What’s the best way to avoid a cyber attack turning into a full breach? Prepare in advance.

After experiencing a breach, organizations often realize they could have avoided a lot of cost, pain, and disruption if they’d had an effective incident response plan in place.

This guide will show you how to respond to a cyber security incident and give you the best chance at thwarting an adversary.

10 Steps for an Effective Cyber Security Incident Response Plan

1. Decide Who Should Be Involved

Properly planning for a potential incident is not the sole responsibility of your security team. In fact, an incident will likely impact almost every department in your organization, especially if it turns into a full-scale breach. To properly coordinate a response, you must first determine who should be involved. This often includes representation from senior management, security, IT, legal, and public relations.

Those who need to be involved in your organization’s planning exercises should be determined in advance. Additionally, establish a method of communication to ensure a quick response. Take into account the possibility that your normal channels of communication (e.g., corporate email) may be impacted by an incident.

2. Pinpoint Important Assets

Your organization first needs to identify its highest priority assets. Mapping out your highest priority assets will not only help you determine your protection strategy but will make it much easier to determine the scope and impact of an attack.

By identifying these in advance, your incident response team will be able to focus on the most critical assets during an attack, minimizing disruption to the business.

3. Execute Practice Cyber Security Incidents

Incident response is like many other disciplines—practice makes perfect. While it is difficult to fully replicate the intense pressure your team will experience during a potential breach, practice exercises ensure a more tightly coordinated and effective response when a real situation occurs. It is important to run not only technical tabletop exercises, but also broader exercises that include the various business stakeholders previously identified.

Tabletop exercises should test your organizational responses to a variety of potential incident response scenarios. Each of these scenarios might also include stakeholders beyond the immediate technical team.

Common incident response scenarios include:

  • Active adversary detected within your network: In these scenarios, the response team must determine how an attacker was able to infiltrate your environment, what tools and techniques they used, what was targeted, and if they have established persistence. This information will help determine the proper course of action. While it might seem obvious that you would immediately eject the attacker from the environment, some security teams choose to wait and observe them to gain important intelligence. This helps the team determine what the attacker is trying to achieve and what methods they are using to achieve it.
  • Successful data breach: If a successful data breach is detected, your team should determine what was exfiltrated and how. This will inform the proper response, including the potential need to consider the impact on compliance and regulatory policies, if customers need to be contacted, and potential legal or law enforcement involvement.
  • Successful ransomware attack: If critical data and systems are encrypted, your team should follow a plan to recover such losses as quickly as possible. Include a process to restore systems from backups. To ensure the attack won’t be repeated as soon as you’re back online, the team should investigate if the adversary’s access has been cut off. Additionally, your broader organization should determine if it would be willing to pay a ransom in extreme situations and, if so, how much it would be willing to spend.
  • High-priority system compromised: When a high-priority system is compromised, your organization may not be able to conduct business normally. In addition to all the steps needed as part of an incident response plan, your organization also needs to consider establishing a business recovery plan to ensure minimal disruption in this scenario.

4. Utilize Tools for Protection

The best way to deal with an incident is to protect against it in the first place. Ensure your organization has the appropriate endpoint, network, server, cloud, mobile, and email protection available.

5. Collect Enough Data for Review

Without the proper visibility into what is happening during an attack, your organization will struggle to respond appropriately. Before an attack occurs, IT and security teams should ensure they have the ability to understand the scope and impact of an attack, including determining adversary entry points and points of persistence.

Proper visibility includes collecting log data, with a focus on endpoint and network data. Since many attacks take days or weeks to discover, it is important that you have historical data going back for days or weeks (even months) to investigate. Additionally, ensure such data is backed up so it can be accessed during an active incident.

6. Invest in Investigation Tools

In addition to ensuring you have the necessary visibility, your organization should invest in tools that provide necessary context during an investigation.

Some of the most common tools used for incident response include endpoint detection and response (EDR) or extended detection and response (XDR). These tools allow you to hunt across your environment to detect indicators of compromise (IOCs) and indicators of attack (IOA). Analysts use EDR tools to pinpoint which assets have been compromised, which in turn helps determine the impact and scope of an attack.

The more data that is collected—from the endpoints and beyond—the more context is available during investigation. Broader visibility allows your team to not only determine what the attackers targeted but how they gained entry into the environment and if they have the ability to access it again.

In addition to EDR tools, advanced security teams might deploy a security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) solution that aids in response workflows.

7. Implement Access Control

Attackers can leverage weak access control to infiltrate your organization’s defenses and escalate privileges. Regularly ensure that you have the proper controls in place to establish access control. This includes, but is not limited to, deploying multi-factor authentication, limiting admin privileges to as few accounts as possible (following the Principle of Least Privilege), changing default passwords, and reducing the number of access points you need to monitor.

8. Create a Clear List of Response Actions

Detecting an attack is only part of the process. Your IT and security teams need to have the ability to conduct a wide range of remedial actions to disrupt and neutralize an attacker. Response actions include:

  • Isolating affected hosts
  • Blocking malicious files, processes, and programs
  • Blocking command and control and malicious website activity
  • Freezing compromised accounts and cutting off access to attackers
  • Cleaning up adversary artifacts and tools
  • Closing entry points and areas of persistence leveraged by attackers (internal and third-party)
  • Adjusting configurations (threat policies, enabling endpoint security and EDR on unprotected devices, adjusting exclusions, etc.)
  • Restoring impacted assets via offline backups

9. Train Your Staff on Cyber Security

When learning how to respond to a cyber security incident, no business can afford to ignore their staff’s role.

While no training program will ever be 100% effective against a determined adversary, education programs (e.g., phishing awareness) reduce your risk level and limit the number of alerts your team needs to respond to. Using tools to simulate phishing attacks provides a safe way for your staff to experience (and potentially fall victim to) a phish. Enroll those who fail into training.

10. Employ a Managed IT Services Provider

Many organizations are not equipped to handle incidents on their own. Swift and effective response requires experienced security operators. To ensure you can properly respond, consider working with an outside resource such as a managed IT services provider.

Managed IT services providers often offer comprehensive security solutions. At Techinc, we put preventative measures in place for our clients to stop cyber security incidents from happening in the first place. In the event an incident has occurred, we can guide you through the aftermath and help you get back up and running.

Some businesses retain data forensic incident response (DFIR) services after an incident to collect evidence to support a legal or insurance claim.

Techinc Knows How to Respond to a Cyber Security Incident

When a cyber security incident strikes, time is of the essence. Knowing how to properly respond to a cyber security incident will dramatically reduce the impact of the attack on your organization. We highly recommend our set of security solutions—responding badly to a cyber security incident can break your business.

We’ve put proper security in place for businesses throughout Denver and beyond. Just take a look at our case studies for some examples! And always feel free to contact us for a free security assessment.