Data Incident Response: 6 Phase Strategy

Updated November 30th, 2023
Data incident response

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In an interconnected world where information fuels progress and innovation, the occurrence of a data incident can have far-reaching consequences that reverberate through organizations and individuals alike.

A data incident can manifest in various forms - a cyber-attack that breaches a company’s defenses, an inadvertent data leak exposing sensitive information, or a malicious insider exploiting vulnerabilities for personal gain.

Irrespective of the source, the aftermath of such an incident can be crippling, resulting in financial losses, reputational damage, and legal entanglements. The crucial question that arises in the face of these threats is: how do we respond effectively to a data incident and ensure swift resolution?

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The key lies in data incident response - a well-defined and agile strategy that enables organizations to handle such crises promptly and decisively. That’s why we are going to explore what a data incident is, how it emerges, who is involved in it, and step-by-step resolutions to combat data incidents.

Let’s dive right in.

Table of contents

  1. What is a data incident?
  2. What is a data incident response?
  3. 5 Real-world examples of data incident responses
  4. Data incident response: when & how do they happen?
  5. Who is involved & what do they do?
  6. Data incident response: 6 Strategic phases
  7. Recap: What have we learnt so far?
  8. Related reads

What is a data incident?

A data incident is an event where unauthorized individuals gain access to secure or private information stored in a database. It is often referred to as a data breach. This data could be personal or financial information, intellectual property, trade secrets, personal identifiers, etc.

These incidents pose significant risks to individuals and organizations alike, potentially leading to identity theft, fraud, and damage to a company’s reputation.

Now, how do you resolve it? The answer is “data incident response”. Let’s explore what it is.

Learn more: Data privacy vs data security

What is a data incident response?

Data incident response is a systematic approach to handling the aftermath of a security breach or cyber attack, also known as an ‘incident.‘

The goal of a data incident response is to manage the situation in a way that limits damage, reduces recovery time and costs and mitigates any negative impacts on the organization.

All right. But how do data incidents happen in the first place? Can’t we prevent it before it becomes a threat? To gain clarity on those questions, let’s understand how data incidents come into existence.

5 Real-world examples of data incident responses

Data incident response involves immediate actions like isolating affected systems, as well as long-term strategies like improving data security measures. Here are some popular examples of data incident response:

  1. Equifax data breach
  2. Capital One data breach
  3. Target data breach
  4. Sony Pictures hack
  5. Ubers cover-up

Let’s explore the examples of data incident response.

1. Equifax data breach

In 2017, Equifax, a credit reporting agency, experienced a data breach that exposed the personal information of 147 million Americans. The company’s response was heavily criticized for various reasons, including delay in public disclosure and ineffective communication strategies. This incident serves as a case study on how not to handle a data breach, and it led to greater scrutiny of corporate data-handling policies.

2. Capital One data breach

Capital One experienced a data breach in 2019. where an insider was able to access information from more than 100 million customer accounts. Capital One’s response was somewhat better than Equifax’s, as they promptly disclosed the breach and cooperated with authorities to investigate and arrest the insider. They also implemented enhanced security measures and offered free credit monitoring services to affected customers.

3. Target data breach

In 2013, Target Corp suffered a data breach where 40 million debit and credit card numbers were stolen. The company immediately initiated its incident response plan, which involved notifying affected customers and working with law enforcement. They also took steps to improve their cybersecurity infrastructure. Despite these efforts, the breach had a long-term impact on the company’s reputation and finances.

4. Sony Pictures hack

In 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment was targeted in a cyber-attack attributed to North Korea. The attack disabled Sony’s network and leaked unreleased films and confidential emails. Sony Pictures took the drastic step of pulling the release of a film, which was said to be the motivation behind the hack. They also worked closely with law enforcement agencies to investigate the breach. The incident is often cited as an example of a politically motivated cyber-attack and shows the complexity of managing incidents that have international implications.

5. Uber cover-up

Uber experienced a data breach in 2016 that affected 57 million users. Instead of disclosing the breach, Uber paid the hackers $100,000 to delete the data and keep quiet. This cover-up was revealed in 2017, leading to significant legal and reputational damage. The incident is a cautionary tale about the risks involved in not following established data incident response protocols.

Each of these examples offers lessons in what to do or what not to do during a data incident, and they have shaped the way companies approach data security and incident response today.

Data incidents response: When & how do they happen?

Data incidents typically occur when unauthorized individuals gain access to an organization’s systems and data. They can happen for a variety of reasons and can take many forms, from data breaches to data leakage and other types of data loss. Now, let’s look at some of scenarios in which data incidents response arise.

6 Significant scenarios of data incidents

  1. Cyber attacks
  2. Human errors
  3. Insider threats
  4. Third-party risks
  5. Advanced persistent threats
  6. Physical theft or loss

Let’s delve deep into the scenarios of data incident response.

1. Cyber attacks

These are intentional and malicious attacks carried out by individuals or groups with the aim of compromising an organization’s systems and data. Types of cyber-attacks include malware attacks, ransomware attacks, phishing attacks, denial-of-service attacks, and man-in-the-middle attacks.

  • Malware attacks

These involve malicious software, such as viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware, and spyware. They can infect a network and lead to data theft, corruption, or loss.

  • Ransomware attacks

In these attacks, malware is used to encrypt an organization’s data, rendering it inaccessible until a ransom is paid to the attackers.

  • Phishing attacks

These involve fraudulent emails that appear to be from legitimate entities, and trick individuals into providing sensitive data like credit card numbers, social security numbers, or login credentials.

  • Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks

In DoS attacks, the attacker overwhelms the victim’s network with traffic to render the network or service inaccessible.

  • Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks

These occur when attackers insert themselves into a two-party transaction or communication. Once the attackers interrupt the traffic, they can filter and steal data.

2. Human error

Even with the best security measures in place, human error can lead to data incidents. This can happen in various ways, such as:

  • Misconfiguration of databases or security tools.
  • Use of weak or easily guessable passwords.
  • Falling for phishing emails or scams.
  • Accidental deletion or alteration of data.
  • Unintentional sharing of sensitive data with unauthorized individuals.

3. Insider threats

In some cases, data incidents can be caused by disgruntled or malicious insiders. These insiders can abuse their access to the organization’s systems and data for malicious purposes, such as stealing data for personal gain or harming the organization.

4. Third-party risks

Organizations often have to share data with partners, vendors, and other third parties. If these third parties don’t have adequate security measures in place, they can become a weak link that leads to data incidents.

5. Advanced persistent threats (APTs)

APTs are a type of cyber threat in which an attacker gains access to a network and stays undetected for a long period. These threats are usually orchestrated by well-resourced and skilled adversaries with specific targets and goals, such as stealing, spying, or disrupting operations.

6. Physical theft or loss

Physical theft or loss of devices like laptops, external hard drives, or paper records can also lead to data incidents, particularly if these devices aren’t encrypted and are left in insecure locations.

The reasons behind data incidents range from purely accidental to highly malicious, and from internal mistakes to external attacks. That’s why it’s important for organizations to have a comprehensive security strategy in place that addresses both technological and human factors.

Data incident response: Who is involved & what do they do?

Data incident response involves several roles and responsibilities to ensure an effective and coordinated response to data incidents. The specific roles may vary depending on the organization’s size, industry, and specific needs, but below are some common roles typically involved in data incident response:

4 Common roles involved in data incident response

The following four roles are critical for combating data incidents in time.

  1. Incident response manager / Incident commander
  2. Incident response team
  3. Communications team
  4. Executive leadership

Let’s dive deeper into them.

1. Incident response manager / Incident commander

The incident commander (also known as the incident response manager) is the person in charge of the overall incident response. They are responsible for coordinating the response, making strategic decisions, and ensuring effective communication among the team and with other stakeholders. This role involves:

  • Activating and coordinating the incident response team.
  • Prioritizing tasks and assigning responsibilities based on the nature and severity of the incident.
  • Communicating updates and findings to relevant stakeholders, including senior management and possibly affected customers or clients.
  • Overseeing the development and execution of a remediation plan.
  • Ensuring compliance with relevant laws, regulations, and organizational policies.
  • Leading post-incident review processes to identify lessons learned and areas for improvement.

2. Incident response team

The incident response team is a group of individuals who are responsible for identifying, investigating, and responding to data incidents. This team typically includes individuals from various backgrounds and specialties, such as network security, system administration, and legal expertise.

  • Security analysts: They perform a hands-on role in investigating the incident. Their tasks may include reviewing logs, analyzing network traffic, conducting forensic analysis, and identifying compromised systems.
  • IT professionals: They are often involved in mitigating the incident and restoring systems to normal operation. This might include patching vulnerabilities, cleaning infected systems, and recovering lost data.
  • Legal and compliance professionals: They are responsible for ensuring that the organization’s response complies with relevant laws and regulations. They might also handle notifications to affected individuals, regulatory bodies, or law enforcement as necessary.

3. Communications team

The communications team (which might include public relations professionals) is responsible for managing communications related to the incident. This might include internal communications to staff, as well as external communications to customers, partners, the media, and the public.

  • Internal communications: They ensure that all staff members are informed about the incident and understand their responsibilities. This might include advising staff on how to communicate about the incident to avoid unintentionally spreading misinformation.
  • External communications: They manage communications with customers, partners, and the media. This often involves carefully crafting messages that provide the necessary information without causing undue alarm. They must also manage the organization’s reputation and respond to any public criticism or concern.

4. Executive leadership

Senior executives and the board of directors play a crucial role in incident response. They are typically not involved in the day-to-day response but need to be informed about the situation and any potential impacts on the organization’s operations, reputation, or bottom line. They might also need to approve certain actions, such as large expenditures related to the response.

  • Decision making: They make high-level decisions related to the incident response, such as whether to pay a ransom in a ransomware attack or how to handle communications with customers and the public.
  • Risk management: They assess the risks associated with the incident and the response, including potential impacts on the organization’s operations, finances, and reputation.
  • Crisis management: In severe incidents, the executive leadership might need to initiate a broader crisis management response. This could involve activating a crisis management team, developing a crisis management plan, and ensuring business continuity.

Each of these roles and responsibilities contributes to a coordinated, effective response to data incidents. By working together, these teams can help to minimize the impact of incidents, recover from them as quickly as possible, and learn from them to prevent future incidents.

Data incident response: 6 Strategic phases

In the face of relentless and ever-evolving cyber threats, understanding and implementing these essential steps of data incident response is a fundamental requirement for safeguarding sensitive information, maintaining operational continuity, and building resilience against future data breaches.

Let’s explore the six strategic phases of data incident response or data incident resolution.

  1. Preparation
  2. Identification
  3. Containment
  4. Eradication
  5. Validate recovery
  6. Restore systems

Let’s look at each phase of data incident response in detail.

1. Preparation

Preparation is all about setting up the necessary structures, resources, and capabilities to respond to a data incident.

1.1 Establish a data incident response team

Assembling a data incident response team involves identifying individuals within your organization who have the necessary skills and knowledge to deal with data incidents.

This team might include network and system administrators, security analysts, representatives from the legal department, public relations professionals, and IT support staff.

This team should be formally designated and should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

1.2 Develop a data incident response plan

A data incident response plan serves as a guide for the actions to take when a data incident occurs.

It should outline the steps to identify, contain, eradicate, and recover from an incident, and should define the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved.

This plan should be tailored to the organization’s specific needs and resources, and should be regularly reviewed and updated to reflect changes in the organization’s systems, threats, and regulatory environment.

1.3 Implement data incident response tools

Tools can greatly aid in the detection, analysis, and response to data incidents.

These can include security information and event management (SIEM) systems, which collect and analyze logs from various sources to detect unusual activity; intrusion detection systems (IDS), which monitor networks for signs of attacks; and forensic tools, which help analyze evidence and investigate incidents.

These tools should be carefully selected to fit the organization’s specific needs and should be properly configured and managed to ensure they function effectively.

1.4 Conduct training and simulations

Training and simulations can help ensure that everyone in the organization knows what to do when a data incident occurs.

This can include training the incident response team in their specific roles and responsibilities, as well as broader training for all staff on how to identify and report potential incidents.

Simulations, such as tabletop exercises or live drills, can help test the organization’s incident response capabilities and identify areas for improvement.

2. Identification

Identification is about detecting and confirming data incidents and understanding their nature and scope.

2.1 Detect potential incidents

Detection involves monitoring the organization’s systems and networks for signs of potential data incidents.

This might involve analyzing system logs, network traffic, or user behavior for unusual activity that could indicate a data incident. Detection can be performed manually but is often aided by automated tools like SIEM systems or IDS.

2.2 Confirm and classify incidents

Not all unusual activities are actual data incidents. Therefore, potential incidents need to be investigated to confirm whether they are indeed incidents and to understand their nature.

This might involve further analysis of the suspicious activity, correlation with other data or intelligence, or investigation of the affected systems or data.

Incidents should also be classified based on factors like their severity, the type of data affected, and the potential impact on the organization.

2.3 Document the incident

Documentation is crucial for maintaining a record of the incident and the organization’s response.

This should include all relevant details, such as when the incident was detected, what symptoms were observed, who was involved in the response, and any actions taken.

Documentation can help in analyzing the incident, reporting to management or regulatory bodies, and learning from the incident for future improvement.

3. Containment

Containment is about preventing the incident from causing further damage, while also preserving evidence for further investigation.

3.1 Short-term containment

Short-term containment involves taking immediate steps to stop the incident and limit its impact.

Depending on the nature of the incident, this might involve actions like disconnecting affected systems from the network, blocking malicious network traffic, or changing user credentials to prevent unauthorized access.

These actions should be taken carefully to avoid causing further damage or destroying evidence.

3.2 Long-term containment

Long-term containment involves implementing measures to prevent the incident from causing further damage while recovery efforts are underway.

This could involve applying patches to fix vulnerabilities, implementing additional security controls to prevent unauthorized access, or strengthening network defenses to prevent further attacks.

4. Eradication

Eradication is about removing the root cause of the incident to prevent it from recurring.

4.1 Identify the root cause

Identifying the root cause of the incident involves investigating how the incident occurred. This might involve analyzing malware, investigating how the attacker gained access, or identifying the vulnerabilities that were exploited.

This often involves in-depth analysis and the use of specialized tools or expertise.

4.2 Remove the root cause

Once the root cause is identified, it should be removed to prevent the incident from recurring.

This might involve removing malware from systems, closing vulnerabilities by applying patches or changing processes or behaviors that led to the incident.

5. Recovery

Recovery is about restoring affected systems and data to their normal state and resuming normal operations.

5.1 Restore systems

Restoring systems might involve reinstalling system software, restoring data from backups, or rebuilding systems from scratch.

It’s important to ensure that any remnants of the incident, such as malware or exploited vulnerabilities, are removed before systems are returned to operation.

5.2 Validate recovery

After systems are restored, it’s crucial to validate that they are functioning correctly and securely.

This might involve performing checks to ensure that all systems and data are intact, conducting vulnerability scans to ensure that no vulnerabilities remain, or monitoring systems closely to ensure that the incident does not recur.

6. Lessons learned

Learning from incidents is crucial for improving the organization’s incident response capabilities and overall security posture.

6.1 Conduct a post-incident review

A post-incident review involves analyzing the incident and the organization’s response to identify lessons learned. This might involve reviewing documentation, interviewing those involved in the response, or conducting technical analyses.

The aim is to understand what went well, what could have been done better, and how the organization can improve its response in the future.

6.2 Update incident response plan

Based on the lessons learned, the incident response plan should be updated to incorporate new insights. This might involve updating the roles and responsibilities, the procedures for identifying or responding to incidents, or the tools and resources used in the response.

6.3 Conduct training and simulations

After updating the incident response plan, it’s important to conduct new training and simulations to help the incident response team and other staff understand the changes and improve their skills.

This might involve training on new procedures or tools, simulations of new types of incidents, or exercises to practice new roles or responsibilities.

By following these meticulous steps, organizations can effectively respond to data incidents, minimizing their impact, recovering as quickly as possible, and continuously improving their incident response capabilities.

Recap: What have we learnt so far?

  • Data incidents are an ever-present threat in our data-rich digital landscape, demanding swift and coordinated responses to protect sensitive information and ensure organizational resilience.
  • From cyber attacks to human errors and insider threats, understanding the various scenarios in which data incidents arise is vital for building comprehensive security strategies.
  • To combat such incidents effectively, organizations must establish a well-structured and skilled data incident response team, equipped with a clear incident response plan and the necessary tools for detection, containment, eradication, and recovery.
  • By conducting training and simulations, they can ensure a proficient response from all stakeholders involved.
  • Through the six strategic phases of data incident response - preparation, identification, containment, eradication, recovery, and lessons learned - organizations can navigate the tumultuous waters of data incidents with confidence.
  • By documenting incidents and updating response plans based on lessons learned, they can continuously enhance their incident response capabilities and safeguard against future threats.
  • Ultimately, data incident response serves as a critical shield, protecting organizations, individuals, and their invaluable data from the ever-evolving specter of data incidents in our modern digital era.

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