Beyond the blueprint: Stress-testing and validating incident response plans


    In cybersecurity, incident response plans are as standard as pre-flight safety instructions. You are reminded of the key steps and your role before each flight, but their practicality only becomes evident when something unexpected occurs. Most organizations, especially those more experienced, have diligently implemented incident response plans. However, a crucial gap lingers: How many of these plans have undergone rigorous testing and validation?

    Often, the first real test an incident response plan faces is during a breach or a ransomware shutdown – and that’s when organizations realize their methods may not work as designed.

    Testing and validation are pivotal aspects of incident response preparedness. Like fire drills, routine testing of incident response plans helps build muscle memory among your response team, enabling them to act swiftly and efficiently when an actual incident occurs.

    Read on for key strategies for effectively testing your incident response plan.

    Quick recap: Critical components of an incident response plan

    Before diving into the intricacies of testing and validating, check that your incident response plan has all the critical components of such a plan in place. These components – following the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) four-phase approach – lay the foundation for an effective response:

    • Preparation: This initial phase is key to effective incident response. It includes, among other actions: establishing responsibilities and objectives; understanding, prioritizing, and mitigating threats; understanding baseline/normal operations and behavior; and training and equipping employees to respond to incidents. Public companies should also develop processes for assessing incident materiality and disclosing as needed, per the SEC’s new incident reporting guidelines.
    • Detection and Analysis: This phase involves recognizing, categorizing, and analyzing incidents, ranging from security breaches to data leaks or system outages.
    • Containment, Eradication, and Recovery: The next step is to isolate affected systems to prevent further damage or compromise, then eliminate vulnerabilities and neutralize the threat’s root cause.Additionally, this phase involves restoring systems and services to regular operation, often with enhanced security measures to prevent future incidents.
    • Post-Incident Activity: This final phase helps prepare the organization to respond to future incidents. Complete an incident report with lessons learned; review attacks, responses, and metrics; and identify improvements.

    Learn more in our more comprehensive overview of incident response plans.

    Tabletop exercises

    Tabletop exercises serve as a cornerstone of incident response testing. They come in two distinct types:

    Technical tabletop exercises: Focusing on the IT department, these exercises primarily involve IT management, incident response teams, and senior system administrators, making sure they understand their roles and responsibilities in system management and operations.

    Executive tabletop exercises: These exercises extend beyond the IT department to involve the participation of all key executives within the organization, offering a high-level test of the organization’s preparedness.

    A proactive approach suggests conducting at least one of each type annually, essentially performing two tabletop exercises per year. Some organizations take it further by conducting quarterly tabletop exercises, alternating between technical and executive scenarios. This frequency allows organizations to consistently refine their incident response plans, strengthening readiness for any situation.

    Red team penetration testing

    Red teaming is not just about simulating an attack on your organization; it’s about mimicking the tactics and techniques that real adversaries might employ, and thus testing your safeguards against the actions of skilled, determined attackers. The key differentiator of red teaming is that it’s done without your IT department’s prior knowledge, resulting in a more genuine and unbiased assessment of your security posture. Consider three key factors to test:

    Infiltration testing: This test evaluates your organization’s ability to repel an infiltration attempt, assessing whether an attacker can breach your defenses, gain unauthorized access, and move laterally within your network undetected.

    Recognition of an attack: This angle examines your IT department’s ability to recognize an ongoing attack, with the goal of strengthening prevention and early detection.

    Forensic evidence preservation: This third aspect – the one that many organizations have yet to fully explore – involves the simulated forensic analysis of an attack. Legal compliance is one of the most compelling reasons for integrating forensic evidence preservation into incident response testing: Meeting legal obligations becomes complex if you cannot forensically determine which records were exfiltrated during a breach. Proper preservation of forensics allows organizations to ascertain precisely which documents were accessed, exfiltrated, or compromised.

    Involve executives and board members

    Prompt responses from the CEO and CFO are critical during simulated events. Engaging executives and board members from the outset, requiring their active participation in incident response training, and keeping them informed will help expedite an actual incident response and make sure that it meets regulatory requirements, such as the SEC’s new incident reporting guidelines for public companies.

    In conclusion

    Much like pre-flight safety instructions, incident response plans are essential, but their effectiveness only becomes evident when tested. Proactive testing is the key to resilience in the face of an inevitable cyber incident. Routine testing like tabletop exercises and red team penetration testing help make your incident response plan as instinctive as knowing how to use an oxygen mask when cabin pressure drops – potentially saving your organization from disaster.

    Subject matter expertise

    • David Sun headshot
      Contact David David+Sun
      David Sun

      Principal, Cybersecurity

    • Bhavesh Vadhani
      Contact Bhavesh Bhavesh+Vadhani
      Bhavesh Vadhani

      CISA, CRISC, CGEIT, PMP, CDPSE, Principal, Global Leader, Cybersecurity, Technology Risk, and Privacy

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    This has been prepared for information purposes and general guidance only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Neither CohnReznick LLP or its personnel provide legal advice to third parties. You should not act upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is made as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this publication, and CohnReznick LLP, its members, employees, and agents accept no liability, and disclaim all responsibility, for the consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this publication or for any decision based on it.