The Best Incident Response Strategies for Universities in 2022

The Best Incident Response Strategies for Universities in 2022

The Best Incident Response Strategies for Universities in 2022

Educational institutions, especially colleges and universities with thousands of students, handle massive amounts of sensitive data, including student bio, protected health information, and financial documents. In addition, university websites and web applications facilitate huge financial transactions daily. The push towards remote working (and learning) in the wake of the pandemic has put more pressure on information technology resources, especially from a cybersecurity standpoint, as digital platforms are highly susceptible to cyber attacks. To protect the sensitive information of students, most universities employ cybersecurity experts who can assess, report, and mitigate cybersecurity risks and minimize the impact of cybersecurity incidents.

The ultimate aim of the incident response team for colleges and universities is to promote and uphold an environment that ensures confidentiality and integrity for the students while concurrently enhancing the availability of the data and the university’s systems to its stakeholders. The universities handle volumes of data of students every year, and this could include their confidential information and banking details. Incident responsei is a vital part of any organizations risk management program. Incident handling can make or break a college and must be done carefully in conjunction with system administrators and all other stakeholders. 

There are all chances of these data to be breached, mandating the need for an incident response team on campus. The team’s incident response activities will include securely handling the information and data, analyzing the incident, and responding to the incident appropriately to manage and maintain the level of information systems in the university. 

What Is A Cybersecurity Incident Response Plan? 

Broadly speaking, an incident is a cybersecurity breach on the systems of a particular institution. The type and nature of an incident vary depending on how they are defined. Generally, any violation of university policies regarding confidential data, access control, or acceptable use can be regarded as an incident. Be it via external or internal factors, incidents threaten confidentiality, integrity, and data availability. Normally, specialized teams try to prevent any unauthorized access of systems or networks. But should there be an intrusion of any sort, it is the job of the incident response team to identify the type of incident, assess its impact, initiate the incident response process and protocol, and reduce the impact of the incident.

Competent Incident Response Practices In Universities And Colleges

The incident of data breaches and information security breaches are inevitable not just for organizations and enterprises but also for universities and colleges as well, as they deal with the students’ sensitive data. Thus it is important to have an effective incident response team in the college premises, to keep the information of the university community intact. 

The data breaches, security incidents, and even data losses are stretching their ugly hand on colleges and universities that deal with students’ sensitive information. Unauthorized access can steal students’ personal information, their bank details, and even protected health information. 

The incident management programs help universities and educational institutions respond to security incidents appropriately, maintain confidentiality integrity, and protect IT resources and data. If the institution fails to plan and falls prey to information security incidents, then it can spoil the reputation of the institution and breach its confidential information and sensitive data.

Formulating A Competent Incident Response Plan

The main goal of the incident response team is to undertake incidents effectively and mitigate the incident’s consequences on the institution. Also, the lessons learned will help in reducing the instances of such incidences in the future. Creating an effective information security incident response team in the educational institution is paramount in 2022. 

To create a security policy with a competent incident respose plan, the university should first determine what types of incidents they may be susecptible to and appoint a CIO to manage and remediate a team should an event arise. A CIO or CISO is the head of your information security pyramid. A chief information officer or CIO will control a company’s IT organization’s people, procedures, and technology to ensure that they provide results that meet the company’s goals. A chief information security officer is a senior executive who is in charge of establishing and implementing an information security program, which includes processes and policies to secure company communications, systems, and assets from both internal and external threats.

The CISO is your best resource for remediation after a computer security incident. 

Establish roles and responsibilities and specific procedures within the university community to identify incidents and streamline the incident response process. The technical capabilities of the incident response team and their agility to identify and counter the incidents immediately should be delineated. Because universities hold so much sensitive information about both students and employees, the data must be protected. Universities may have social security numbers, HIPAA information, credit card information, PCI, PII and other sensitive information. A denial of service attack can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if students are unable to attend class due to an outage. Data security is the upmost concern of any information security policy for universities. University data must be safeguarded using the proper incident response plan and general use policies to avoud security events. 

Ascertain how the information systems support could be attained to create an effective incident response process. The guide should be formulated for managing incidents all over their lifecycle and not just at the end phase. Double check the legal and contractual communications requirements which are required for the information security incidents of institutions.The final step is to adapt and take advantage of the lessons learned from past incidents to improve the incident response activities constantly. 

Stages In Formulating The Incident Response Plan For Colleges And Universities

An effective information security incident response process includes four primary stages, and this can also be referred to as the incident life cycle. The components of this cycle are as follows:


The incident response process should be backed up with policies and procedures for handling incidents appropriately. These documents should be concise and clear and should encompass all the steps to be taken by every member of the incident response team in the event of a security incident.

All the required documents should be kept ready, well in advance. At this stage, the institution will focus on the resources to perform incident response activities, including personnel who are trained in handling incidents and developing a formal incident reporting process for the entire campus. The incident response policy of an institution should encompass the following.

Objectives and the purpose of the policy

Scope of the policy

Definition of what a security incident is and to which the college would respond

Rating and prioritizing the incident response activities

Description of the roles and responsibilities of the team members.

The point of contact or designee to whom the incident should be reported, to include law enforcement agencies or the information security office.  

It is also evident to add several supplementary information to the incident response process with the help of supporting documents such as a flow chart of how the security incidents will be handled on the campus, having a website to report suspected incidents, communicating the detailed procedure for reporting the incident, etc. 

The members of the incident response team should be detailed and trained in their roles and responsibilities in the preparation stage itself. At times, general counsel members might require advanced training such as forensic analysis, use of data examination and recovery tools, etc. 

Detection And Analysis Stage

Detecting the impact of the incident is an important step in the incident response process of universities and colleges. The end-users can report the incidents, and they can also be detected and reported by trained personnel. But all campus personnel should be trained on the ways to detect and report security incidents.

The institutions should also have technical controls in place to automate the process of detecting and handling incidents. Some common processes of the security incident response plan include accessing the server logs for unauthorized access, monitoring router logs and firewalls for security incidents, observing network performances, etc. Institutions can use network intrusion detection systems to manage data from diverse sources, create alerts and take steps to avoid unauthorized access and other malicious activities. 

Apart from detecting information security incidents, it should also be assessed periodically to monitor the level of severity. The team will also analyze the scope of the incident and the resources, and the quantum of sensitive data involved. All the data that has been generated during this stage will help in prioritizing incidents, and the lessons learned will help to stay vigilant in the future.

Eradication And Recovery Of The Threat

Generally, the security incidents happen in no sequential format without any clear associations between them. The roles and responsibilities of the team are to ascertain the severity and scope of the underlying incident and strengthen their capacity for efficient responding to information security. Their additional responsibilities are:

Confine the incident at its point of contact to prevent additional disruption and spread to other systems. 

Conduct additional investigation for incidents that deal with sensitive data and with higher severity.

The next important work is to preserve, secure and document the evidence of the breach.

Depending on the severity of the breach and if any HIPAA or other sensitive information was compromised you may need to contact law enforcement and human resources. 

Implement additional monitoring to look into the incident-relevant activity in detail.

If the impact of the incident is severe, then the IT team and the institution’s leaders should be involved to coordinate with the legal team. 

Post-Incident Review

This is a very important aspect of the security incident response plan. This is a significant step, and it is critically overlooked. During this phase, the information security incident response team will identify the lessons learned and frame regulations on how they have to handle information security in the future.

The general counsel will hold a meeting to learn how best they were responding to information security and identify improvement areas. They will review the actions that were put into use and document the entire process for future use and metrics. They will also determine if any high-level issues need to be escalated to the management and the legal community. 

The general counsel will also upgrade their security incident response plan with definite metrics to help the university to identify the cause of information security incidents. It will also help them assess the extent of damage, the techniques used to maintain confidentiality integrity of data, and their consequent results. This helps the university community to recover the damages caused to the information system and reduce the downtime of reacting to future incidents. 

Documenting Incident Response

The successful implementation of the security incident response plan requires careful planning and sequential training of the university community to be effective and useful. It is appropriate for universities to run simulated breaches and record how the team responds to information security breaches. This will help in fine-tuning the information security incident response plan and eliminate the threat at its point of contact. 

All the suspected events that involve the breach of protected health information and unauthorized access to confidential data should be reported to the information security officer of the university over the phone or in person, or through email. All information security incidents should be reported first to the IT support personnel in the department and then to the ISO.

Why is an Incident Response Team Important?

It is crucial for universities and educational establishments to have a well-trained team whose roles and responsibilities for handling incidents are clearly defined.

The head of this team acts as a point of contact for the upper management at the university and coordinates the team to manage the incident. 

The incident response team helps the university during a security breach in many ways, including but not limited to:

●  Data classification, threat level, and impact of the incident.

●  Determining the amount of data exposure the university had to endure.

●  Securing the university information systems and networks to ensure that no further damage occurs.

●  Providing a clear picture and guidance to stakeholders.

●  Forming a security incident response plan to mitigate risks including malware.

Therefore, a dedicated incident response team is essential to ensure no data or process that is crucial for the smooth functioning of the university is compromised due to an incident. In addition, the team is responsible for reducing the impact/damage of the incident on the university community, including students, faculty, directors, and stakeholders.

How Does An Incident Response Team Work?

Members of a typical incident response team are grouped as follows:

●  Handlers: The handlers gather information from systems regarding the incidents and hold immense cybersecurity knowledge. They also provide crucial information regarding managing the incident.

●  Coordinators: This team is responsible for documenting the incident response process and updating the chief officer of the incident response team with all the necessary information regarding the response procedure.

Executive Team: This group consists of the incident response team lead, legal counsel, representative of stakeholders, university communications, and the dean. They are responsible for making key decisions involved in the incident response procedure.

Common Cybersecurity Threats for Universities

The incident response team executes the following set of procedures according to predefined guidelines and procedural standards set by the university. They leverage several security tools and technologies in this regard.

●  Preparation and Training: This enables the team to create policies, guidelines, and processes pertaining to incident response. This also involves deciding what tools and technology would be used during the incident response. The team also ensures that it is ready and equipped to detect, contain, and investigate any incident. This procedure usually undergoes periodic reviews and is continuously improved and updated.

●  Detection: This is where the detection and classification of an incident happens. The incident response team, particularly the group of handlers, identifies the type of incident and whereabouts of the breach. Then, they immediately send a breach notification to every user and stakeholder who may have been affected by the incident. The team also gathers information from inside or outside sources about any suspected/similar incidents.

●  Containment: This is probably the most important step in an incident response game plan, where the team works to prevent any further damage by identifying the networks or systems that have been directly or indirectly affected by the breach. The response team immediately isolates these systems to prevent further damage. It also involves establishing a proper channel of communication with the affected parties and those involved in the incident.

●  Investigation: This is where the action plan is correctly set in motion. The executive team is formed, and important decisions are taken regarding the response procedures. An accurate assessment of data exposure is also carried out. More importantly, a task force is employed to find the root cause of the incident.

●  Risk Mitigation: This entails the repair of the affected systems. A thorough analysis is done to make sure that the containment is foolproof. All other procedures are done by the information security incident response team in adherence to the predefined process and standards to stop further damage of any kind.

Recovery: This involves incorporating any valuable information or new knowledge obtained from the procedure into the response guidelines. This allows the team to fine-tune their procedure and train personnel to be better prepared to handle such incidents should they occur again.


In today’s age of excessive reliance on digital and web-based platforms, large educational institutions are more likely to be affected by cyber attacks and incidents. If such a scenario occurs, the presence of an incident response team is essential to minimize the damage, identify the cause, and initiate a meticulous and infallible plan of action to protect the sensitive information of everyone in the university. 

Instead of spending millions on creating and managing an in-house team, most universities opt for hiring experts or companies that provide unerring incident response solutions, working around the clock to detect any security incidents and mitigate risks. Either way, a holistic incident response team is the needed for every college and university. 

Every university and college holds a specific team to report unauthorized access to its systems and other information security incidents, such as access to protected health information of students, bank details of employees and students, etc. The role of the team is to maintain confidentiality, the integrity of the information systems and limit the threat at its point of contact. Almost all major universities and colleges have devised their unique ways of responding to information security to maintain and uphold the university’s dignity and reputation and make it the best place for the students to study.

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