Introduction: What Is the Cybersecurity Incident Response Role?
The cybersecurity incident response role is critical in the modern business world because – quite frankly – there's too much to lose. Whether it’s a simple malware infection or a database exposure, the short- and long-term damages of cybersecurity incidents are catastrophic.
That's why businesses must have the right measures in place to identify and respond to threats decisively. This could be through an incident response plan spearheaded by an incident responder or incident response team.
Incident response (IR) involves detecting, analyzing, and responding to security events that affect an organization’s network environment. Against this backdrop, an incident responder protects organizational security by preventing and mitigating cyber threats.
The incident response role covers system monitoring, testing, assessment, and analysis to investigate and clean up potential security breaches.
According to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), incident response personnel can also be called Incident Handlers or Incident Response Analysts.
If you love cybersecurity and enjoy the thrills and technical challenges, becoming an Incident Handler may be your career path! The increased number of cyber-attacks means these professionals are needed more than ever in today’s businesses.
You can learn the concepts of incident response, handling, and management through Cybrary’s accessible and affordable platform.
The Importance of the Cybersecurity Incident Response Role
When an incident is not contained quickly and appropriately, it may escalate and have lasting impacts on a business’s operation. This makes the cybersecurity incident response role critical.
An incident responder ensures immediate response to incidents to help mitigate exploited vulnerabilities, minimize losses, restore services, and reduce the risks of future incidents.
Although organizations cannot eradicate security incidents completely, a qualified incident responder ensures adequate preparation for known and unknown threats. It allows an organization to establish best practices to prevent an intrusion attempt.
Incident response is essential to running a business because most companies rely on sensitive data that would be devastating if compromised.
The implications of a successful data breach can range from financial losses, reputational damage, and loss of customer and investor trust, among many others. All of these could become detrimental to business continuity.
Lastly, incident responders allow companies to comply with regulatory requirements. Without one, a company risks fines.
Roles and Responsibilities of an Incident Responder
An incident responder protects a company's network from cyber threats by addressing network security problems and using forensics to find root causes.
According to the NIST's National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Cybersecurity Workforce Framework (NIST Special Publication 800-181), an incident responder may be called upon to perform the following tasks during the day:
- Assess incidents for scope, urgency, and potential impact, and plan remediation tasks.
- Conduct digital forensic collections, threat analysis, and intrusion correlation as incidents unfold to help combat attacks as quickly as possible.
- Analyze logs from various systems (individual hosts, network traffic, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems) to identify and mitigate potential network security threats.
- Use incident data to identify vulnerabilities and recommend immediate remediation.
- Provide continuous analysis of potential incidents and educate stakeholders and users on what to do during an incident.
- Can function as a legal liaison to law enforcement to explain incident details and the efforts that are taken.
- Analyze, investigate, and report cyberdefense trends.
- Write and publish after-action reviews.
The roles and responsibilities of an incident responder may vary depending on the organization, but understanding the job duties at a high level is beneficial. Incident responders may also need the help of other internal or external professionals to respond to certain incidents.
This is why some organizations may set up an incident response team that is comprised of many different roles.
Let’s look at some of those incident response roles.
Other Critical Roles in a Cybersecurity Incident Response Team
In most organizations, incident response is the job of a group of cybersecurity professionals – not just one responder. As such, the team will have different roles with a common objective to protect and defend the organization's security posture.
Here are some critical roles in an incident response team:
1. Incident Manager
The incident manager has the authority and responsibility of the team before, during, and after an incident. They are in charge of all aspects of the incident response effort, including developing policies, identifying threats, responding, and remediating tactics to prevent future occurrences.
Therefore, the incident manager or commander is responsible for all IR roles until they delegate them to someone else on the team.
2. Technical Lead
Also called the Subject-Matter Expert or On-Call Engineer, the Tech lead is the expert on malfunctioning services. They develop theories on what’s wrong, why, and how it can be fixed.
Tech Leads are usually senior-level employees familiar with the organization’s entire network and can make recommendations to the incident manager.
3. Communications Manager
This public relations expert writes and sends internal and external communications about an incident. They also update the status page.
4. Problem Manager
The problem manager finds the root cause of an incident and fixes it so it doesn't happen in the future.
The Scribe documents and records crucial information about an incident and the response effort. This plays a vital role in regulatory compliance and helps future IR efforts against similar threats.
6. Customer Support Liaison
Also called the Customer Support Agent or Help Desk Lead, this cybersecurity professional handles all incoming support tickets, phone calls, and tweets about the incident. They ensure these requests get a timely and appropriate response.
7. Legal Liaison
Your legal liaison provides legal advice, which is especially important in security breaches or data loss. They deal with issues such as compliance, conversations with law enforcement, legal representation, forensic evidence integrity standards, and even the legalities of the response process and communications.
Not every organization will fill all roles. For most small to medium-scale enterprises, the incident manager and tech lead are the most important incident response roles.
Skills Needed in a Cybersecurity Incident Response Role
Regardless of the job title, specific skills are needed to be successful in any incident response role. Below are some skills you’ll need to function effectively as an incident responder or handler:
1. Network Traffic Analysis
Network traffic analysis (NTA) is a technique for monitoring network availability and activity to detect anomalies such as security and operational problems. Most of the security incidents you’ll respond to are from the network. This makes it important to be able to analyze its traffic.
You must identify traffic anomalies and determine whether they indicate an actual threat or are evidence of a computer security incident. This will require using Intrusion Detection (ID) and Intrusion Prevention (IP) systems and technologies.
2. Malware Analysis and Reverse Engineering
In an incident response role, professionals must understand how malware works and how to combat the latest malware attacks. Many IR teams use reverse engineering to study malware activity and neutralize it.
3. Ethical Hacking and Pen Testing Techniques for Threat Monitoring
Although an Ethical Hacker or a Pen Tester is a standalone role when building a cybersecurity team (link to article), the skills and techniques are part of a comprehensive incident response approach.
Ethical hacking and Penetration Testing involve looking for loopholes in an organization’s security posture before they’re exploited. Hence, incident responders need to understand the concepts of testing and vulnerability assessments. This will help during continuous threat monitoring.
4. Information Technology (IT) and Information Security (InfoSec)
As an Incident Handler, you'll need a thorough understanding of system administration, networking, internet-based application security, and operating systems, including Linux, UNIX, and Windows. You’ll also need to operate system servers and identity management systems.
5. Digital Forensics
Although some organizations hire or contract forensic experts, incident responders will benefit significantly from the ability to find artifacts, pinpoint intruder strategies, and determine the root causes of an incident.
Familiarity with forensics software like XRY, EnCase, Helix, and FTK is essential.
6. High-Level Proficiency in Programming Languages
A profound fluency in programming languages like C, C++, ASM, Java, PHP, and PERL is critical for any incident response role. While you may not be called to create software, you’ll need to read long lines of code to determine where a security breach may have occurred.
7. Strong Communication and Collaboration Skills
Incident managers must be able to communicate highly technical elements of their roles to stakeholders and business leaders. There must also be strong teamwork and collaboration between incident responders and other cybersecurity team members, especially during cyber-attacks.
8. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
Incident response requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and attention to detail. As you'll handle sensitive data and deal with cyber-criminals, it's important to find novel ways of dealing with threats.
As companies continue to face cyber-attacks, the cybersecurity incident response role has become more critical than ever. The career outlook and salary estimate for incident responders are promising.
Incident responders earn between 70,000 USD to 120,000 USD or more, depending on location, company, experience, and qualifications. There is currently a skills shortage, meaning an incident response career is an excellent idea.
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