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What is Incident Response? (Definition & 6 Steps to Take)

by Nate Lord on Monday August 31, 2015

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Six steps for effective incident response.

What is Incident Response?

Incident response is a term used to describe the process by which an organization handles a data breach or cyberattack, including the way the organization attempts to manage the consequences of the attack or breach (the “incident”). Ultimately, the goal is to effectively manage the incident so that the damage is limited and both recovery time and costs, as well as collateral damage such as brand reputation, are kept at a minimum.

Organizations should, at minimum, have a clear incident response plan in place. This plan should define what constitutes an incident for the company and provide a clear, guided process to be followed when an incident occurs. Additionally, it’s advisable to specify the teams, employees, or leaders responsible for both managing the overall incident response initiative and those tasked with taking each action specified in the incident response plan.

Who Handles Incident Responses?

Typically, incident response is conducted by an organization’s computer incident response team (CIRT), also known as a cyber incident response team. CIRTs usually are comprised of security and general IT staff, along with members of the legal, human resources, and public relations departments. As Gartner describes, a CIRT is a group that “is responsible for responding to security breaches, viruses, and other potentially catastrophic incidents in enterprises that face significant security risks. In addition to technical specialists capable of dealing with specific threats, it should include experts who can guide enterprise executives on appropriate communication in the wake of such incidents.”

Six Steps for Effective Incident Response

The SANS Institute provides six steps for effective incident response:

  1. Preparation - The most important phase of incident response is preparing for an inevitable security breach. Preparation helps organizations determine how well their CIRT will be able to respond to an incident and should involve policy, response plan/strategy, communication, documentation, determining the CIRT members, access control, tools, and training.

  2. Identification - Identification is the process through which incidents are detected, ideally promptly to enable rapid response and therefore reduce costs and damages. For this step of effective incident response, IT staff gathers events from log files, monitoring tools, error messages, intrusion detection systems, and firewalls to detect and determine incidents and their scope.

  3. Containment - Once an incident is detected or identified, containing it is a top priority. The main purpose of containment is to contain the damage and prevent further damage from occurring (as noted in step number two, the earlier incidents are detected, the sooner they can be contained to minimize damage). It’s important to note that all of SANS’ recommended steps within the containment phase should be taken, especially to “prevent the destruction of any evidence that may be needed later for prosecution.” These steps include short-term containment, system back-up, and long-term containment.

  4. Eradication - Eradication is the phase of effective incident response that entails removing the threat and restoring affected systems to their previous state, ideally while minimizing data loss. Ensuring that the proper steps have been taken to this point, including measures that not only remove the malicious content but also ensure that the affected systems are completely clean, are the main actions associated with eradication.

  5. Recovery - Testing, monitoring, and validating systems while putting them back into production in order to verify that they are not re-infected or compromised are the main tasks associated with this step of incident response. This phase also includes decision making in terms of the time and date to restore operations, testing and verifying the compromised systems, monitoring for abnormal behaviors, and using tools for testing, monitoring, and validating system behavior.

  6. Lessons Learned - Lessons learned is a critical phase of incident response because it helps to educate and improve future incident response efforts. This is the step that gives organizations the opportunity to update their incident response plans with information that may have been missed during the incident, plus complete documentation to provide information for future incidents. Lessons learned reports give a clear review of the entire incident and may be used during recap meetings, training materials for new CIRT members, or as benchmarks for comparison.

Proper preparation and planning are the key to effective incident response. Without a clear-cut plan and course of action, it’s often too late to coordinate effective response efforts and a communication plan after a breach or attack has occurred when future attacks or security events hit. Taking the time to create a comprehensive incident response plan can save your company substantial time and money by enabling you to regain control over your systems and data promptly when an inevitable breach occurs.

For more tips and information on incident response, download our free guide:

Download the Incident Responder's Field Guide


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the incident response process?

The incident response process is the set of procedures taken by an organization in response to a cybersecurity incident. Companies should document their incident response plans and procedures along with information regarding who is responsible for performing the various activities they contain. The failure to develop an incident response plan makes it much more difficult for a business to successfully respond and recover from cyber attacks.

What are the five steps to incident response?

Following are the five steps or pillars of the incident response process.

  • Identify - Companies need to identify all types of threats and the assets they could affect. This involves inventorying the environment and conducting a risk assessment.
  • Protect - All critical assets need to have a protection plan that involves protective technological solutions and employee security awareness training.
  • Detect - In this step, organizations attempt to detect threats promptly before they have a chance to cause extensive damage to the environment.
  • Respond - After a threat or incident is detected, a defined response should be put into action to mitigate its damage and prevent its spread to other infrastructure components.
  • Recover - The recovery step returns the system affected to normal operations. It also evaluates the source of the incident with the goal of identifying improved security measures to prevent its recurrence.

What is the goal of incident response?

The goals of incident response include limiting the damage to an IT environment in the wake of a cybersecurity attack or data breach and restoring the operation of any affected systems as soon as possible. Other goals are to identify the source of the incident and develop stronger security methods like identifying suspicious activity, a threat intelligence infrastructure to identify advanced threats in real time, analyzing the attack surface, and preventing specific threats like ransomware attacks to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Who handles incident response?

Incident response is typically handled by an organization’s cybersecurity team. Large organizations have dedicated security teams that address all aspects of securing the IT environment, including incident response. Smaller companies may have a designated individual or rely on a managed third-party cybersecurity and incident response solution.

What is the NIST incident response model?

The NIST incident response model involves four phases recommended to effectively handle cybersecurity incidents. Some of the phases can be further subdivided to provide more steps.

  • Preparation - Organizations should take the necessary steps to be prepared for a cybersecurity incident when one occurs.
  • Detection and analysis - The cybersecurity response team is responsible for detecting and analyzing incidents to determine how to proceed and who needs to be notified.
  • Containment, eradication, and recovery - After an incident, the response team should stop its spread, remove the threat from the environment, and begin the process of recovering affected systems.
  • Post-incident activity - The focus of post-incident activity is identifying lessons learned and using them to strengthen defenses to minimize the probability of similar incidents in the future. 


Tags:  Data Protection 101 Incident Response

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