Cybersecurity Incident Response – What It Is and Why It Matters

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What is incident response within cyber security (CSIRT)

Incident Response in a Nutshell

Within cybersecurity, incident response (IR) is the process of handling and mitigating cyber attacks or security breaches. Above all, it involves identifying, analyzing, and responding to incidents to prevent future threats and minimize damage.

Why Is Incident Response Important for Organizations?

Effective incident response is crucial for organizations to quickly recover from cyber attacks and maintain trust with their customers. 

Keep in mind that even a short disruption can have devastating consequences, not just for IT operations but for the whole business.

In many cases, downtime can result in substantial financial losses. That’s especially true for companies operating with thin margins or in a highly competitive environment.

What Are the Most Severe Risks When Hit by a Cyber Attack?

Let’s look at some of the main challenges for victims of cyber attacks:

  • Business Disruption – The immediate aftermath of a cyber attack often causes significant operational disruption. For example, critical systems may become unavailable, affecting production, sales, customer service, and other essential functions. This can lead to a breach of agreements or regulations. That’s no longer just an IT problem; it’s a business problem, and CEOs often have to get involved.
  • Data Breach and Loss of Confidential Information – One of the primary concerns after an attack is the compromise of sensitive data. This can range from the personal data of customers (leading to potential GDPR violations) to proprietary business information and intellectual property. Breached data can be sold on the dark web or used in other malicious ways. This opens the possibility of a loss of trust, regulatory penalties, loss of competitive advantage, and potential lawsuits.
  • Reputation Damage – The longer-term impact on a company’s reputation can often exceed the immediate financial impact of a cyber attack. Customers, partners, employees, and stakeholders may lose trust in an organization that has been compromised. The impact can be a decline in sales, loss of personnel, partnership opportunities, or stock price. In the end, restoring this trust can take a considerable amount of time and resources.

Getting hit by a ransomware attack can put a total stop to your business. In many ways, it feels like someone pulled the hand brake on the highway.

Why Do Organizations Need To Analyze and Document Incidents?

Incident response (CSIRT)  and digital forensics in action (DFIR)

Software is indeed “eating the world,” which highlights the importance of digital forensics. With the growing frequency and sophistication of cyber attacks, organizations must have the capability to investigate and analyze, as well as counteract digital attackers.

Digital forensics and incident response (DFIR) enables organizations to identify the root cause of an incident and gather crucial evidence. This becomes useful for potential legal proceedings and law enforcement collaborations.

In practice, it means analyzing and documenting incidents, which is now crucial to understanding attack vectors, enhancing security measures, and preparing for future threats.

As the world gets more connected, cloud-native and AI-powered digital detectives are taking a central role.

How Can Incident Response Improve Security Posture?

Fix the roof when the sun is shining, as the saying goes. Don’t wait until your organization is crippled by a ransomware attack before planning your response. It would generally be a bad idea to begin rebuilding the foundation at that point in time. The primary goal is to achieve functional operations for the organization in the least amount of time – without opening up for new attacks. 

When a breach happens, panic typically settles in, and emotions run high. That’s why being prepared to respond to incidents is integral to ensuring a solid security posture. It’s also its own focus area in the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. It’s addressed in depth in NIST Special Publication 800-61 Rev. 2.

By being prepared, the organization can manage the situation in a structured and efficient way. This leads to shortened downtime and a rapid recovery with minimal operational impact.

The Typical Phases in the Incident Response Lifecycle

The incident response life cycle is a crucial process that organizations follow to effectively handle and mitigate security incidents. In short, it consists of the following key stages, according to the SANS Institute:

  1. Preparation/Planning – This stage involves establishing comprehensive protocols and tools for incident management. It includes developing an incident response plan, assigning roles and responsibilities, and setting up communication channels.
  2. Detection and Analysis – Secondly, organizations focus on identifying and assessing the nature of the incident. This includes monitoring security logs, conducting forensic analysis, and performing threat intelligence to determine the scope and severity of the incident.
  3. Containment and Eradication – Once an incident is detected and analyzed, the next step is to contain the impact and remove the threats. This involves isolating affected systems, patching vulnerabilities, and removing malware or unauthorized access points.
  4. Recovery – After containing the incident, the recovery stage aims to restore systems and operations to their normal state. This may involve restoring data from backups, rebuilding compromised systems, and implementing additional security measures.
  5. Post-Incident Activity (Lessons Learned) – The final stage involves analyzing the incident to learn from it and make improvements. This includes conducting a post-incident review, documenting lessons learned, and updating incident response procedures to enhance future incident handling.
Image of AI generated expert doing incident response and stopping cyber breaches (CSIRT)

Communication and Coordination During an Incident

One of the key challenges during incident cases is to keep everyone informed, not to mention working toward the same goal in a structured way.

The incident response team that handles the technical incident must communicate and collaborate with the crisis management team. The crisis team handles the consequences of the technical incident.

Transparent communication helps maintain trust and minimize reputational damage.

The crisis management team must ensure clear and structured communication. They’re also responsible for decision making with all stakeholders, internal as well as external.

Tackling a severe incident head-on is truly a team effort. And when it comes to the incident response team, structured communication and coordination among all teams are crucial. This is essential to minimize the overall impact of the incident. At the end of the day, strong teamwork comes from open communication and effective information sharing. And, of course, the right issue identification and prompt resolution.

Crisis and communications management during an incident is key

However, the impact of a cyber attack is often felt broadly across the business. This means other internal stakeholders, as well as external ones, need to be regularly informed. That’s why crisis management and crisis communication are vital for successful incident response.

In practice, the list of stakeholders can be long. But typically, it includes decision makers, employees, customers, partners, regulators, and the media.

How To Develop an Incident Response Plan

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst – the IT world is no exception. Therefore, regular incident response drills and analyses are vital to enhance an organization’s ability to detect and mitigate attacks.

An incident response plan, also known as an IRP, is a crucial set of documentation. In brief, it outlines the procedures to detect, respond to, and recover from cyber incidents.

If done correctly, it serves as a detailed and authoritative map. It should guide responders through the entire incident response process, from initial detection and assessment to containment and resolution.

DFIR Incident Debriefing Session at Truesec

However, an IRP is not a silver bullet. It needs to be accompanied by crisis management plans, disaster recovery plans, and business continuity plans as well. They’re all essential to ensure that an organization copes with a cyber incident.

Incident Response Plan Inclusions

  • Identifies what qualifies as actionable security incidents and how to respond.
  • Responsibilities and mandates of different teams in the event of a security incident and how to contact them.
  • Circumstances under which specific tasks should be performed.
  • A playbook with specific steps and procedures for completing tasks.
  • Identifies what constitutes the goal and end of an incident.

Having an IRP is essential for organizations to meet regulatory requirements such as NIS2. It demonstrates a commitment to cybersecurity best practices and mitigates risks. It helps organizations maintain compliance with industry standards and regulations, protect their reputation, and build trust with customers and stakeholders.

A common mistake when creating an IRP is being too detailed; overly detailed plans rarely survive contact with the real world.

Of course, exercises and templates can provide a structured approach to developing an IRP and will ensure that all critical aspects of incident response are covered and standardized.

A high-level plan is more often adaptable to any situation and surrounding variables. In short, try to keep it as simple as possible without any unnecessary technical details.

Creating an Effective Cybersecurity Incident Response Team (CSIRT)

A dedicated IR team is responsible for managing and executing the incident response plan (IRP). They’re the unit equipped with the necessary skills and tools to handle cybersecurity incidents effectively.

Putting together an effective incident response team involves selecting individuals with diverse expertise in cybersecurity. And let’s not forget forensics, infrastructure, legal, crisis, and communication skills.

Technical Experts

  • Cybersecurity Experts – These professionals should have certifications such as CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) or CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor). They should also have deep experience in identifying, analyzing, and mitigating various types of cyber threats.
  • Forensics Specialists – These individuals should have knowledge and experience in digital forensics, including collecting, preserving, and analyzing digital evidence. Certifications such as EnCE (EnCase Certified Examiner) are desirable.
  • Infrastructure Experts – All IT consists of infrastructure. It does not matter if it is on-premise or in the cloud. Having expertise in the applicable technical stack is of outmost importance to be able to handle any kind of incidents. These individuals must understand the technical landscape as good as the technology vendor’s engineers so that they can troubleshoot even the most complex issues and find smart work arounds to “impossible” problems.
  • Incident Managers – These professionals should have experience in managing and coordinating incident response efforts. They’ll be responsible for overseeing the entire incident response process, ensuring that all necessary steps are taken and that the incident is resolved efficiently. Certifications such as GCIH (GIAC Certified Incident Handler) or CISM (Certified Information Security Manager) are beneficial.

Non-Technical Experts

  • Legal Experts – Having professionals with legal expertise, including knowledge of cyber laws and regulations, is crucial. They should be able to navigate legal obligations, liaise with international lawyers and authorities, and minimize legal risks. Experience in law enforcement or working with law enforcement agencies is beneficial.
  • Communication Specialists – These individuals should have strong communication and crisis management skills. They’ll be responsible for guiding internal and external communications during cyber incidents. They ensure timely, transparent, and effective communication with stakeholders. Experience in public relations or crisis management is valuable.
  • Crisis Managers – Knowing and understanding how to prioritize and lead when things are at their worst is this role’s signum. These individuals become a support to the organization’s management. They continually enhance their experience and knowledge by guiding hundreds of organizations through severe breaches. They ensure that the crisis management team’s focus stays on the incident’s consequences. They don’t stray into the problem itself, which is the incident response team’s responsibility. The focus here is always to ensure the endurance and continuity of the business and all its stakeholders.
Be prepared for an cybersecurity incident

Legal and Compliance Aspects

Adhering to legal and compliance requirements, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is an essential part of incident response. By following these regulations, organizations can ensure they’re not only protecting sensitive data but also avoiding potential legal consequences. 

In addition, maintaining regulatory compliance demonstrates a commitment to upholding privacy rights and safeguarding personal information. Therefore, it’s essential for organizations to prioritize and allocate resources toward implementing robust incident response practices. These must align with legal and compliance requirements. 

As the threat from cybercrime keeps escalating, lawmakers worldwide are implementing more and more laws involving cybersecurity. Currently, Europe is speeding up its efforts in this regard and leading the way in many aspects. Both the NIS2 directive and DORA are good examples. Understanding applicable laws and how these affect an incident is more and more crucial for incident response teams. 

Handling Common Cybersecurity Incidents

Cyber attacks are on track to cause $10.5 trillion a year in damage by 2025. McKinsey

Direct Attacks

  • Ransomware – Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts a victim’s files or locks their computer, then demands a ransom payment in exchange for restoring access. To successfully resolve a ransomware incident, it’s important to implement robust backup and recovery plans.
  • Business Email Compromise (BEC) – BEC is when an attacker successfully achieves control of a digital identity and can send email from this account. The most common goal for such attacks is to enable different kinds of fraud (such as fraudulent invoices) or to steal information from the organization. To protect from these attacks, strong authentication measures and identity monitoring are key security controls. Another good security control is to ensure that the financial department has routines in place to ensure authenticity. In particular, relating to claims of identity on financial transactions (beyond just email!)
  • Phishing – Phishing is a cyber attack where attackers impersonate legitimate entities (such as banks or companies) to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information or downloading malicious attachments. Training staff to recognize and report phishing attempts is not enough to avoid such attacks. It’s critical to implement email filtering and security measures, as well as establish incident response procedures to handle suspected phishing incidents.

Indirect and Network Attacks

  • DDoS Attacks – Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks involve overwhelming a target’s network or website with a flood of traffic, making it inaccessible to legitimate users. To successfully resolve a DDoS incident, organizations should implement DDoS mitigation tools and techniques, such as deploying network traffic monitoring and filtering solutions and utilizing load balancing and content delivery networks (CDNs) to distribute traffic. It’s also important to work with different service providers to identify and block malicious traffic sources.
  • Supply Chain Attacks – Supply chain attacks are increasing. They typically involve compromising a third-party supplier or vendor to gain unauthorized access to a target organization’s systems or data. The impact of a supply chain attack can be significant, potentially leading to data breaches, the compromise of intellectual property, and the disruption of operations. To successfully resolve a supply chain incident, organizations should regularly assess and secure their supply chain network.
Stopping threats and minimising the impact of cyber breaches

Data theft is presumably the most undetected of all cyber attacks against an organization. When data theft is the end game and not just part of a larger attack, such as in the case of ransomware, it’s usually carried out by a highly sophisticated threat actor or by an insider with malicious intent.

These can also be carried out by nation-state actors, in which case we usually refer to these attacks as cyber espionage, and they’re rarely uncovered. A holistic approach is the only viable defense against such scenarios.

Incident Response Technologies

No single tool can fully address all aspects of incident response. Instead, a combination of tools and technologies is required. They assist incident response teams in analyzing, containing, eradicating, and recovering from incidents. 

Many organizations already have a range of cybersecurity tools and processes in place. A key to successful incident response is to utilize those pre-existing tools. This shortens mitigation time and speeds up the recovery process.

Tools and technology matters in incident response

Basically, these tools and processes can be categorized based on their prevention, detection, and response capabilities.

  • Antimalware software
  • Backup and recovery tools
  • Distributed denial of service (DDoS) mitigation systems
  • Endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions (such as Microsoft Defender for Endpoint and Crowdstrike)
  • Forensic analysis tools
  • Intrusion prevention and detection systems and firewalls
  • Security information and event management (SIEM) and security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) solutions

Post-Incident Activities

Following up on observations from an incident after the dust has settled is crucial to ensure that the organization learns from the experience.

This can be done by an after action review (AAR) with the incident response team. This involves the affected parts of the organization and stakeholders. There’s usually a list of findings that needs to be managed to ensure that the IT environment becomes more resilient.

It can be a challenge after an incident to find the time to adhere to these activities, but it’s truly an investment that, if not acted upon, goes to waste. 

Emerging Trends and Future Preparedness

In order to stay ahead in the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity, it’s crucial to continuously adapt to emerging trends. One such trend that requires attention is the rise of AI-driven threats.

These sophisticated attacks leverage artificial intelligence to exploit vulnerabilities in systems and networks. To effectively combat these threats, it’s essential to update response strategies accordingly. By doing so, organizations can ensure they remain well-prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.

Stay prepared even for sophisticated cyber attacks

No matter what the future holds in terms of cyber attacks, we can be certain that attacks are getting better and faster. As our businesses are becoming more and more digital by the day, the consequences of these attacks become increasingly critical.

It is a matter of survival to ensure the digital protection of our assets. And when the protection fails, we need to be able to respond efficiently. 

Careers in Digital Forensics and Incident Response

Careers in digital forensics and incident response offer exciting opportunities for people who are passionate about cybersecurity and who want to continuously challenge themselves. 

These roles involve being at the forefront of investigating cyber incidents, analyzing digital evidence, and developing strategies to prevent future attacks. Furthermore, this is a good way to futureproof one’s career due to the growing gap in finding cybersecurity professionals.

Incident Responders at work

As usual in IT, there is no one-size-fits-all path to enter such roles. However, to excel in these careers, one can pursue specialized training programs. These cover areas such as digital forensics, incident response methodologies, and legal aspects of cybersecurity.

In-House Versus Outsourced Incident Response

In summary, incident response is a critical aspect of cybersecurity, involving preparedness, detection, reaction, and recovery from cyber incidents. Building such a capability in-house requires staff, tools, and budget.

Also, it’s important to consider the threat’s nature and complexity. In certain situations, in-house may be best. But for serious threats or multiple locations, outsourcing may be better.

Service providers offer incident response services on a retainer or emergency basis, including:

  • Emergency Incident Response
  • Standby Incident Response
  • OT Incident Response
  • Training and Awareness
  • Post-Incident Services

By outsourcing incident response to a trusted service provider, organizations can benefit from the expertise, experience, and comprehensive services offered while maintaining focus on their core business operations.

It’s also a fact that the more you do something, the better you get at it. Having an incident response provider with a dedicated unit that does nothing but incident response ensures a level of experience that’s hard to achieve with only an in-house team. 

FAQ

Who has overall responsibility for managing the on-scene incident?

The incident response team lead, or incident manager, typically has this responsibility.

What is incident response in cybersecurity?

 It’s the process of managing and mitigating cyber incidents to minimize damage.

What are digital forensics and incident response?

Digital forensics involves analyzing digital evidence from cyber incidents, while incident response focuses on managing and mitigating these incidents.

What does an incident response team do?

They manage and execute the IRP, handling all aspects of a cyber incident.

Who handles incident response?

A dedicated incident response team, often with specialized roles and responsibilities.

What is incident response in a SOC?

In a Security Operations Center (SOC), incident response involves detecting, analyzing, and responding to cybersecurity incidents within the organization. When threats are beyond containment, a dedicated incident response team consisting of senior experts is typically called in (CSIRT).

What are the six incident response steps?

1. Preparation
2. Identification
3. Containment
4. Eradication
5. Recovery
6. Lessons Learned