How to create an Incident Response Playbook?

Date: 8 May 2023

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Ransomware attacks, cyber attacks and data breaches make up almost every second news piece today. Cybersecurity has become a huge priority for businesses across the globe given the current threat environment. 

To deal with the consistent onslaught of threats and cybersecurity incidents, it’s very important to have an effective Cyber Incident Response Playbook in place.

But what exactly is a Cyber Incident Response Playbook? How do you create a NIST Incident Response Playbook? And how do you make sure it’s effective and fit for purpose? These are some of the vital questions related to computer security incident response playbooks that our cybersecurity experts answer in this blog. 

What is an Incident Response Playbook?

An incident response playbook is a set of actions that an organisation needs to follow in the event of a security incident. It outlines the steps that the incident response (IR) team should take to identify, contain, and remediate the incident. 

The goal of the incident response playbook is very simply to ensure effective incident response and control the damage as quickly as possible. 

We, at Cyber Management Alliance, always advise our clients to have fluff-free, crisp and to-the-point playbooks for several cybersecurity incident scenarios. Some of these common scenarios are: 

  1. Phishing attacks 
  2. Ransomware attacks
  3. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack
  4. Breaches of customer/sensitive data 
  5. Malware Infections 

The guidance in this blog will help you create an effective Incident Response Playbook for security risks relevant to your business. However, if you continue to feel the need for external help from expert cybersecurity practitioners you can always opt for our cost-effective Virtual Cyber Assistant service. The cybersecurity experts can help you create new IR playbooks or review and refresh your existing ones so they actually hold water in a real crisis. 

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Importance of an Incident Response Playbook

Having a good, NIST-compatible Incident Response Playbook has several long term benefits for an organisation in case of a cybersecurity incident. These include:  

  • Quick Response 

    Having a documented incident response playbook ensures that the organisation's response to a security incident is quick and efficient. This is because the security incident response team already knows what to do in case of an attack. There is no guesswork or hassled decision-making amidst the panic. The playbook already has a pre-designated set of steps that need to be followed. 

  • Consistency

    An incident response playbook ensures that the response to a security incident is consistent across the organisation. This is because the procedures outlined in the playbook are standardised and have to be followed by all team members. There is no room for discussions, arguments or negotiations on what to do in the event of an attack. Everybody already knows what their roles and responsibilities are and what their next steps need to be. 

  • Compliance 

    Amongst the chief benefits of any incident response strategy is the fact that it lets you remain compliant. Your incident response playbook will clearly define all the steps you need to take in order to remain compliant with the data breach regulations of your country/industry. This will help you avoid regulatory fines and penalties which can often add up to exorbitant amounts.    

  • Constant Improvement

    Like any other cybersecurity plan, policy and document, a Cyber Incident Playbook must also be constantly worked upon and improved. After each incident, the playbook must be reviewed and updated to ensure an even better response the next time. Because, let’s be sure - there will be a next time! 

    The incident response team must review the actions taken and lessons learned after each attack. These lessons must be updated in the playbook to make sure it always stays relevant, focused and fit-for-purpose.  

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How to create a NIST-Compatible Incident Response Playbook?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides guidelines which can be used for creating the best possible Incident Response Playbooks suited to your organisation. 

Based on the recommendations of the NIST Computer Security Incident Handling Guide, here are some steps you can take to build an effective Incident Response Playbook: 

  • Create an Incident Response Team

The very first step in effective incident response of any kind is establishing a cyber incident response team. This team should include participants from different departments of the organisation who can contribute meaningfully to crisis management. Some of the departments that must have representatives in the IR team include IT, legal, Public Relations and the executive team. 

Each of these team members must understand their roles and responsibilities during a security incident. They should be actively involved in creation of the playbook and must be well-versed with it. This ensures that during a crisis they can work with their muscle memory. 

Some organisations also opt for external incident response services on a retainer basis. These IR specialists come in to support the internal team during an actual crisis. As they are deeply experienced, their services can be invaluable in managing the organisational response to a crisis.   

  • Identify and Prioritise Assets

The next step is to identify and prioritise the most critical assets within the organisation. We also refer to them as ‘crown jewels’. These assets are the most critical to the organisation's operations and business continuity. Therefore, it is important to make sure that any Incident Response Plan or Playbook makes it a priority to protect them.  

  •  Focus on Incident Response Steps 

Now comes the most important part of what steps the playbook should actually contain. These steps should be guided by the phases of Incident Response as per NIST.  

  1. Preparation: This phase, as the name suggests, is getting your house in order for a security incident. Putting a team in place, creating an IR Playbook and an Incident Response Plan, designating responsibility to team members are all part of this phase.
  2. Detection and Analysis: The IR team should have monitoring tools in place that help recognise any unusual activity. They should also know how to analyse this activity. 

  3. Containment, Eradication, and Recovery: From the perspective of the IR Playbook, this is the most important phase. The playbook should clearly suggest steps for containing, controlling and removing malicious elements found. It should clearly define which triggers mandate what actions. These actions form the cornerstone of the playbook.    

  4. Post-Incident Analysis: After the incident has been resolved, the incident response team should conduct a post-incident analysis to identify areas for improvement. The playbook should be updated on a regular basis accordingly.

  •  Test & Rehearse the IR Playbook

It’s great to have a well-crafted Incident Response Playbook. But how would you know if it’s really effective? And what’s the point of it at all if the IR team members aren’t conversant enough with it?  

This is why it's critical to test and rehearse the Incident Response Plans and Playbooks with regular Cyber Tabletop Exercises. During these exercises, an expert facilitator simulates security incidents for your organisation. A real attack scenario is created to see how well the IR team can respond and how effective the playbook really is. 

After the simulated cyber test, the facilitator usually prepares an executive summary with their feedback and recommendations. This report can be used to further finetune your IR playbook and make sure it does really work in a crisis.   

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Creating a NIST incident response playbook can help organisations respond effectively to security incidents and protect themselves from potentially catastrophic consequences.

By establishing an incident response team, identifying and prioritising assets, developing a plan for responding to incidents, you can ensure that you are prepared to respond to security incidents quickly and effectively.

But remember, a good Incident Response Playbook is always a work-in-progress. It's important to keep testing and reviewing it and making relevant changes as you go along. 

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