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Incident response: a comprehensive guide

Read our blog to find out everything you need to know about incident response, including what a plan involves & steps you should take.

incident response

When you encounter a crisis, time is of the essence. Minimize the damage, protect your reputation, eliminate potential threats, and the list goes on. If you’re in the midst of a critical cyber incident, you need to act fast and with precision – that’s where incident response comes into play.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

  • What is incident response?
  • What is an incident response plan?
  • Why does an organization need incident response?
  • What types of incidents should an organization respond to?
  • What are the steps in incident response?
  • Incident response best practices 
  • Incident response challenges
  • How does an organization overcome these challenges?
  • FAQs

What is incident response?

Incident response is a systematic approach employed by organizations to manage and mitigate security incidents and breaches effectively. It involves recognizing and confirming incidents, containing, and eradicating threats, restoring normal operations, and conducting post-incident analysis.

The primary goals are to minimize damage, protect assets, and ensure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements while learning from the incident to enhance future security measures.

What is an incident response plan?

An incident response plan is a critical component of an organization’s cybersecurity framework. It helps guide its actions in the event of security threats to minimize damage and protect assets effectively.

In essence, it’s a plan that outlines how an organization will detect, assess, and respond to security incidents and breaches while minimizing damage and downtime. 

Why does an organization need incident response?

An incident response plan is a fundamental component of a robust cybersecurity strategy. More specifically, it assists with:

  • Threat mitigation: incidents, including cyberattacks, data breaches, and insider threats, can happen despite robust security measures. An incident response plan helps mitigate threats promptly, minimize damage, and avoid data loss.
  • Minimizing downtime: incidents can disrupt operations and lead to downtime. An effective response plan aims to restore normal operations swiftly, reducing business disruptions.
  • Reputation: effective incident response demonstrates an organization’s commitment to security and data protection. Swift and transparent responses can help maintain customer trust and protect the organization’s reputation.
  • Legal and regulatory compliance: many regulations and laws require organizations to have incident response plans in place. Compliance with these requirements helps avoid fines and legal consequences.
  • Lessons learned: post-incident analysis in an incident response plan enables organizations to learn from security incidents. 
  • Data protection: protecting sensitive data is paramount. An incident response plan helps safeguard data and ensures compliance with data protection laws.
  • Timely communication: clear communication during incidents ensures that stakeholders, including employees, customers, and regulators, are informed promptly, which can help manage the impact of the incident.
  • Risk management: effective incident response reduces the risks associated with security incidents and helps organizations proactively address potential threats.

What types of incidents should an organization respond to?

Incident response plans should address a wide range of cyber threats and incidents, including:

  • Data breaches: incidents involving unauthorized access, theft, or exposure of sensitive data, such as customer information, financial records, or intellectual property.
  • Insider threats: suspicious or malicious activities by employees, contractors, or partners with access to sensitive systems and data.
  • Physical security incidents: events like unauthorized access to facilities, theft, vandalism, or breaches of physical security measures.
  • System and network intrusions: unauthorized access to computer systems, networks, or IT infrastructure, often with the intent of data theft or disruption.
  • Malware infections: detection and containment of malicious software, such as viruses, ransomware, or trojans, affecting systems or networks.
  • Phishing and social engineering: phishing attacks targeting employees or customers and social engineering tactics aimed at manipulating individuals into divulging sensitive information.
  • Third-party incidents: incidents involving third-party service providers, vendors, or partners, which can impact an organization’s operations and security.
  • Unauthorized access attempts: responding to repeated, failed login attempts or any unauthorized access attempts to critical systems.
  • DoS attacks: incidents where attackers overload networks or services to disrupt availability.
  • Software vulnerabilities: incidents related to the identification and mitigation of software vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.
  • Physical loss or theft: incidents involving the loss or theft of physical assets, such as laptops, mobile devices, or servers.
  • Employee policy violations: violations of security policies and procedures by employees, contractors, or third parties.
  • Privacy incidents: incidents related to the mishandling or exposure of personal or sensitive data, especially those that impact compliance with data protection laws.
  • Regulatory and compliance incidents: incidents that affect compliance with industry regulations or legal requirements.

What are the four steps in incident response?

Understanding the steps in incident response is crucial for organizations to effectively manage and mitigate security incidents. It typically involves: 

1. Preparation

Organizations must establish an incident response team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The personnel should be trained to handle incidents effectively.

Overall, the preparation stage involves developing a comprehensive plan that outlines the organization’s incident response strategy. Plus, all necessary tools and resources to support incident response efforts should be acquired.

2. Detection and analysis

Detection involves actively monitoring for security incidents and recognizing signs of unusual or suspicious activities within an organization’s network or systems. By using security tools like Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems, organizations can respond promptly to potential threats.

Analysis then encompasses a thorough investigation of the incident. It aims to identify the nature and scope of the security breach, including the tactics and methods employed by attackers. By analyzing the incident, organizations gain critical insights into the breach. 

3. Containment, eradication and recovery

This stage involves isolating affected systems or networks to prevent the incident from spreading further and causing additional damage. During containment, it’s essential to preserve evidence related to the incident.

The eradication phase involves identifying and removing the root cause of the incident and eliminating the vulnerabilities that allowed the threat to occur. Implementing corrective measures during the eradication phase is crucial to prevent the incident from recurring.

Recovery focuses on restoring affected systems, applications, and data to their normal operational state. During this stage organizations can minimize downtime and avoid disruptions to business operations.

Business continuity is a primary goal of the recovery phase and allows the organization to resume normal activities as swiftly as possible.

4. Post-incident activity

The post-incident activity phase in incident response is the stage that occurs after an incident has been detected, contained, and mitigated. Its primary purpose is to understand the incident, assess its impact, and improve an organization’s overall security.

Key activities include documenting all incident details, conducting a root cause analysis to determine why the incident occurred, assessing the impact on systems and operations, and conducting a lessons learned session to enhance incident response procedures. Legal and regulatory obligations, as well as communication with stakeholders, are also critical components of this phase. Remediation efforts, such as patching vulnerabilities and strengthening security controls, are undertaken, and ongoing monitoring ensures that no residual threats remain.

Ultimately, the post-incident activity phase aims to help organizations recover, learn from incidents, and bolster their security defenses for the future.

Incident response best practices 

The most effective incident response plans follow a set of established guidelines and procedures. Some of the key points to consider include:

  • Develop a plan: create a well-documented incident response plan that outlines procedures, roles, responsibilities, and communication protocols for addressing various types of incidents.
  • Establish a team: assemble a dedicated incident response team with trained personnel who can promptly respond to and manage incidents.
  • Regularly train: conduct simulated incident drills to ensure that team members are prepared and familiar with their roles and responsibilities.
  • Implement real-time monitoring: employ security tools, such as SIEM systems, to monitor networks and systems in real-time for signs of suspicious activities.
  • Classify incidents: categorize incidents based on severity and impact to prioritize response efforts effectively.
  • Preserve evidence: preserve digital evidence for potential legal or investigative purposes.
  • Maintain clear communication: establish clear lines of communication to ensure that everyone is informed and aware.
  • Update policies: based on lessons learned, update incident response policies and procedures to enhance future incident management.
  • Third-party collaboration: collaborate with external partners, such as law enforcement or cybersecurity experts, when necessary to address complex incidents.
  • Security awareness: promote a culture of security awareness among employees and stakeholders to enhance incident detection and prevention.

Incident response challenges

Incident response can be a complex and challenging process. Some of the challenges organizations must overcome include:

  • Speed of detection: rapidly detecting and identifying incidents can be difficult, especially with advanced and stealthy threats.
  • Resource constraints: many organizations face resource limitations, such as a shortage of skilled incident responders, tools, or budget constraints.
  • Complexity of incidents: incidents vary widely in complexity, from straightforward malware infections to advanced persistent threats, making response efforts challenging.
  • Legal and regulatory compliance: complying with diverse legal and regulatory requirements, including data breach notification laws, adds difficulties to incident response.
  • Coordination: effective coordination among incident response team members and with external partners, like law enforcement or third-party experts, can be challenging.
  • False positives: sorting through numerous alerts and false positives from security tools can divert resources from genuine incidents.
  • Technical challenges: investigating incidents often requires dealing with diverse and complex technical environments, including cloud services and mobile devices.
  • Communication: ensuring clear and timely communication with stakeholders, can be difficult during high-pressure situations.

How does an organization overcome these challenges?

Organizations can overcome the challenges of incident response through a combination of strategies and best practices, such as:

  • Invest in training: provide ongoing training and awareness programs for incident response team members and employees. 
  • Resource allocation: allocate sufficient resources, including budget and personnel, to support incident response efforts.
  • Automated detection: implement automated detection and monitoring tools, such as SIEM systems, to enhance the speed and accuracy of incident detection.
  • Threat intelligence: stay updated on the latest threat intelligence and emerging attack techniques. 
  • Continuous improvement: regularly review and update incident response procedures and policies based on lessons learned from past incidents. 
  • Third-party partnerships: establish relationships with external partners, such as for collaboration during complex incidents.
  • Preventive measures: implement proactive security measures, such as regular vulnerability assessments, security patching, and employee training. 


What are the different types of incident response teams?

There are three main types of incident response team, including:

  • Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT): focuses on cybersecurity incidents and breaches.
  • Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT): addresses a broad range of computer-related incidents.
  • Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT): typically focuses on critical infrastructure and national security.

What does an incident response team do?

An incident response team is responsible for identifying, mitigating, and recovering from security incidents, aiming to minimize damage and downtime.

Should I outsource my organization’s incident response capability?

Outsourcing incident response can be beneficial for organizations lacking in-house expertise or resources, but it depends on specific needs and risk tolerance.

Can incident response be automated?

Yes, incident response can be partially automated using tools like Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) and Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) platforms.

What should be included in an incident response plan?

An incident response plan should include roles and responsibilities, communication protocols, incident classification, escalation procedures, and a defined incident lifecycle.

What are some incident response tools and technologies?

There are various forms of incident response tools and technologies, including:

  • SIEM (Security Information and Event Management): collects and analyzes security event data.
  • SOAR (Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response): automates incident response tasks.
  • EDR (Endpoint Detection and Response): monitors and responds to endpoint threats.
  • XDR (Extended Detection and Response): expands threat detection and response capabilities.
  • UEBA (User and Entity Behavior Analytics): identifies atypical behavior.
  • ASM (Application Security Management): protects applications from threats.

What is digital forensics and what does it have to do with incident response?

In the context of incident response, digital forensics plays a pivotal role by aiding in evidence collection, investigation, attribution, recovery, and prevention of future incidents.

It enables experts to reconstruct the events surrounding a cybersecurity incident, determine its causes, and potentially attribute it to specific individuals or entities. 

Final thoughts

No matter your organization or industry, you should always be prepared for the worst. When it comes to cyber security, businesses must remain proactive, not reactive.

Incorporating incident response into your defense strategy ensures all incidents are detected, contained, and mitigated in record time. It’s the ultimate way to safeguard  sensitive data, preserve your reputation, and protect your bottom line.

If you have any more questions regarding incident response or want to find out more about our red team services, don’t hesitate to contact us.