What Is an Incident Response Plan? Definition, Steps, & Significance

What is an incident response plan (IRP)? What does an incident response plan allow for in information technology and enterprise cybersecurity?

A cyber incident response plan outlines specific instructions on how your organization prepares for and responds to attack scenarios, such as data leaks and security breaches, to prevent further damages from escalating. In addition, an IT incident response plan helps mitigate risks and decreases recovery time.

Incident response planning involves managing and measuring incident response goals. It also includes periodically testing the plan through simulated exercises.

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What Is an Incident Response Plan?

A cyber incident response plan is a set of predetermined tools, procedures, and instructions designed to identify, respond to, eliminate, and recover from cyber-attacks or security threats. Your company’s IT incident response plan limits the repercussions of these malicious intrusions on your information systems.

Your IRP is documentation that should typically include:

  • Your business’s incident response strategy and how the method supports your goals
  • The responsibilities of the key personnel involved in the response procedure
  • Detailed steps in each phase of the response process
  • Communication methodologies within your response team, across your company at large, as well as your enterprise’s external stakeholders
  • Ways to continue improving your security position

What is IRP’s relationship with a company’s disaster recovery plan? Your disaster recovery plan should ideally complement your cyber incident response plan. It details how you should handle emergencies, including natural disasters that may result in accidental data loss. With a disaster recovery scheme, you can bring systems back online while an IRP detects and shuts down security-related events.

6 Phases of Incident Response Planning

These are the steps to follow in your response plan to address and effectively manage security incidents:

Phase #1: Preparation

The preparation stage is when risk assessment and security issues prioritization is performed. It is during this phase that:

  • You identify and focus on the most sensitive areas and assets in your information systems
  • Lay out a transparent communication scheme and in-depth documentation of relevant roles, responsibilities, and processes
  • Ensure all employees are sufficiently trained for handling a security threat
  • Develop and conduct mock data breaches and other response drill scenarios to regularly test your IT incident response plan and update it as necessary
  • Approve and adequately fund all training and execution resources, hardware, and software tools needed for an incident response

Phase #2: Identification

In this stage of incident response planning, your cyber incident response team (CIRT) should accurately determine any digressions from your normal IT operations and find out if these irregularities pose an actual security threat or represent a real incident breach.

The identification phase addresses these questions:

  • When did the incident occur?
  • What was the source or point of entry?
  • Did it originate from one or multiple areas?
  • How was it detected?
  • Who discovered the attack?
  • When was it found?
  • Which areas of the organizational systems were affected?
  • How much of the operations were compromised?

Phase #3: Containment

After identifying the breach, the immediate objective is to contain it and prevent any more damage. Containment in incident response planning is classified into:

  • Short-term containment: This covers isolating breached network segments, closing down hacked production servers, and diverting traffic to backup servers.
  • Long-term containment: It involves implementing temporary fixes to affected systems while cleaning them in preparation for going online again.

Cybersecurity tip: While securely deleting all systems under attack initially comes to mind when an incident is discovered, it is not the correct way to eliminate the damage incurred. Besides causing irreparable damage due to permanent data loss, this move will eliminate valuable evidence that can point you to the breach entry point. This evidence can also provide insights to help you devise a more robust IRP to prevent any similar breaches in the future.

Add these to your to-dos in the containment phase:

  • Update and patch your systems
  • Reevaluate your remote access agreements
  • Set up a mandatory multistep authentication to gain access
  • Change all administrative and user credentials with more robust, secure passcodes

Phase #4: Eradication

After containing the issue, it is time to trace the principal cause of the incident and securely remove all threats, malware, or artifacts. For instance, if the issue arises from a weak authentication channel, it requires replacement with a stronger authentication mechanism. If it was a vulnerability breach of the cloud cybersecurity, immediately harden and patch the system, and apply updates.

Phase #5: Recovery

Restore your information systems and devices back online safely to avoid another breach. The most crucial decisions to make in this step of the IRP are:

  • The most strategic date and time for operations restoration
  • The trusted backup to use for restoration
  • The ways to test and validate that the affected systems have returned to normal
  • The duration for monitoring the interfered devices and systems
  • The most efficient way to monitor these technologies
  • The tools to guarantee similar attacks will not reoccur

Phase #6: Lessons Learned

This is the final stage of your incident response planning, and it should be performed within two weeks after recovery and restoration. In this stage, your CIRT should document the following:

  • Detailed processes of containment and eradication of threats and malware
  • All procedures performed to recover the breached systems
  • Aspects wherein the response team was effective
  • Aspects that need improvement

The after-action discussion among all CIRT members should cover:

  • The lessons learned from the incident
  • Analysis of the breach based on the documentation
  • Identify what worked well in the IRP
  • Evaluate the gaps in the response plan

Why Is a Cyber Incident Response Plan Important?

Your IRP helps you identify potential security threats, prevent data breaches, and prepare for intrusions should these inevitably occur. These are the positive effects a well-documented IRP can have on your business:

1. Data and System Protection

Protecting your organization’s assets throughout the response process involves:

  • Securing backups
  • Utilizing security alerts, event data, and logs for detecting malicious activities
  • Ensuring there is proper identity and access management to avoid threats from the inside
  • Promptly hardening systems, patching vulnerabilities, and executing updates

2. Reputation Management and Protection

Incident response planning effectively exhibits your commitment to security and privacy for your business.

A breach that is not addressed quickly and correctly may result in decreased confidence of customers, clients, and even investors in your company’s competence to handle an attack. It puts you at risk of losing not only priceless data but also consumers and shareholders, in turn, compromising your whole brand and enterprise.

With a solid IRP in place, you help mitigate, if not entirely prevent, such losses.

3. Reduced Costs

Cybersecurity incidents and malware infections are costly. This type of breach will charge you regulatory fines and client compensation. Investigation and restoration are also expensive. If you decide to take legal action, you must allocate an emergency budget for external parties, such as law enforcers and lawyers.

When you have effective response procedures, it helps drastically lower these exorbitant costs.

Typical Scenarios Requiring an IT Incident Response Plan

Listed below are the most common incidents that should be covered during your team’s incident response planning:

  • Ransomware and other kinds of malware
  • Hackers or Man-in-the-middle attacks
  • Phishing
  • Hardware theft
  • Espionage
  • Data leaks
  • Email spoofing
  • URL hijacking
  • Violation of safety protocols and security standards
  • Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks
  • Misuse of information
  • Misuse of software services

Essential Considerations for a Successful Cyber Incident Response Plan

Presented here are the factors that directly impact the success of an IRP:

Management Support

Support from higher management will enable the recruitment of the most qualified response team members to help streamline processes, information, and workflows for effective incident management.

Periodic Testing

Your IRP should be put to the test regularly. Security drills can help spot weak points in your information and data systems. Also, these are an excellent way to validate if your response team and IRP are ready for a real incident. Conduct planned or unplanned drills, then proceed with placing the plan into action.

Adaptability

While your company’s IRP should document specific, actionable procedures to combat an intrusion, it must also be adaptable for any possible on-the-spot modifications. A flexible IRP can support a variety of incidents. For example, if the breach proves to be more complex than it appears, your response processes must be ready for amendments.

Clear Communication Channels

The plan has to be communicated across the incident team and other affected departments using one platform to avoid confusion. All relevant information and critical guidelines should be conveyed vividly.

Simplicity

Keeping your incident plan of action uncomplicated, realistic, and workable guarantees your response team's efficient application and execution. It is advisable to keep the details as digestible as possible, down to an absolute minimum.

Wrap-Up: What is An Incident Response Plan, and Why Does Your Company Need One?

An IT incident response plan is the framework to which your enterprise can refer in the event of security breach. It goes into detail on the steps which the key response players will need to take against possible malicious attacks.

Ultimately, your IRP should be able to identify the point of entry of the intruder, when the breach happened, how it was discovered, and which systems were affected. There should be a post-incident huddle among the management leaders and response team experts to discuss the updates for implementation to prevent any future system violation.

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