Building Your Cyber Incident Response Team

When you’re blindsided by a sudden cyber attack, it pays to have a band of heroes you can call upon to save the day. Fortunately, that’s exactly what a cyber incident response team (CIRT) is for.

Think of them like the Avengers. They might not protect your universe from alien invaders, but they do keep malicious cybercriminals at bay.

Let’s uncover the basics of CIRTs and how you can build the best team for your district’s cybersecurity needs.

What is a cyber incident response team?

A cyber incident response team — also known as a computer incident response team or computer security incident response team (CSIRT) — is a group of people responsible for responding to security breaches, viruses, and other potentially catastrophic cyber threats.

CIRTs are essential to the overall incident response process. Each security team member plays a particular role in mitigating an active threat, but together, they cohesively executive your school district’s incident response plan (IRP).

In short, an IRP is a formal document that establishes the requisite steps, instructions, and procedures your school district should follow for detecting, containing, and minimizing the impact of an attack on your information technology (IT) infrastructure. Generally speaking, incident response planning provides a comprehensive framework for mitigating a cyber incident, whether it be a security breach, data leak, or any other threat to sensitive information and student privacy.

With a well-crafted IRP, you can:

  • Jump into action: Incident response planning helps you act faster, which is key to preventing bad actors from getting their paws on more personal information.
  • Prevent downtime: The sooner you contain a threat, the quicker you can bring affected systems back online. And, if you’re really fast, you can even prevent the attack from forcing information technology offline in the first place.
  • Improve recovery: With a smoother and more effective incident response process, you can avoid critical damage that requires implementing a disaster recovery plan.

However, these outcomes aren’t possible without a computer security incident response team at the helm. A CIRT’s main goal is to regain control of an ongoing cyber incident as quickly and efficiently as possible, thereby minimizing its negative impact. This involves following the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s four-step framework for incident handling:

  1. Preparation
  2. Detection and analysis
  3. Containment, eradication, and recovery
  4. Post-incident activity

Not familiar with these phases? Check out our guide to learn more.

For now, just know the CIRT is responsible for completing each phase’s essential procedures. These include gathering threat intelligence, communicating events to internal and external stakeholders (such as law enforcement), classifying incidents, threat hunting, coordinating response efforts, post-incident reporting, and updating information security policies following a mitigated cyber threat.


Why your school district needs a CIRT

Incident management isn’t just for enterprise-size organizations. Even if your school district doesn’t have a security operations center (SOC), it should still have an incident response plan. Otherwise, when you inevitably experience a cyber attack, you will be flying blind.

Cybersecurity threats

Unfortunately, data breaches are bound to happen. Across the country, K-12 school districts have been experiencing a notable uptick in malicious activity. In fact, attacks have tripled over the years, with more than 1,300 districts reportedly suffering a security breach in 2021 compared to just 400 in 2016.

Why do hackers target the education system? Because, for the most part, they’re sitting ducks. Many districts lack the requisite defenses to protect sensitive information and few have full-time cybersecurity experts on payroll. Plus, as their IT footprint grows, so does their attack surface.

Data leaks

Adding to the complexity is the fact that students and staff members are human. In other words, they make mistakes — especially when it comes to information security. Although today’s children are digitally native, many still are learning how to be responsible digital citizens.

As part of their growing pains, students may accidentally expose their own personal information online, such as by sharing accounts with friends or sending sensitive data over email. Some may even access malicious websites designed only to steal their login credentials, such as by infecting their devices with malware or fooling them into revealing their passwords.

No matter how it begins, even a single cybersecurity incident could spiral into a much bigger threat. Imagine what might happen if a truly nefarious hacker got their paws on a student’s Social Security number or home address. Indeed, the potential outcomes can be devastating, which is why the CIRT is so important.

Cyber safety

Notably, the term “cyber incident” isn’t exclusive to events that expose sensitive information. The scope is much broader in a K-12 context. In addition to data security, schools must also consider cyber safety risks, such as digital self-harm, cyberbullying, suicidal ideation, violence, and toxic behavior. These types of incidents are just as dangerous — if not more so — and deserve an equally effective and speedy response.

Security team roles and responsibilities

Although prior experience is always helpful, you don’t need to be a security analyst to be an effective incident response team member. As long as each individual takes the job seriously and fulfills their duties, they can be a valued addition to the group.

What does a cyber incident response team look like? Let’s review the most important roles and their key responsibilities:

  • Team lead: Like a quarterback is to football, the designated team leader will execute your playbook to the best of their ability. They’re chiefly responsible for coordinating and managing the overall incident response process. So, look for someone innately suited to lead and oversee activities from top to bottom.
  • IT security officer: This position’s job is to handle all technical aspects of incident management, such as investigation, threat hunting, containment, and recovery. In other words, they do the heavy lifting as far as technology is concerned.
  • Communications officer: Knowing how and when to notify law enforcement, families, regulators, and students is key. But the communications officer doesn’t manage external reporting, they also ensure all team members are collaborating and staying on the same page.
  • School counselor: Cyber threats can be distressing. A counselor — or, if you don’t have a full-time professional, a designated staff member — is responsible for addressing the emotional and psychological impact incidents have on students and staff.
  • Legal counsel: Most states have unique and increasingly strict data privacy laws. It’s best to seek legal guidance from an expert who can help you ensure compliance with applicable regulations.
  • Managed IT service vendor: If you have a managed service provider, such as a cloud vendor, you may want to consider looping them into your efforts. Based on your agreement, they may even complement your team with initial detection and response support, log analysis, and other incident response services.
  • Digital forensics vendor: Complex cybersecurity incidents require specialized expertise. A digital forensics provider can help you gather threat intelligence and classify events — that way, you know what you’re dealing with and can respond accordingly.

Aside from these core incident response team members, various other stakeholders may be involved in handling ongoing cybersecurity threats. School principals, for example, may serve as the primary point of contact for reporting purposes, but can also assist with incident management for their respective campuses.

Within the IT department, you might have particular team members who provide niche services. For instance, a network administrator could manage network-related threats, whereas a system administrator focuses exclusively on protecting and recovering affected systems and servers.


How to build a cyber incident response team

Developing an effective incident response team isn’t easy, but it’s well worth the time and energy if it helps you protect your district’s stakeholders’ personal information. Here’s what you can do to get started:

  1. Create a mission statement: A CIRT mission statement establishes its reason for existing and sets expectations for the audience it serves. It can also help you communicate the importance of incident response planning to your staff members, making it easier to recruit the right people.
  2. Identify required skills and abilities: What technical backgrounds or areas of expertise do you need from an incident responder? In a perfect world, you’d have access to the brightest cybersecurity minds, but this isn’t realistic for the average district. Think about your must-haves and nice-to-haves, then start recruiting.
  3. Assign a leader: The leader incident handler is the most important position, as they essentially run point throughout the process. They should be a sound decision maker and at least have some experience with cybersecurity and/or information technology.
  4. Provide training: K-12 is facing a cybersecurity skills shortage, so not everyone on the team may be familiar with certain concepts. Close their knowledge gaps by training them on the basics, such as attack strategies and common vulnerabilities.
  5. Create plans, policies, and procedures: Conduct a risk assessment to gain a better sense of your attack surface. Consider which systems are most susceptible and how you can improve them. Then, plan out steps for protecting your most critical assets and what must be done during an active threat.
  6. Test and evaluate: Once you have an incident response plan, put your team to the test. Have them respond to common scenarios and grade their performance. Make note of possible improvements so you can better manage future incidents.

Support incident response with ManagedMethods

With a cybersecurity incident response team protecting your school district, you can rest assured your students and staff members are safe from devastating cyber attacks. But, if the CIRT can’t detect risks in the first place, they’ll have a much more difficult time achieving their goal.

The good news? ManagedMethods is here to help. With Cloud Monitor, you can automatically patrol your Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 domains for potential threats. Using customizable data loss prevention policies, it alerts you to violations that may indicate a possible security breach or data leak.

Combined with Content Filter, our browser-based web filtering tool, you can keep students safe from inappropriate content. As your first line of defense, it’ll block malicious websites and notify you when users attempt to access them. And, by reducing your attack surface, it ensures you’re protected against domains that may otherwise infect your environment with malware.

Altogether, these solutions help your CIRT launch into action at a moment’s notice. What’s more, to make your life even easier, we’ve developed an incident response plan template — made specifically for K-12 use cases.

Ready to get started? Download the ManagedMethods Incident Response Plan Template today.

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