Incident response overview

Incident response is the practice of investigating and remediating active attack campaigns on your organization. Incident response is part of the security operations (SecOps) discipline and is primarily reactive in nature.

Incident response has the largest direct influence on the overall mean time to acknowledge (MTTA) and mean time to remediate (MTTR) that measure how well security operations are able to reduce organizational risk. Incident response teams heavily rely on good working relationships between threat hunting, intelligence, and incident management teams (if present) to actually reduce risk. For more information, see SecOps metrics.

For more information on security operations roles and responsibilities, see Cloud SOC functions.

Incident response process

The first step is to have an incident response plan in place that encompasses both internal and external processes for responding to cybersecurity incidents. The plan should detail how your organization should:

  • Address attacks that vary with the business risk and impact of the incident, which can vary from an isolated web site that is no longer available to the compromise of administrator-level credentials.
  • Define the purpose of the response, such as a return to service or to handle legal or public relations aspects of the attack.
  • Prioritize the work that needs to get done in terms of how many people should be working on the incident and their tasks.

See the incident response planning article for a checklist of activities you should consider including in your incident response plan. Once your incident response plan is in place, test it regularly for the most serious types of cyberattacks to ensure that your organization can respond quickly and efficiently.

Although each organization's incident response process may be different based on organizational structure and capabilities and historical experience, consider the set of recommendations and best practices in this article for responding to security incidents.

During an incident, it's critical to:

  • Keep calm

    Incidents are extremely disruptive and can become emotionally charged. Stay calm and focus on prioritizing your efforts on the most impactful actions first.

  • Do no harm

    Confirm that your response is designed and executed in a way that avoids loss of data, loss of business-critical functionality, and loss of evidence. Avoid decisions that can damage your ability to create forensic timelines, identify root cause, and learn critical lessons.

  • Involve your legal department

    Determine whether they plan to involve law enforcement so you can plan your investigation and recovery procedures appropriately.

  • Be careful when sharing information about the incident publicly

    Confirm that anything you share with your customers and the public is based on the advice of your legal department.

  • Get help when needed

    Tap into deep expertise and experience when investigating and responding to attacks from sophisticated attackers.

Like diagnosing and treating a medical disease, cybersecurity investigation and response for a major incident requires defending a system that is both:

  • Critically important (can't be shut down to work on it).
  • Complex (typically beyond the comprehension of any one person).

During an incident, you must strike these critical balances:

  • Speed

    Balance the need to act quickly to satisfy stakeholders with the risk of rushed decisions.

  • Sharing information

    Inform investigators, stakeholders, and customers based on the advice of your legal department to limit liability and avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

This article is designed to lower the risk to your organization for a cybersecurity incident by identifying common errors to avoid and providing guidance on what actions you can rapidly take that both reduce risk and meet stakeholder needs.


For more guidance on preparing your organization for ransomware and other types of multi-stage attacks, see Prepare your recovery plan.

Response best practices

Responding to incidents can be done effectively from both technical and operations perspectives with these recommendations.


For more detailed industry guidance, see the NIST Computer Security Incident Handling Guide.

Technical response best practices

For the technical aspects of incident response, here are some goals to consider:

  • Try to identify the scope of the attack operation.

    Most adversaries use multiple persistence mechanisms.

  • Identify the objective of the attack, if possible.

    Persistent attackers will frequently return for their objective (data/systems) in a future attack.

Here are some useful tips:

  • Don't upload files to online scanners

    Many adversaries monitor instance count on services like VirusTotal for discovery of targeted malware.

  • Carefully consider modifications

    Unless you face an imminent threat of losing business-critical data—such as deletion, encryption, and exfiltration—balance the risk of not making the modification with the projected business impact. For example, temporarily shutting down your organization's internet access may be necessary to protect business-critical assets during an active attack.

    If changes are necessary where the risk of not doing an action is higher than the risk of doing it, document the action in a change log. Changes made during incident response are focused on disrupting the attacker and may impact the business adversely. You'll need to roll back these changes after the recovery process.

  • Don't investigate forever

    You must ruthlessly prioritize your investigation efforts. For example, only perform forensic analysis on endpoints that attackers have used or modified. For example, in a major incident where an attacker has administrative privileges, it's practically impossible to investigate all potentially compromised resources (which may include all organization resources).

  • Share information

    Confirm that all investigation teams, including all internal teams and external investigators or insurance providers, are sharing their data with each other, based on the advice of your legal department.

  • Access the right expertise

    Confirm that you integrate people with deep knowledge of the systems into the investigation—such as internal staff or external entities like vendors—not just security generalists.

  • Anticipate reduced response capability

    Plan for 50% of your staff operating at 50% of normal capacity due to situational stress.

A key expectation to manage with stakeholders is that you may never be able to identify the initial attack because the data required for identification has been deleted before the investigation starts, such as an attacker covering their tracks by log rolling.

Operations response best practices

For security operations (SecOps) aspects of incident response, here are some goals to consider:

  • Staying focused

    Confirm you keep the focus on business-critical data, customer impact, and getting ready for remediation.

  • Providing coordination and role clarity

    Establish distinct roles for operations in support of the crisis team and confirm that technical, legal, and communications teams are keeping each other informed.

  • Keeping your business perspective

    You should always consider the impact on business operations by both adversary actions and your own response actions.

Here are some useful tips:

  • Consider the Incident Command System (ICS) for crisis management

    If you don't have a permanent organization that manages security incidents, we recommend using the ICS as a temporary organizational structure to manage the crisis.

  • Keep ongoing daily operations intact

    Ensure that normal SecOps aren't completely sidelined to support incident investigations. This work still needs to be done.

  • Avoid wasteful spending

    Many major incidents result in the purchase of expensive security tools under pressure that are never deployed or used. If you can't deploy and use a tool during the investigation, which can include hiring and training for more staff with the skill sets needed to operate the tool, defer acquisition until after you finish the investigation.

  • Access deep expertise

    Confirm you have the ability to escalate questions and issues to deep experts on critical platforms. This ability might require access to the operating system and application vendor for business-critical systems and enterprise-wide components such as desktops and servers.

  • Establish information flows

    Set clear guidance and expectations for the flow of information between senior incident response leaders and organization stakeholders. For more information, see incident response planning.

Recovery best practices

Recovering from incidents can be done effectively from both technical and operations perspectives with these recommendations.

Technical recovery best practices

For the technical aspects of recovering from an incident, here are some goals to consider:

  • Don't boil the ocean

    Limit your response scope so that recovery operation can be executed within 24 hours or less. Plan a weekend to account for contingencies and corrective actions.

  • Avoid distractions

    Defer long-term security investments like implementing large and complex new security systems or replacing anti-malware solutions until after the recovery operation. Anything that doesn't have direct and immediate impact on the current recovery operation is a distraction.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Never reset all passwords at once

    Password resets should focus first on known compromised accounts based on your investigation and are potentially administrator or service accounts. If warranted, user passwords should be reset only in a staged and controlled manner.

  • Consolidate execution of recovery tasks

    Unless you face an imminent threat of losing business-critical data, you should plan a consolidated operation to rapidly remediate all compromised resources (such as hosts and accounts) versus remediating compromised resources as you find them. Compressing this time window makes it difficult for attack operators to adapt and maintain persistence.

  • Use existing tools

    Research and use the capabilities of tools you deployed before trying to deploy and learn a new tool during a recovery.

  • Avoid tipping off your adversary

    As practical, you should take steps to limit the information available to adversaries about the recovery operation. Adversaries typically have access to all production data and email in a major cybersecurity incident. But in reality, most attackers don't have time to monitor all your communications.

    Microsoft's Security Operations Center (SOC) uses a non-production Microsoft 365 tenant for secure communication and collaboration for members of the incident response team.

Operations recovery best practices

For the operations aspects of recovering from an incident, here are some goals to consider:

  • Have a clear plan and limited scope

    Work closely with your technical teams to build a clear plan with limited scope. While plans may change based on adversary activity or new information, you should work diligently to limit scope expansion and taking on more tasks.

  • Have clear plan ownership

    Recovery operations involve many people doing many different tasks at once, so designate a project lead for the operation for clear decision-making and definitive information to flow among the crisis team.

  • Maintain stakeholder communications

    Work with communication teams to provide timely updates and active expectation management for organizational stakeholders.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Know your capabilities and limits

    Managing major security incidents is very challenging, very complex, and new to many professionals in the industry. You should consider bringing in expertise from external organizations or professional services if your teams are overwhelmed or aren't confident about what to do next.

  • Capture the lessons learned

    Build and continually improve role-specific handbooks for SecOps, even if it's your first incident without any written procedures.

Executive and board-level communications for incident response can be challenging if not practiced or anticipated. Make sure you have a communication plan to manage progress reporting and expectations for recovery.

Incident response process for SecOps

Consider this general guidance about the incident response process for your SecOps and staff.

1. Decide and act

After a threat detection tool such as Microsoft Sentinel or Microsoft Defender XDR detects a likely attack, it creates an incident. The Mean Time to Acknowledge (MTTA) measurement of SOC responsiveness begins with the time your security staff notices the attack.

An analyst on shift is either delegated or takes ownership of the incident and performs an initial analysis. The timestamp for this is the end of the MTTA responsiveness measurement and begins the Mean Time to Remediate (MTTR) measurement.

As the analyst that owns the incident develops a high enough level of confidence that they understand the story and scope of the attack, they can quickly shift to planning and executing cleanup actions.

Depending on the nature and scope of the attack, your analysts can clean up attack artifacts as they go (such as emails, endpoints, and identities) or they may build a list of compromised resources to clean up all at once (known as a Big Bang)

  • Clean as you go

    For most typical incidents that are detected early in the attack operation, analysts can quickly clean up the artifacts as they find them. This practice puts the adversary at a disadvantage and prevents them from moving forward with the next stage of their attack.

  • Prepare for a Big Bang

    This approach is appropriate for a scenario where an adversary has already settled in and established redundant access mechanisms to your environment. This practice is frequently seen in customer incidents investigated by the Microsofts Incident Response Team. In this approach, analysts should avoid tipping off the adversary until full discovery of the attacker's presence, because surprise can help with fully disrupting their operation.

    Microsoft learned that partial remediation often tips off an adversary, which gives them a chance to react and rapidly make the incident worse. For example, the attacker can spread the attack further, change their access methods to evade detection, cover their tracks, and inflict data and system damage and destruction for revenge.

    Cleaning up phishing and malicious emails can often be done without tipping off the attacker but cleaning up host malware and reclaiming control of accounts has a high chance of discovery.

These aren't easy decisions to make and there's no substitute for experience in making these judgment calls. A collaborative work environment and culture in your SOC helps ensure that analysts can tap into each other's experience.

The specific response steps are dependent on the nature of the attack, but the most common procedures used by analysts can include:

  • Client endpoints (devices)

    Isolate the endpoint and contact the user or IT operations/helpdesk to initiate a reinstallation procedure.

  • Server or applications

    Work with IT operations and application owners to arrange rapid remediation of these resources.

  • User accounts

    Reclaim control by disabling the account and resetting password for compromised accounts. These procedures could evolve as your users transition to passwordless authentication using Windows Hello or another form of multi-factor authentication (MFA). A separate step is to expire all authentication tokens for the account with Microsoft Defender for Cloud Apps.

    Your analysts can also review the MFA method phone number and device enrollment to ensure it's not hijacked by contacting the user and reset this information as needed.

  • Service Accounts

    Because of the high risk of service or business impact, your analysts should work with the service account owner of record, falling back on IT operations as needed, to arrange rapid remediation of these resources.

  • Emails

    Delete the attack or phishing email and sometimes clear them to prevent users from recovering deleted emails. Always save a copy of original email for later search for post-attack analysis, such as headers, content, and scripts or attachments.

  • Other

    You can execute custom actions based on the nature of the attack such as revoking application tokens and reconfiguring servers and services.

2. Post-incident cleanup

Because you don't benefit from learned lessons until you change future actions, always integrate any useful information learned from the investigation back into your SecOps.

Determine the connections between past and future incidents by the same threat actors or methods and capture these learnings to avoid repeating manual work and analysis delays in the future.

These learnings can take many forms, but common practices include analysis of:

  • Indicators of Compromise (IoCs).

    Record any applicable IoCs such as file hashes, malicious IP addresses, and email attributes into your SOC threat intelligence systems.

  • Unknown or unpatched vulnerabilities.

    Your analysts can initiate processes to ensure that missing security patches get applied, misconfigurations are corrected, and vendors (including Microsoft) are informed of "zero day" vulnerabilities so that they can create and distribute security patches.

  • Internal actions such as enabling logging on assets covering your cloud-based and on-premises resources.

    Review your existing security baselines and consider adding or changing security controls. For example, see the Microsoft Entra security operations guide for information on enabling the appropriate level of auditing in the directory before the next incident happens.

Review your response processes to identify and resolve any gaps found during the incident.

Incident response resources

Key Microsoft security resources

Resource Description
2023 Microsoft Digital Defense Report A report that encompasses learnings from security experts, practitioners, and defenders at Microsoft to empower people everywhere to defend against cyberthreats.
Microsoft Cybersecurity Reference Architectures A set of visual architecture diagrams that show Microsoft's cybersecurity capabilities and their integration with Microsoft cloud platforms such as Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Azure and third-party cloud platforms and apps.
Minutes matter infographic download An overview of how Microsoft's SecOps team does incident response to mitigate ongoing attacks.
Azure Cloud Adoption Framework security operations Strategic guidance for leaders establishing or modernizing a security operation function.
Microsoft security best practices for security operations How to best use your SecOps center to move faster than the attackers targeting your organization.
Microsoft cloud security for IT architects model Security across Microsoft cloud services and platforms for identity and device access, threat protection, and information protection.
Microsoft security documentation Additional security guidance from Microsoft.