Seven steps to implementing a successful incident response plan

Industrial facilities are beginning to take heed that, as operational technology (OT) becomes increasingly connected, cybersecurity must be a priority. This has led many to re-prioritise their cybersecurity investments and, while that is a good starting point, there is no such thing as 100% cybersecure. What if an attacker were able to bypass the security measures in place and gain access to critical security systems?

Having a robust incident response plan is just as important as having procedures in place to keep attackers out. There are, however, unique challenges in industrial domains. A successful attack on OT could impact numerous different systems from different vendors and understanding the appropriate response in the face of this complexity requires highly specialised skills and involvement from various parties, including engineers, vendors, system integrators and more.

Furthermore, OT environments are at risk of very sophisticated, specific threats – and failure to take appropriate action could lead to devastating results that impact physical processes. In the event of a cybersecurity incident, best practice incident response guidelines follow a well-established seven step process: Prepare; Identify; Contain; Eradicate; Restore; Learn; Test and Repeat:


Preparation matters: The key word in an incident plan is not ‘incident’; preparation is everything. This means a thorough risk assessment which addresses all points, from staff training to developing contact lists in the event of an incident. Contingencies for an incident which impacts communications, creates a hazardous environment or takes place in a remote site – such as an oil rig – must be in place and regularly updated.

Identifying events: It is here that many organisations struggle. The ability to spot unusual behaviours and classify them are critical to taking appropriate action. Many of the penetration tests we conduct are successful, indicating that work needs to be done in this area. Once an issue is confirmed, it’s important to understand the nature of an event and its potential to cause damage. Filtering out false positives requires experience and technical skills.

Containment: This again requires protocols which lay out appropriate courses of action. Over-reaction could be just as damaging to operations as under-reaction. Can the threat be contained simply by disconnecting one network host, or isolating a section of the production line? Is there a plan in place for segregating the OT network if malware is discovered on the corporate network? The right strategy will prevent unnecessary downtime and make forensic investigation simpler.

Eradication and restoration: Steps four and five involve eradicating the threat and bringing the environment back online using a well-documented process for restoring it from trustworthy ‘golden image’ backups. One of the challenges in this step is regularly testing the ability and the backups themselves. Stopping a production line for comprehensive drills is difficult, while maintaining a replica environment for testing is prohibitively expensive for most. Technologies like virtualisation can provide the required flexibility and assurance.

Learning and reiterating: Steps six and seven emphasise the need to document and learn from every event in order to identify weaknesses and prevent recurrence. Then fine tune and test your processes and train your staff with attack simulation, drills and games. This process should be constantly repeated.

What these seven steps highlight is that ensuring effective cybersecurity provisions are in place within industrial environments is not just about alleviating the potential threat of a cyberattack. What is just as important is that firms are also prepared for the aftermath of a breach. Being able to effectively prepare for an attack, identify a breach, make sure it doesn’t escalate any further, restore systems and then fine tune the process requires specific ICS cybersecurity experience.

It is true that an incident response plan can only be as effective as the people who create it and put it into action. Applied Risk has the required knowledge to help firms deploy a tailored incident response plan that will minimise potential damages caused in the aftermath of a breach.

If your industrial facility needs support in developing and implementing an effective incident response plan, contact us below.