Incident response automation: What it is and how it works 10 types of security incidents and how to handle them

How to create an incident response playbook

Working from an incident response playbook can speed organizations' responses to cyber attacks. Find out how to build repeatable playbooks to use for different types of incidents.

Creating and maintaining an incident response playbook can significantly improve the speed and effectiveness of your organization's incident response activities. Even better, you can usually build a playbook without a lot of extra time and effort. To help, here's a crash course in what incident response playbooks are, why they are important, how to use them and how to build them.

What is an incident response playbook?

An incident response playbook defines common processes or step-by-step procedures needed for your organization's incident response efforts in an easy-to-use format. Playbooks are designed to be actionable, meaning that they quickly tell incident response team members what actions they need to perform under different circumstances. For example, a playbook might have plays for formally declaring an incident, collecting and safeguarding digital evidence, eradicating ransomware or other malware from an environment, and coordinating a data breach announcement with the PR team, as well as many other steps.

Why are incident response playbooks important?

Every minute counts in incident response. A playbook provides a single, authoritative, up-to-date source of instructions for all personnel with incident response roles and responsibilities. Everyone should know where to find the latest information at all times. The benefits of adopting playbooks for incident response include the following:

  • Incident response activities are consistent throughout the organization, and staff are less likely to skip steps within processes and procedures.
  • Responses should start sooner and be performed more quickly with a playbook to follow. This reduces the length of incidents and the damage they may cause. Your organization's normal operations should also resume faster.
  • The playbook effectively provides a common language all incident response personnel can speak. You can save time and improve results by pointing someone to a particular play rather than trying to quickly explain what you'd like them to do, for example.

Types of incident response playbooks

Security incidents occur many ways. It's impossible for organizations to develop step-by-step instructions for each because they require different responses.

To help with the task, NIST provides broad groupings of incidents based on common attack vectors that can be used as a basis for defining specific handling procedures. Some of the common attack vectors to identify and create playbooks for are the following:

  • External or removable media attacks from peripheral devices, flash drives or CDs.
  • Attrition attacks that use brute-force methods to compromise or destroy systems, networks or services.
  • Website or web-based attacks.
  • Email-based and social engineering attacks -- for example, phishing.
  • Acceptable use policy violations by an authorized user that result in an attack, including malicious and negligent insider threats.
  • The loss or theft of equipment such as a company-issued smartphone or laptop.
incident response playbook flow chart

How can you use an incident response playbook?

Incident response playbooks aren't just valuable for responding to actual incidents; they typically have other uses. For example, playbooks are great assets to get new staff up to speed on how your organization conducts incident response activities. They're also highly useful for incident response exercises and tests. In an incident response tabletop exercise, participants can reference particular plays to indicate how they would act in a real situation. In a test, participants' actions can be compared to what the playbook specified.

How to build an incident response playbook

Three key elements go into building incident response playbooks that work well for your organization:

  1. Review publicly available incident response playbooks to see which activities they document, how much detail they provide on each activity and how they organize the sets of activities.
  2. Gather your existing policies, procedures and other documentation related to incident response activities, and assess them for completeness, accuracy and usability.
  3. Plan the contents of your playbook, as well as how they should be structured and organized. This is a balancing act. The more detailed the plays are -- and the more comprehensive the playbook is -- the more effort it takes to create and maintain. But the effort may save time for your incident responders. If your organization already has playbooks on other topics, see if the approaches work for incident response.

As you build your playbooks, be sure to get feedback from the people who will be using the playbook. If your playbook is hard to use, it could be more a hindrance than a help, so their input on play and playbook drafts is invaluable.

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This was last published in March 2023

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