As we all know, businesses face a growing number of potential threats. From cyberattacks to data breaches, these incidents can have disastrous consequences for any organization, affecting their reputation, financial standing, and operational integrity. However, having a robust incident response plan in place can help mitigate these risks.

This guide will provide a comprehensive understanding of incident response management, including a step-by-step approach to handle security breaches, data breaches from a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) perspective, and practical examples to help you better grasp the process.

What is Incident Response?

Before we jump into the details, let’s first understand what we mean by ‘incident response’. In the context of cybersecurity, an incident refers to an event that threatens the security, integrity, availability, or privacy of a system or data. A successful attack, unauthorized access, or data breach can all be considered incidents.

Incident response is the organized approach to addressing and managing the aftermath of these security incidents. It involves a series of actions taken to limit the impact, recover from the incident, and restore normal operations.

Why is Incident Response Important?

Imagine you woke up one day to find out that your company’s sensitive data has been exposed to unauthorized parties. What would you do? Who would you contact first? How would you prevent further damage?

Without a proper incident response plan, businesses often find themselves in chaos, leading to significant losses. An effective incident response plan can help:

  • Minimize damage and reduce recovery time and costs
  • Identify gaps in existing security measures
  • Maintain the trust of customers and stakeholders
  • Comply with regulatory requirements, such as GDPR

The Six-Step Incident Response Plan

Incident response can be broken down into six key stages: Preparation, Identification, Containment, Eradication, Recovery, and Lessons Learned.

  1. Preparation: This is arguably the most crucial phase. Here, you develop the response plan, set up your incident response team, and provide training. The team should include members from different departments, such as IT, legal, HR, and public relations. Regularly testing and updating your plan is also part of this phase.
  2. Identification: This phase involves detecting and validating the incident. It may start with an alert from a security system, or a report from an employee or customer. Once an incident is suspected, it must be confirmed, and its severity assessed.
  3. Containment: Once an incident has been identified, the next step is to contain it to prevent further damage. This might involve disconnecting affected systems or networks, or blocking certain IP addresses. A short-term containment strategy is implemented initially, followed by a longer-term one based on a more thorough analysis.
  4. Eradication: After the threat has been contained, the next step is to remove it from your systems. This might involve deleting malicious files, removing affected systems from the network, or even rebuilding systems from scratch.
  5. Recovery: Once the threat has been eradicated, the affected systems can be restored and returned to normal operation. This phase also involves monitoring systems to ensure no further suspicious activity occurs.
  6. Lessons Learned: The final phase involves reviewing the incident and the response to it, identifying lessons learned, and updating your incident response plan accordingly.

GDPR and Data Breaches

Since the introduction of the GDPR, companies are required to report certain types of personal data breaches to the relevant supervisory authority. If the breach poses a high risk to individuals, they must also be informed.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example. Suppose your company, a European online retailer, experiences a data breach where customer names, addresses, and credit card details are exposed. Here’s how you’d apply your incident response plan while considering GDPR requirements:

  1. Preparation: As part of your incident response plan, you should already have a mechanism in place for detecting data breaches. This includes monitoring systems for suspicious activity and having employees trained to recognize signs of a breach. You should also have a predefined communication channel to report breaches to the appropriate authorities and affected individuals, in compliance with GDPR.
  2. Identification: Your monitoring systems detect an unusual amount of data being transferred from your servers to an unknown IP address. After investigating, your IT team confirms this is a data breach.
  3. Containment: Your IT team isolates the affected systems to prevent further data loss. Meanwhile, your legal team verifies that the breached data falls under the personal data category defined by the GDPR, making it reportable.
  4. Eradication: Your IT team identifies the vulnerability that led to the breach and patches it. They also ensure that no traces of the malicious activity remain in your systems.
  5. Recovery: After confirming the threat is completely removed, the affected systems are returned to normal operation. Additional monitoring is put in place to ensure no further suspicious activity occurs.
  6. Lessons Learned: After the incident, your team reviews the sequence of events and the response. They identify that the vulnerability which led to the breach was due to an outdated software component. As a result, the incident response plan is updated to include more rigorous software update protocols.

Now, let’s focus on the GDPR-specific steps:

  • Notification: As per GDPR, you need to report the breach to your country’s data protection authority within 72 hours of becoming aware of it. The notification should describe the nature of the breach, the categories and approximate number of individuals affected, and the steps you’ve taken to mitigate the potential adverse effects.
  • Communication to the affected individuals: If the breach poses a high risk to the rights and freedoms of the individuals involved, you should also communicate directly to them without undue delay. This communication should explain in clear and plain language the nature of the breach and the measures you’ve taken to address it.

By understanding and integrating these steps into your incident response plan, you can ensure a swift and effective response to security incidents, while also meeting your GDPR obligations.


In the digital age, security breaches are unfortunately a case of ‘when’, not ‘if’. That’s why having a robust incident response plan is a necessity, not a luxury. It can be the difference between a minor disruption and a major catastrophe.

Remember, preparation is key. Regularly updating and testing your plan will ensure that your team is ready to respond effectively when an incident occurs. And by understanding the requirements of regulations like GDPR, you can make sure that your response not only mitigates the impact of a breach, but also keeps you on the right side of the law.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Don’t let a lack of preparation turn a manageable incident into a disaster. Start planning your incident response strategy today.