February 20, 2024

An incident response plan is a set of procedures and guidelines that provide structured documentation for organizations to follow when responding to and managing cybersecurity incidents. An incident response plan enables the organization to act quickly to mitigate any damage or disruptions that could negatively impact the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of its information systems. 

Overview of an incident response plan

The primary objective of an incident response plan is to provide step-by-step instructions about the specific actions that need to be taken before, during, and after a cybersecurity incident to ensure effective and efficient loss prevention and recovery. 

Before a cybersecurity incident

Creating and maintaining an incident response plan in advance of an issue is critical. Once the plan is developed, it should be reviewed periodically and updated to keep it aligned with the current needs of the organization as well as the cyber threat landscape.  

Key considerations when building an incident response plan include the following. 

Define objectives and scope.  
The efficacy of an incident response plan hinges on starting with clear objectives and scope. This should include identifying what types of cybersecurity incidents it will cover, such as data breaches, malware infections, or system compromises. Determine the scope, including the systems, assets, and data that the incident response plan will cover. 

Assign an incident response team.   
A dedicated team should be created and assigned responsibility for each area of the incident response plan, from strategy and management to tactics and execution. This team should include representatives from across the organization, including IT, security, marketing / communications, and legal, as well as leadership. All roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined and documented.  

Create a current blueprint of the IT environment. 
Update documentation of the organization’s IT environment, including asset inventories, network diagrams, and system configurations. This section should be a priority for incident response plan reviews to ensure that it accounts for any changes in technology, personnel, and the threat landscape.   

Conduct a risk assessment.   
Perform a comprehensive risk assessment to identify potential vulnerabilities, threats, and their impact on the organization, taking into account the current threat landscape and organizational vulnerabilities. Categorize all threats based on their severity, potential impact, and likelihood to occur. Use this to prioritize risk remediation and to account for risks in the incident response plan to ensure speedy and effective reactions if needed. 

Check technology and processes. 
Identify the tools and technologies needed to support the incident response plan and be sure these are in place and configured correctly. Among those commonly used are threat detection tools (i.e., malware detection and intrusion detection systems), network monitoring systems, log analysis, and user and entity behavior analytics systems. 

Develop incident response procedures. 
Create detailed procedures for each phase of incident response, including preparation, detection, containment, eradication, recovery, and review. For each phase, define specific actions to be taken as well as the tools and resources to be used. This should also include escalation procedures for incidents that require external support. 

Establish communication protocols. 
A detailed communication plan with multiple options should be created. It should include the specific functions that internal and external communication team members are responsible for, exactly who needs to be contacted and when, and what the messages are for each of the key audiences. Include contact information for the audiences, along with “canned” emails and voice scripts that are ready to be sent at a moment’s notice.  

Integrate with business continuity and disaster recovery plans. 
All components of the incident response plan need to be integrated with other security plans as well as with other business continuity and disaster recovery plans to ensure alignment and optimal protection and response. 

Understand compliance requirements. 
The incident response plan needs to take into account any compliance requirements related to cybersecurity. 

Train the team. 
When building an incident response plan, training should not be overlooked. All team members need to be up to speed on their roles and responsibilities, but other members of the organization should be aware of too.  

Everyone in the organization should understand what constitutes an incident, whom to notify if they identify something that could be a sign of an incident, and what they should do while the core team is in response mode (e.g., what not to do and what to say or not say to anyone outside of the organization).

Review and test the plan. 
Reviews and testing of the incident response plan should be scheduled. Regular testing ensures not only that all components are working but also that technology, systems, and processes are up to date and reflect any changes since the last update. Testing should include tabletop exercises and simulations to assess readiness, identify gaps, improve team coordination, and remind team members of their roles. 

Establish coordination plans with third parties.   
In the event of a cybersecurity issue, a number of third parties will need to be engaged, including vendors, partners, customers, and law enforcement. Establishing coordination and communication plans with these constituents in advance of an incident helps ensure that notifications are effective and efficient and clarifies what resources each can provide to support response efforts.   

Gather all elements of the incident response plan in a central document. 
Document the incident response plan, detailing procedures, communication protocols, escalation paths, and any legal or regulatory requirements. Ensure the document is easily accessible to all relevant personnel. 

During a cybersecurity incident

As soon as a cybersecurity incident is detected, swift action is crucial. Key functions to consider when preparing how to respond during a cybersecurity incident include the following. 

Incident identification and reporting  

  • Identify and verify the occurrence of a security incident. 
  • Report the incident to the designated point of contact on the incident response team. 

Activation of the incident response team  

  • Notify and activate the incident response team according to the predefined roles and responsibilities in the plan.
  • Ensure clear communication channels are established. 
  • Clarify the expected timeline for various response-related activities. 

Situation assessment  

  • Gather information to understand the nature and scope of the incident.  
  • Determine the severity, potential impact, and affected systems or data.  
  • Gain insights from monitoring tools, logs, and any available indicators of compromise (IOCs). 

Containment and mitigation of the threat(s)  

  • Take immediate action to contain the incident and prevent further damage.  
  • Isolate affected systems, networks, or compromised accounts. 
  • Disconnect internet access if necessary.  
  • Implement incident response measures to limit the spread and prevent further damage. 

Collection and protection of evidence  

  • Preserve digital evidence for forensic analysis. 
  • Avoid making changes to the affected systems that could compromise the integrity of evidence. 
  • Document all actions taken during the incident response process. 

Communication management  

  • Follow the incident response plan’s communication protocols to notify internal and external stakeholders.  
  • Comply with regulatory requirements for data breach notifications, if applicable. 
  • Engage external communication channels for public relations and legal purposes, as needed. 

Following a cybersecurity incident

Investigate and analyze  

  • Conduct a thorough investigation to identify the cause and extent of the incident. 
  • Gather evidence, including log data, and use it for forensic analysis to determine the scope and scale of the incident. 
  • Identify the root cause and the methods used by the attackers. 
  • Identify exploited vulnerabilities and any additional indicators of compromise. 
  • Review to assess the effectiveness of the response. 
  • Document lessons learned and areas for improvement in the incident response plan. 
  • Maintain a detailed record of the incident, including a catalog of forensic analysis findings and the steps taken for containment and recovery. 

Remediate and recover   

  • Remove malicious code or malware, patch vulnerabilities, restore systems from backups, or rebuild affected components.  
  • Update configurations and implement supplemental security measures, as needed, to eliminate exploited vulnerabilities.  
  • Verify the integrity of recovered systems before restoring them to operational capacity. 

Conduct a debriefing 

  • Hold debriefing sessions with the incident response team members to discuss the incident, the response, and potential improvements for the future. 
  • Acknowledge the efforts of the team members, highlighting specific jobs done well. 
  • Share insights from the debrief with management, relevant team members, and other appropriate third parties, including law enforcement and threat intelligence collection groups. 
  • Use the lessons learned from the incident to update and improve the incident response plan. 

Why is an incident response plan important?

An incident response plan is crucial for organizations for several reasons, including the following.  

  • Enhances business continuity plans 
  • Ensures compliance with legal and regulatory directives related to communications after an incident 
  • Facilitates continuous improvement of cybersecurity initiatives 
  • Helps preserve digital evidence, which is crucial for investigations, legal proceedings, and learning from the incident 
  • Identifies potential threats, vulnerabilities, and mitigation strategies 
  • Improves customer and partner confidence 
  • Increases organization-wide awareness and preparedness 
  • Minimizes damage to critical systems, sensitive data, and overall business operations by enabling quick responses to incidents 
  • Plays a vital role in effectively managing and mitigating the impact of security incidents 
  • Reduces downtime by expediting recovery 
  • Supports optimal allocation of resources to combat incidents 

Steps to include in an incident response plan 

The following is an overview of the key steps typically included in an incident response plan. 

Step Description 
Preparation Identify potential risks and vulnerabilities. 
Establish roles and responsibilities for responding to threats. 
Implement preventative security controls.  
Develop communication plans for both internal and external stakeholders based on known risks and vulnerabilities.  
Response Detect and analyze active threats. 
Identify and classify threats. 
Determine the scope of the attack. 
Communicate to internal and external stakeholders. 
Contain and mitigate the attack. 
Eradicate the threat.  
Recover and repair systems. 
Restore normal operations.  
Review Conduct a thorough review to identify lessons learned, update security measures needed, and make improvements for future incident response efforts.  
Update the incident response plan based on lessons learned. 
Share information with relevant parties to improve overall security. 
Incorporate lessons learned into security and awareness training programs.     

Incident response plan best practices

The following commonly cited best practices are integrated by organizations into their incident response plans to enhance their ability to respond to and mitigate security incidents effectively. 

  • Clearly document and maintain the incident response plan, including contact information, procedures, and response workflows. Ensure that the incident response plan is readily and easily accessible to all constituents. 
  • Establish and maintain clear communication protocols for internal and external stakeholders, ensuring that all necessary parties are informed promptly and accurately during an incident. 
  • Follow the incident response plan. While this seems obvious, teams often overlook parts of the plan or skip steps in their rush to address problems.   
  • Implement a tiered response approach, with different actions for different levels of incidents. 
  • Maintain detailed logs of incident response activities for analysis and auditing purposes. 
  • Promote a culture of security awareness among all employees to enhance incident detection and response. 
  • Regularly update the incident response plan based on lessons learned and changes in the threat landscape. 
  • Stay informed about updates to regulatory requirements for incident reporting and response. 
  • Take advantage of an incident response framework (e.g., NIST SP 800-61 or ISO/IEC 27035-1:2023). These offer a wealth of knowledge and proven tactics that provide insights and bolster an organization’s incident response plan.  
  • Utilize technology to streamline response processes, improve efficiency, and reduce manual errors. 

Key roles in an incident response plan

Although the specific roles and responsibilities may vary based on the size, industry, and requirements of an organization, most incident response plans should include the following roles. Some of the duties commonly associated with these roles are noted below. 

Incident response team members

These individuals are assigned specific roles on the incident response team, including: 

  • Forensics 
  • IT operations 
  • Legal affairs 
  • Public relations and communications 
  • Security 
  • System administration  
  • Threat hunting 

Executive management

  • Provide support and resources for incident response activities 
  • Approve major decisions and resource allocations  
  • Communicate with external stakeholders as needed  
  • Make critical decisions 

Incident response manager

Also referred to as an incident response team leader, this manager’s responsibilities include: 

  • Coordinating the overall incident response process
  • Ensuring that each role is assigned and executed correctly 
  • Serving as the central point of contact for communication and decision-making  

IT administrators

Collaborate with the incident responder to analyze the technical details and assist in technical aspects of incident response, including: 

  • Containment 
  • Eradication 
  • System restoration  
  • Vulnerability patching 

Lead investigator 

Often supported by forensic analysts and threat hunters, the lead investigator:  

  • Analyzes evidence 
  • Collaborates with law enforcement if necessary 
  • Collects digital forensics 
  • Conducts in-depth investigations into the incident 
  • Determines the extent of the incident 
  • Identifies the root cause 

Communications coordinator

  • Handles communication with internal stakeholders, external parties, and the media during and after the incident 
  • Ensures timely and accurate dissemination of information 
  • Helps manage the organization’s reputational damage control 
  • Coordinates messages to employees, stakeholders, customers, and the public 
  • Collaborates with the public relations and legal teams 
  • Addresses media inquiries   

Third-party liaison

  • Coordinates with external vendors and third-party service providers  
  • Ensures that external entities are aware of the incident 
  • Includes third parties in the response efforts as necessary 

Legal advisor

  • Provides counsel on incident response activities 
  • Ensures that the organization complies with legal and regulatory requirements 
  • Coordinates with law enforcement and external legal entities 

Human resources representative

  • Addresses employee-related issues during and after the incident 
  • Coordinates actions related to employee investigations, disciplinary measures, or termination in cases of a malicious insider incident 

Review team

  • Conducts post-incident reviews to assess response effectiveness 
  • Gathers input from team members and stakeholders 
  • Identifies areas for improvement 
  • Recommends updates and enhancements 

Security success with an incident response plan

Despite all of the best technology and security teams’ efforts, some organizations will experience a cybersecurity incident. An incident response plan ensures that organizations are ready and able to mount a highly effective defense against adversaries.  

Investments in the development, maintenance, and testing of incident response plans are proven to reduce an incident’s impact on business operations and reputation. It also minimizes the damage that can be done by attacks that seek to harm systems or steal sensitive data. 

A well-defined incident response plan can help organizations respond swiftly and effectively to minimize the impact of security incidents and protect sensitive information. In addition, the plan highlights areas for improvement, helping organizations optimize their cybersecurity strategies and be ready to repel evolving threats. 

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