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Chapter: Security in Computing : Administering Security

Incident Response Plans

An incident response plan tells the staff how to deal with a security incident. In contrast to the business continuity plan, the goal of incident response is handling the current security incident, without regard for the business issues.

Incident Response Plans


An incident response plan tells the staff how to deal with a security incident. In contrast to the business continuity plan, the goal of incident response is handling the current security incident, without regard for the business issues. The security incident may at the same time be a business catastrophe, as addressed by the business continuity plan. But as a specific security event, it might be less than catastrophic (that is, it may not interrupt business severely) but could be a serious breach of security, such as a hacker attack or a case of internal fraud. An incident could be a single event, a series of events, or an ongoing problem.


An incident response plan should

define what constitutes an incident


identify who is responsible for taking charge of the situation


describe the plan of action


The plan usually has three phases: advance planning, triage, and running the incident. A fourth phase, review, is useful after the situation abates so that this incident can lead to improvement for future incidents.


Advance Planning


As with all planning functions, advance planning works best because people can think logically, unhurried, and without pressure. What constitutes an incident may be vague. We cannot know the details of an incident in advance. Typical characteristics include harm or risk of harm to computer systems, data, or processing; initial uncertainty as to the extent of damage; and similar uncertainty as to the source or method of the incident. For example, you can see that the file is missing or the home page has been defaced, but you do not know how or by whom or what other damage there may be.


In organizations that have not done incident planning, chaos may develop at this point. Someone calls the network manager. Someone sends e-mail to the help desk. Someone calls the FBI, the CERT, the newspapers, or the fire department. People start to investigate on their own, without coordinating with the relevant staff in other departments, agencies, or businesses. And there is a lot of conversation, rumor, and misinformation: more heat than light.


With an incident response plan in place, everybody is trained in advance to call the designated leader. There is an established list of people to call, in order, in case the first person is unavailable. The leader decides what to do next, and he or she begins by determining if this is a real incident or a false alarm. Indeed, natural events sometimes look like incidents, and the facts of the situation should be established first. If the leader decides this may be a real incident, he or she invokes the response team.


Response Team


The response team is the set of people charged with responding to the incident. The response team may include


director: person in charge of the incident, who decides what actions to take and when to terminate the response. The director is typically a management employee.


lead technician: person who directs and coordinates the response. The lead technician decides where to focus attention, analyzes situation data, documents the incident and how it was handled, and calls for other technical people to assist with the analysis.


advisor(s): legal, human resources, or public relations staff members as appropriate.


In a small incident a single person can handle more than one of these roles. Nevertheless, it is important that a single person be in charge, a single person who directs the response work, a single point of contact for "insiders" (employees, users), and a single point of contact for "the public."


To develop policy and identify a response team, you need to consider certain matters.


Legal issues: An incident has legal ramifications. In some countries, computer intrusions are illegal, so law enforcement officials must be involved in the investigation. In other places, you have discretion in deciding whether to ask law enforcement to participate. In addition to criminal action, you may be able to bring a civil case. Both kinds of legal action have serious implications for the response. For example, evidence must be gathered and maintained in specific ways in order to be usable in court. Similarly, laws may limit what you can do against the alleged attacker: Cutting off a connection is probably acceptable, but launching a retaliatory denial-of-service attack may not be.


Preserving evidence: The most common reaction in an incident is to assume the cause was internal or accidental. For instance, you may surmise that the hardware has failed or that the software isn't working correctly. The staff may be directed to change the configuration, reload the software, reboot the system, or similarly attempt to resolve the problem by adjusting the software. Unfortunately, each of these acts can irreparably distort or destroy evidence. When dealing with a possible incident, do as little as possible before "dusting for fingerprints."


Records: It may be difficult to remember what you have already done: Have you already reloaded a particular file? What steps got you to the prompt asking for the new DNS server's address? If you call in an outside forensic investigator or the police, you will need to tell exactly what you have already done.


Public relations: In handling an incident your organization should speak with one voice. You risk sending confusing messages if too many people speak. It is especially important that only one person speak publicly if legal action may be taken. An unguarded comment may tip off the attacker or have a negative effect on the case. You can simply say that an incident occurred, tell briefly and generally what it was, and state that the incident is now under control and normal operation is resuming.


After the Incident Is Resolved


Eventually, the incident response team closes the case. At this point it will hold a review after the incident to consider two things:


Is any security control action to be taken? Did an intruder compromise a system because security patches were not up-to-date; if so, should there be a procedure to ensure that patches are applied when they become available? Was access obtained because of a poorly chosen password; if so, should there be a campaign to educate users on how to strong passwords? If there were control failures, what should be done to prevent similar attacks in the future?


Did the incident response plan work? Did everyone know whom to notify? Did the team have needed resources? Was the response fast enough? What should be done differently next time?


The incident response plan ensures that incidents are handled promptly, efficiently, and with minimal harm.

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