How to Create NIST-Compliant Incident Response Playbooks

Date: 17 July 2023

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Barely a day goes by when a cyber attack or ransomware attack doesn’t make news. Cyber Security events have become some of the biggest and most expensive threats facing businesses and other organisations. While there is no wishing them away, preparation against future incidents can help protect your business tremendously. And one of the key components of this preparation is building an Incident Response Playbook

In this blog, we’re going to explore what exactly a Cyber Incident Response Playbook is and how you can create one that is NIST Compliant.  

What is a NIST Cyber Security Incident Response Playbook? 

A Cyber Incident Response Playbook is literally a handbook that empowers organisations and Security Incident Response (IR) teams. It pre-defines steps, processes and procedures to be followed in case of a cyber attack. 

It is essentially a crisp, brief document that enables IR teams to respond to incidents effectively and contain the damage. 

An Incident Response Playbook is an important cybersecurity artefact for many reasons. Some of these include: 

  1. Enabling better response and mitigating damage from a cyber attack. 
  2. Allowing business critical operations to swing back as fast as possible. 
  3. Creating a better, coordinated response in times of crisis and chaos. It leaves no room for confusion and heated arguments as the steps to be taken have already been pre-defined. 
  4. Enabling your organisation to remain compliant and avoid regulatory fines despite being under attack. 
  5. Elevating the culture of cybersecurity in the organisation by making all key stakeholders aware of their roles and responsibilities. This also allows constant improvement and refinement of the IR playbook. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides comprehensive guidelines and recommendations for creating incident response playbooks that align with industry best practices. 

To be specific, the NIST Special Publication 800-61 Revision 2, also known as the Computer Security Incident Handling Guide provides a lot of direction on how to create effective playbooks. This document outlines the best practices and guidelines for incident response.

There are several key steps involved in developing NIST compliant incident response playbooks to enhance your organisation's cyber resilience. We will explore these steps in detail in the next section. 

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How to create a NIST-compliant Playbook for Incident Response? 

Here’s a look at some of the fundamental steps you can take towards building a really effective IR playbook. 

#1: Understand the NIST Incident Response Framework

This might sound obvious but is oft-neglected. Before diving into playbook creation, familiarise yourself with the NIST incident response framework. 

The NIST Computer Security Incident Handling Guide provides detailed information on incident response best practices. It covers the key phases of incident response such as incident detection, analysis, containment, eradication, and recovery. These phases must be reflected in your Computer Security Incident Response Plans and Playbooks. 

Gain a solid understanding of these concepts as they will form the foundation for your playbook.

#2: Identify long term organisational goals, risks and priorities  

Every organisation has unique security requirements and operational needs. Determine your organisation's specific goals and objectives regarding incident response. 

This means: 

  • Identify the critical assets, systems, and processes that require protection. 
  • Consider the potential impact of incidents on these assets, systems and processes.
  • Align your goals with your organisation's risk appetite and compliance obligations.

#3: Define Incident Response Roles and Responsibilities

Establish clear roles and responsibilities for your incident response team as well as the executive. 

Define the responsibilities of each team member in case of a crisis. Some of the stakeholders that should be involved include: 

  • Internal incident handlers 
  • External Incident Response retainers
  • Analysts 
  • Legal, PR and communications teams 
  • Key decision-makers including the board, the senior management, the C-suite etc. 

Assign specific tasks and establish clear communication plans in case of a crisis. Ensure that all team members understand their roles and have the necessary skills and training to perform their duties effectively. Our NCSC Assured Cyber Incident Planning and Response Training is a highly rated course for both technical and non-technical audiences. 

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#4: Conduct a Risk Assessment

Perform a comprehensive risk assessment to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities specific to your organisation. Analyse the likelihood and potential impact of various incidents. 

Categorise incidents based on their severity. This will allow you to prioritise your response efforts. Consider both internal and external threats, such as malware infections, data breaches, and physical security breaches. This assessment will help you tailor your playbook to address your organisation's unique risks. 

#5: Develop Incident Response Procedures

Using the insights gained from the NIST incident response framework and your risk assessment, develop detailed incident response procedures. These procedures should outline step-by-step actions to be taken during different phases of an incident, from detection to recovery. 

Include instructions for incident identification, containment, evidence preservation, investigation, communication, and post-incident analysis. Document specific technical and non-technical actions to ensure consistency and efficiency in response efforts. 

#6: Third-parties and Reporting

Consider the involvement of external parties and reporting mechanisms in your playbook. Establish relationships with external entities such as law enforcement agencies, incident response service providers, and industry information sharing platforms. 

Define the criteria and processes for engaging these resources during an incident. 

Incorporate reporting mechanisms that allow timely and accurate reporting to internal stakeholders, regulatory bodies, and affected parties. 

You may also consider bringing in external expertise for creation and/or review of your IR playbooks. For example, our Virtual Cyber Assistants, can help you create bespoke playbooks optimised to your organisational needs. They can also help you review and/or refresh your existing playbooks to align them with your current threat landscape. 

#7: Test, Train, and Refine

Regularly test your incident response playbooks through simulated cyber crisis tabletop exercises. These exercises provide an opportunity to validate the effectiveness of your procedures, identify gaps, and enhance your team's readiness. 

Conduct training sessions to ensure that all team members are familiar with the playbooks and understand their roles. Based on the lessons learned from these exercises and real incidents, refine and improve your playbooks over time. 

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Developing NIST-compliant incident response playbooks is a critical step towards enhancing your organisation's cybersecurity posture. 

By following the NIST guidelines and tailoring the playbooks to your organisation's specific needs, you can establish a well-structured and effective incident response programme. 

Remember to continuously evaluate and update your playbooks to address emerging threats and changing organisational requirements. By doing so, you will be better equipped to detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity incidents, minimising their impact on your business operations. 

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