Introduction: What is an Incident Response Program?

An incident response program ensures that when a security breach happens, the right tools, procedures, and personnel are on-hand to deal with the threat effectively. Building an incident response plan helps minimize cyberattacks' impact and facilitates quicker business continuity.

Considering how often cybersecurity attacks occur – every 44 seconds – you must be well-prepared for a timely response. Or the impacts could be damaging and far-reaching.

Cyber-attacks can expose sensitive business assets and confidential customer data. This leads to a loss of credibility and customer trust. As such, a Cybersecurity Incident Response Plan (CSIRP) provides a structured process to detect, investigate, and handle various security incidents, data breaches, and cyber threats.

This is why the role of an incident handler when building a cybersecurity team (link to page) cannot be overemphasized. Cybrary offers the fundamentals of incident handling with a roadmap to becoming an Incident Handler in record time.

The free courses will help you identify and contain threats, including practical examples that make you job ready.

The Importance of an Incident Response Plan

Time is of the essence during cyber incidents. Without an incident response plan, dealing with an attack becomes a disorganized and catastrophic event that could cause lasting damage.

In most cases, it’s impossible to make sound decision-making in the heat of the moment. Building an incident response plan allows organizations to make many critical and strategic decisions ahead of time.

Instead of making plans in the high-stress environment of a breach, they can carefully consider their options in the calm before the storm.

Here are some reasons why every business and cybersecurity team must have an incident response program in place:

  1. Reduces Costs: IBM and Ponemon Institute’s 2022 Cost of Data Breach Report found that organizations with a tested incident response plan saved an average of $2.66 million more than companies without.
  2. Protects Company Reputation: Being able to respond quickly and effectively to threat demonstrates your brand’s commitment to security and privacy. This will save your company’s reputation and maintain credibility.
  3. Safeguards Consumer Data: Not being proactive about security incidents can lead to loss of business.
  4. Loss in Investor/Shareholder Confidence: Without the right incident handling procedures, you risk losing the confidence of shareholders and investors.
  5. Data Protection: An effective incident response plan protects data, secures backups, and ensures adequate identity and access management.
  6. For Documentation and Accountability: The right plan with well-detailed documentation reduces your company's liability. It allows you to show compliance auditors and regulatory bodies what your company did to prevent and respond to the breach.

How to Build an Incident Response Program

There are several stages in a robust incident response plan, such as preparation, detection and analysis, containment, eradication, and complete recovery. Thankfully, your organization doesn’t have to build an incident response program alone.

For example, the National Institute of Standards (NIST) incident response guide is widely regarded as a trusted source for planning a thorough response.

If you want to build a CSIRP, here are the incident response steps to consider:

1. Preparation

This is the first stage, establishing the architecture and components of every incident response process. Here are some critical tasks in the preparation stage:

Policy Creation

This fundamental document is the foundation for all incident-handling activities and empowers incident handlers to make critical decisions. Cybersecurity policies and procedures (link to article) must outline standards such as social media usage on company devices, access controls, password requirements, encryption, etc.

In addition, the policy should delegate primary responsibility and authority for incident management to a senior leader. This could be the Incident Manager or Incident Handler. Policy language should be high-level and provide a robust guide for incident response.

Develop a Triage Matrix for Your Response Strategy

The response strategy should provide structured processes that prioritize risks according to severity and impact. A triage matrix helps you perform a risk assessment, compare them to organizational risk appetite, and identify the severity of incidents so they can be prioritized quickly.

Your triage matrix should be divided into the likelihood of an event happening and the consequences. The possibility will be from rare to almost certain, while consequences are from insignificant to critical or severe.

Organizations working with third parties must also use vendor tiering. This is a hierarchical risk assessment that helps you concentrate response efforts on vendors with the most critical potential impact on your company's security.

Set up a Communication Strategy

Incident response plans require active communication among various groups within the organization, external stakeholders, law enforcement, affected parties, and senior management.
The incident response communication strategy should specify how these groups collaborate during an active incident. And what information will be shared with internal and external responders.

Provide a Cyber Incident Documenting System

During the preparation phase, companies must establish a documenting system or an Incident Handler Journal.

The document must outline who responded to the incident, what it affected, where it happened, why the action was taken, and how it helped. Documentation will also help solve future incidents with similar patterns quicker.

Establish Incident Response Tools

Every organization must have the right tools to respond to incidents. This must be established in the first phase, and employees without the right experience should be trained.

The choice of tools will depend on the organization, but tools must cover the following:

  • Netflow and traffic analysis
  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM)
  • Vulnerability Management
  • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR)
  • Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR)
  • Firewall, Intrusion Prevention, and Distributed Denial of Service (DoS) Mitigation
  • Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR), etc.


Cybersecurity teams must be familiar with current and emerging cyber-attacks. A real incident shouldn’t be the first time your team experiences it – they must have undergone a series of practical incident response training. This will help them prepare adequately for real-life scenarios.

Cybrary provides cybersecurity training to 96% of the Fortune 1000 companies, including incident management and response. Through a range of online hands-on and real-world cybersecurity training resources, Cybrary ensures continuous learning for employees without neglecting their day-to-day activities.

2. Detection and Analysis

This is the next phase of building a CSRIP. Detection involves gathering data from IT systems, publicly available information, security tools, and internal and external resources. It also involves identifying suspicious patterns that an attack may happen and indicators that an attack is happening now or has happened.

On the other hand, the analysis involves identifying a baseline for the affected assets that concern the incident and determining whether they are different from the normal behavior. Teams will analyze log files, intrusion detection systems, error messages, and firewalls.

During this phase, the team decides whether to activate the incident response plan or not. And when unusual patterns are detected, the relevant procedures will be activated.

3. Containment, Eradication, and Recovery

The objective of containment is to stop the cyber-attack and prevent further damage to assets and resources. Containment is primarily divided into:

Short-term: This involves isolating the attack to prevent more damage to networks and servers, even if it affects business operations. While there might be a more comprehensive strategy, there is usually not the luxury of time to understand the threat and deploy a response strategy.

So, this helps you contain the threat before activating your plan. For example, you can pull down the infected production servers or isolate network segments.

Long-term: This is a more decisive containment strategy to replace the quick fix. This involves disaster recovery and restoring business continuity by repairing affected systems. For example, you could install security patches or reroute network traffic to clean backup systems.

While containing the attack, identifying the attacker and validating its IP address is a good idea. Not only does it help you block communication, but it helps to eradicate and remove the threat.

4. Post-Incident Activity

It’s important to learn from threats to prevent future occurrences. This is why it’s necessary to document processes to guide you whenever similar cases happen. The documentation must state the full incident response sequence from the moment it was detected to how it was handled, who did it, and business continuity procedures.

As a rule of thumb, the document must be easy to understand for the public and stakeholders. A meeting should also be scheduled between stakeholders and teams to discuss the event.

The post-incident activity also involves investigating insider threats and how the company can improve its security posture to prevent further attacks. This will also help to adjust CSIRPs and help you add more data into the preparation stage.

Real-Life Incident Response Plan Examples

Building an incident response plan could be easier when you draw from real-life examples. Here are some to get you started:

  1. The United States Department of Homeland Security: The US Homeland Security’s CSIRP outlines roles, responsibilities, incident response capabilities, etc.
  2. University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center: The OUHSC Cybersecurity Incident Response Plan is similar to Homeland Security. It also details workflows and phases.
  3. NASA: This is NASA’s information security incident response and management handbook. It covers roles and responsibilities, preparation, identification, and containment procedures.
  4. University of Buffalo: The University of Buffalo CSIRP covers contact information, incident classification, and reporting procedures.
  5. Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon's Information Security office details its plan here.

Building an incident response program is critical to your organization's security posture. It helps you minimize the impact of an attack, recover, and continue business operations quickly.

Cybersecurity is a constantly evolving industry, and there are new threats daily. It's essential to train your cybersecurity teams to stay ahead of cybercriminals continuously.

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