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5 Most Overlooked Elements of Incident Response Plans

By Elliot Anderson  |  March 7, 2024

Learn how to establish robust, standardized security controls for handling any kind of incident.

Data breaches and security incidents are tense, high-pressure situations where every second counts. In that scenario, having a clear and detailed incident response plan ready can mean the difference between success and failure.

In an environment where one hour of downtime can cost more than $100,000 — and sometimes much more than that — fast, confident decision-making can make or break the entire process. Having a strong incident response plan helps ensure your team is ready to mitigate risks, neutralize threats, and restore normal operations quickly.

But planning ahead for every possible contingency isn’t feasible. Cybercriminals can be incredibly creative, and even the best security practitioners can be caught by surprise.

Having a comprehensive and well-documented incident response plan helps keep security teams prepared for unexpected scenarios and additional complications. With some foresight and planning, your incident response plan can accommodate these factors and significantly reduce overall risk exposure.

Take these steps to improve your incident response plan

Well-detailed incident response plans are crucial to operational security excellence. They provide guidance and documentation that allows security teams to communicate better and avoid inefficiencies during critical, time-sensitive security scenarios.

Here are some of the things you can do to improve your incident response capabilities:

  • Define and categorize different security incidents
  • Make sure everyone has a well-identified role
  • Don’t forget about external stakeholders
  • Test your incident response playbooks frequently
  • Gather data and conduct after-action reports

1.   Define and categorize different security incidents

The first thing that distinguishes a documented incident response plan from an ad-hoc series of suggestions is the incident itself. There are many different kinds of cybersecurity incidents, and they don’t all have the same risk profile.

MITRE ATT&CK has 14 different threat categories, with more than 140 individual subcategories in total. Any single cyberattack could use multiple categories and subcategories simultaneously.

That doesn’t mean you need to create an extensively documented playbook for every single MITRE ATT&CK subcategory, but you should have an extensive, well-documented process for distinguishing between different attack types and their severity.

To accurately gauge the severity of an attack type, you need to know your organization’s security risk profile. Conducting vulnerability assessments and identifying security gaps can help you pinpoint which types of incidents need the highest priority.

2.   Make sure everyone has a well-identified role

Security incidents don’t happen in isolation. They can impact many different parts of the organization — often at the same time. A successful response requires coordinated action from security practitioners, IT team members, and non-technical employees alike.

It might take a serious internal communications campaign to convince users and employees that security incidents aren’t just a problem for the security team. In a modern enterprise environment, every position is a cybersecurity position, and everyone has a role to play responding to data breaches and other events.

Here are some examples of the typical roles non-security team members can play in a cyberattack scenario:

  • Human resources can assist with investigations into insider threats and provide context into employee data that might be compromised.
  • The legal team can assist with regulatory frameworks that guide business operations, like PCI-DSS or GDPR. They may need to arrange communication with regulatory and law enforcement agencies, as well.
  • Media/communications team members can help the organization communicate with external stakeholders and the media, guiding the conversation between each interested party.
  • Information security leadership has to provide strategic direction towards operational recovery. Leaders also play an important role keeping different business units focused on prioritizing high-impact objectives.
  • Executives and board members can only engage in effective risk management when they understand ongoing response efforts. They can also improve outcomes by approving budget expansions or hiring external vendors to assist.

3.   Don’t forget about external stakeholders

Many organizations make the mistake of leaving key stakeholders out of the loop while responding to security incidents. Often, they have to do this because gathering accurate data on the incident takes time.

However, external stakeholders don’t always understand or accept the fact that they have to wait. Your cybersecurity incident may attract the attention of law enforcement, regulatory agencies, third-party service providers, and even the media. If you can’t tell them what’s happening, they’re likely to make their own assumptions.

Your incident response plan should include a designated spokesperson for each impacted department or business unit. These individuals would be responsible for communicating incident response progress to external stakeholders.

For example, you may appoint an IT administrator to handle communications with external vendors because they probably already have a direct relationship with your vendors. The same person would probably not be the best choice for keeping regulators or the media up-to-date.

4.   Test your incident response playbooks frequently

It’s surprisingly common for organizations to invest in creating incident response plans and then neglect to test them. According to a 2022 Wall Street Journal research survey, nearly three-fourths of respondents reported having an incident response management strategy in place, but only one in four tested their plan at least twice a year.

Even if your incident response plan is operationally perfect right now, your organization is constantly changing. New hires, new systems, and new business units can lead to significant changes in your incident response capabilities.

Managing those changes effectively requires testing your plan against a wide variety of attack types and scenarios. There are many ways to do this, from simple tabletop exercises to penetration testing and full simulated attack drills.

Your incident response playbook is more than a checkbox to be filled on a compliance report. It is a core element of your cybersecurity posture with a deep impact on your overall risk management profile.

5.   Gather data and conduct after-action reports

Your incident response team must carefully detail every action they took from the moment they first noticed an unusual security event. If the team jumps right into containment and control actions, you’ll end up having to piece together their actions manually later on. This can be time-consuming and expensive.

If your incident response plan includes policies for documenting security incidents and retaining log data effectively, you can easily create in-depth reports on how your team handled the incident. This will tell you who responded, what actions they took, and how that impacted the ultimate outcome.

Regulators, insurers, and law enforcement may want these data for themselves. However, they also provide significant value to your team. Use these insights to identify what went wrong, what went right, and what opportunities to improve operational security you have in front of you.

It’s no coincidence that both the NIST and SANS incident response frameworks stipulate a final post-incident report phase. Don’t neglect this opportunity to improve your security posture against the next incident.

By Elliot Anderson
5 Most Overlooked Elements of Incident Response Plans

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