliability of the incident response plan.

Read more: 7 Steps to the Incident Response Process & Frameworks

What to Include in an Incident Response Plan

The scope and specifics of your organization’s incident response plan depends on several factors, including the size and complexity of your infrastructure, the nature of your business operations, the level of sensitivity of your data, regulatory requirements, and the specific threats and vulnerabilities relevant to your industry. Here are some common elements to include in an incident response plan:

  • Introduction: A summary of the incident response plan’s purpose and key parties engaged.
  • System overview: A description of the important systems and network infrastructure that are subject to incident response.
  • Architecture model: A diagram or description of the network and system architecture used to understand possible attack surfaces.
  • System hardware inventory: A detailed catalog of hardware components, devices, and configurations to help in incident investigation.
  • Audit logging: Information on the logging systems used to trace system activity and aid forensic investigations.
  • System contacts: A list of relevant contacts and their duties, such as members of the incident response team and external stakeholders.
  • Response procedure/process: A step-by-step guide explaining the steps to be done when reacting to a range of occurrences.
  • Confirmation of a security event: The criteria and method for confirming and validating the occurrence of a security event.
  • Assessing impact: Techniques for assessing an incident’s immediate impact on systems, data, and operations.
  • Escalate to ISO: The procedure for reporting issues to higher-level management, such as the Information Security Officer (ISO).
  • P3/P4 data incident response activities: Procedures to aid in the response to events involving sensitive data (P3/P4) in accordance with data breach protocols.
  • Remediation for P1 systems: Guidelines for dealing with and recovering from the most significant incidents impacting P1 systems (lower security), with the goal of achieving rapid resolution.

6 Incident Response Plan Templates

Selecting the best incident response template for your needs depends on a range of factors, encompassing your organization’s industry, scale, regulatory prerequisites, and particular necessities. Here are some of the best available models for incident response plans, many linking directly to a downloadable document, along with their strengths and uses. We’ll delve into two of the best-known – NIST and SANS – in the next section.

  • NIST (Get the free template here): The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) furnishes a comprehensive and well respected framework for cybersecurity and incident response.
  • SANS (Get the free template here): SANS offers a number of resources for incident response, encompassing templates and manuals. Their materials are recognized for their pragmatism and relevance to practical scenarios.
  • Cynet Incident Response Template (Get the free template here): Cynet offers a useful template, relatively simple and straightforward, with an emphasis on compliance too.
  • California Department of Technology Incident Response Plan (Get the free template here): At just four pages, this one asks important questions that any incident response plan should incorporate.
  • University of California at Berkeley (Get the free template here): Another good model at just seven pages, with an emphasis on incident response escalation and sensitive data.
  • State of Michigan (Get the free template here): A very good template; its emphasis on incident severity stands out.

In general, the NIST framework is highly regarded and often the best starting point for developing incident response plans, and SANS offers well regarded guidance too. All of these are with a look, though. The best choice – or combination of choices – will depend on the specific needs and circumstances of your organization, and any template will need to be adjusted and customized to fit your specific requirements.

NIST & SANS Incident Response Frameworks

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the SANS Institute are two prominent organizations in the cybersecurity field that play significant roles in shaping the landscape and developing various frameworks, including incident response. By following these recognized frameworks, organizations can strengthen their security posture, mitigate risks, and build a more secure digital environment.

NIST Incident Response Steps

Step 1: Preparation

Setting up an incident response team, outlining roles and duties, developing incident response policies and procedures, and doing routine training and drills are all part of the preparation phase.

Step 2: Detection and Analysis

Organizations monitor their networks and systems for indications of possible problems during the detection and analysis phase. Once an event is discovered, it is investigated to determine its type, extent, and effects. This entails obtaining proof, figuring out the reason, and evaluating the danger to the company.

Step 3: Containment, Eradication and Recovery

After an occurrence is confirmed, urgent steps are made to limit and lessen its effects (containment, eradication, and recovery). In order to do this, infected systems must be isolated, malicious components must be eliminated, backup data must be restored, and regular operations must be resumed.

Step 4: Post-Incident Activity

Following the resolution of an incident, organizations carry out post-incident activities such as conducting a comprehensive post-incident review, compiling lessons learned, updating incident response plans and procedures, and sharing information with pertinent stakeholders to enhance future incident response capabilities.

SANS Incident Response Steps

Step 1: Preparation

The SANS incident response process’s first step is similar to NIST’s in that it involves getting ready. The creation of incident response policies and procedures, the formation of an incident response team, the definition of roles and duties, and the availability of appropriate tools and resources are all part of this.

Step 2: Identification

The purpose of this step is to locate and establish the existence of an incident. To ascertain the nature and scope of the incident, organizations gather data, carry out investigations, and execute analyses.

Step 3: Containment

Immediately after an occurrence is verified, steps are made to stop its spread and limit additional harm. This includes shutting down vulnerable systems, restricting harmful activities, and guarding against unauthorized entry.

Step 4: Eradication

During this step, businesses clean up any evidence of the incident from the impacted systems, including any malware or unauthorized access points. To stop further events, it could be necessary to fix vulnerabilities, delete compromised accounts, or reconfigure systems.

Step 5: Recovery

After the event has been eliminated, attention is turned toward recovering the impacted systems and returning them to a state in which they are operationally normal. This includes reconfiguring the system, restoring data from backups, and thoroughly testing everything to make sure it works as it should.

Step 6: Lessons Learned

The last step entails conducting a post-event assessment to evaluate the incident response procedure, pinpoint areas that require improvement, and draw lessons from the occurrence. In order to improve organization-wide incident response capabilities in the future, this stage also includes upgrading incident response plans and procedures and recording lessons learned.

What Software is Used for Incident Response?

There are various software and security tools for incident response, this depends on the specific needs and preferences of an organization. Here are some commonly used tools for incident response:

Security Information and  Event Management (SIEM) Systems

SIEM systems aggregate and analyze security events and logs from various sources, providing real-time monitoring, threat detection, and incident response capabilities. These tools provide alerts that help to identify attacks in progress and log file analysis for investigating the attack.

Incident Response Platforms (IRPs)

Incident response platforms offer centralized incident management, coordination, and workflow automation. They assist in documenting, tracking, and orchestrating incident response activities.

Forensic Tools

Digital forensic tools help in collecting and analyzing digital evidence that is related to an incident. The evidence, such as log files, determine the root cause and impact of the incident. These tools support investigations, and post-attack analysis, and preserve evidence for potential legal actions.

Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) Systems

Endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools gather log files and analyze endpoint activities to detect suspicious behavior or indicators of compromise and can take automated actions for initial containment.

Threat Intelligence Platforms (TIPs)

Threat intelligence platforms provide organizations with the latest information regarding emerging threats, malicious actors, and indicators of compromise. They help enhance incident response capabilities by providing actionable security and intelligence to prepare for likely attacks.

Bottom Line: Preparing for Incident Response

Incident response is a methodical way of dealing with and managing security issues. Preparation, detection and analysis, containment and mitigation, investigation and forensics, communication and reporting, and recovery are all part of the process. The goal of good incident response planning is to reduce the effect of events, determine their causes, and return operations to normal.

Incident response strategies should be tailored to each organization’s needs and supported by a range of security and response solutions. Finally, incident response is an iterative process that needs continuous testing, training, and improvement to manage future issues efficiently.

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