The severity and sophistication of modern cyberattacks requires a calculated and methodical approach. Given our reliance on IT systems, it’s critical that your team knows precisely how to respond to cybersecurity incidents. To streamline the process and ensure all procedures have been executed, many experts recommend 7 phases of incident response.
Understanding the Theory Behind Incident Response
Incident response is a fundamental responsibility for any IT program. With so many potential threats lurking around every digital turn, it’s not a matter of if something will happen—but when. Although it’s nearly impossible to consider every incident scenario, implementing a comprehensive incident response plan—complete with the incident response phases—ensures that your team is ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
This article provides a step-by-step guide to incident response, complete with the most common incident response phases, to help you better understand the benefits of incident response planning.
- Threat Detection
Partner with an expert managed security services provider (MSSP) that can advise your team to best ensure your organization has defined and documented procedures and policies regarding the 7 phases of incident response.
A Step-by-Step Guide to the 7 Phases of Incident Response
Before moving forward with the 7 phases of incident response, it’s essential to understand that every organization has different and unique needs. What works for one organization might not work for another, so it’s okay to modify these phases as necessary. If your IT staff suggests combining multiple steps, following their recommendations is probably safe.
For example, steps 3 and 4 or 5 and 6 could easily be combined. Further, step 7 may be less necessary for minor or routine incidents.
Phase One: Initial Preparation and Planning
The first of the seven incident response phases, the preparation and planning phase, should begin before an emergency occurs. Use this time to assign roles, prioritize tasks, and delegate responsibilities for everyone involved. Establishing a clear chain-of-command from the start, complete with subordinate and supportive staff, is the key to executing a consistent, timely, and effective incident response plan.
A crucial component of this stage is having a well-defined escalation plan to ensure the proper role responds to an incident.
This phase is never truly complete. With new threats and vulnerabilities emerging nearly every day, it’s critical that your team is always prepared for new viruses, updated ransomware, and next-gen network attacks. Therefore, your preparation efforts should periodically undergo review and updates.
Phase Two: Threat Identification and Detection
Many organizations struggle with identifying and detecting threats. However, security threats happen whether your team detects them or not. Since this step is a prerequisite to containing, analyzing, and eradicating the threat, it’s one of the incident response phases that can’t be skipped.
For best results, establish a classification system for any identified threats. This lets you prioritize them based on urgency while making it easier to isolate affected systems and minimize the damage.
- Low-level threats, like network scans, probes, or unsuccessful entry attempts, are usually considered normal by most standards. These threats are seldom dealt with directly, if at all. Instead, most organizations rely on software-based tools like antivirus software, anti-malware software, and network firewalls to render most of these rudimentary attacks moot.
- Improper network usage, including the implementation of malicious code, is considered a mid-level threat. Remember that these incidents can occur from the inside, either intentionally or unintentionally, so it’s important to thoroughly investigate the situation before coming to a conclusion.
- Unauthorized access and denial-of-service (DOS) attacks are generally considered high-level threats. Since these incidents have the potential to shut down your entire system or access confidential data, these activities need to be properly identified and fully contained as quickly as possible.
Phase Three: Threat Containment
The third critical component of the 7 phases of incident response is where an immediate threat is finally contained. If your system has ever been saved from a virus due to an antivirus scanner, you’ve probably already seen this phase in action.
But an antivirus quarantine only works on pre-defined threats. A more sophisticated approach is required for other threats, like data breaches and those that don’t fit the standard definition of computer viruses or malware. So, steps 2 and 3 are where most escalation decisions are made.
The first goal of containment is to isolate the threat, or “to quarantine” it. This prevents or minimizes damage to other areas of your system. In some cases, this might temporarily require shutting down essential hardware or, in extreme cases, replacing the affected components entirely.
Phase Four: Analysis and Investigation
It’s best to complete this phase as soon as the threat is fully contained and phase three has been finalized. Understanding the root cause of the problem is essential to repairing your system and preventing repeat attacks. In most scenarios, you’ll focus on three major factors:
- What happened – Describe the nature of the attack, including the affected systems.
- How the incident occurred – Did the incident occur because of user error, or is it the result of an external attack?
- When the incident occurred – This is your timeline of events. It’s helpful when determining the root cause of an incident and identifying any affected resources.
Root cause analysis (RCA) also helps compile reports for informing other organizational stakeholders about significant incidents.
Phase Five: Mitigation and Eradication
Perhaps the most crucial step in the 7 phases of incident response, conducting a complete eradication is only possible after you’ve thoroughly analyzed and understood the original threat. Some threats, like viruses and malware, are eradicated automatically through your antivirus or anti-malware software. Others require human intervention.
For advanced threats, eradication might consist of:
- Deleting and replacing affected assets
- Patching or correcting remaining vulnerabilities
- Migrating or moving unaffected resources to new systems
- Upgrading older, legacy systems
- Installing additional network protection
Once eradication is finished, you can begin restoring your IT environment and resuming any paused service delivery.
Phase Six: Restoration and Recovery
After analyzing the incident and eradicating any immediate threats, it’s time to begin the restoration and recovery process. The length of this phase, and the effort it requires, is dependent on the extent of the damage.
In the case of a data breach, this might require replacing your organization’s server and deploying various patches. On the other hand, if you’ve contained an incident of unauthorized entry, the solution might be as simple as changing system passwords—which is often handled through identity and access management.
Properly understanding the incident, including the full scope of the threat, is the key to initiating a full and successful recovery. It will also give you a better understanding of the benefits of incident response planning.
Phase Seven: Testing and Follow-Up
Most incident response plans wrap up with a final phase dedicated to testing and follow-up activities. This is the best opportunity for IT staff to ask questions and provide any feedback. It’s also when reports will be produced and delivered.
To fully understand the benefits of incident response planning, take this time to learn as much as possible from the incident. Take note of any shortcomings or bottlenecks and, if necessary, strategize on how you can improve your incident response plan in the future.
If your organization conducts table-top simulations of cyberattacks, revisit the incident as one of the subsequent scenarios to keep procedures and policies fresh in your security team’s mind.
Following the Step-by-Step Approach
If you have yet to implement the 7 phases of incident response for your organization, or if you’re struggling with finding a starting point, contact RSI Security today.
Our step-by-step approach will have your entire team operating on the same page before an emergency even happens, giving you the edge when an incident does occur.