What Is Red Teaming and How Does It Improve Cybersecurity?

  • Nov 07, 2023

Red Teaming

Defense is undoubtedly important. Setting up diverse security measures and protocols for when things go wrong will keep out most attackers or at least mitigate the damage. However, always staying on the defensive means you'll be slower to react when new and unexpected situations arise.

Going on the attack doesn't involve busting down hacker's doors like the internet mob. Instead, practicing attacking yourself through a dedicated Red Team is more effective. It's kind of like a chess game where you're moving both the black and the white pieces.

Attacking yourself may sound somewhat strange, but the biggest companies in the world are doing just that. Many even put hundreds of thousands of dollars into bug bounty programs for anyone willing to find a problem with their defenses.

But why are these massive organizations going through the trouble?

What Is Red Teaming?

Red teaming is the act of assessing your organization's cybersecurity defenses from an assailant's point of view. This process involves hiring ethical hackers, internally or externally, to mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures that cybercriminals would likely take against your infrastructure.

Of course, these hackers' goal isn't to steal data for malicious purposes. It's a proactive security test meant to determine how effectively an organization deals with various threats.

In these tests, there's an opposing team referred to as the Blue Team. The members of this group must defend against the Red Team's attacks in real-time. Although the Red Team agrees to run through certain types of cyber attacks, campaigns are typically done in secret to simulate a legitimate threat situation properly.

Red Teaming vs Penetration Testing

Those familiar with cybersecurity will see some similarities between penetration testing (also known as ethical hacking) and red teaming. Both are meant to draw out an organization's weaknesses but focus on different aspects of the target's defense.

A penetration test prioritizes finding as many vulnerabilities as it can. This is to get a head start on preventing hacker's future attacks. Aside from getting in, there isn't always a specific goal in mind during a penetration test.

Red teaming is much more goal-oriented, with the teams deciding on an objective to attack or defend. This setup means that a red team's ultimate goal is to test an organization's response to a specific threat and how to improve it.

In short, penetration testing sweeps through the infrastructure, searching for any hole it can find, while red teaming focuses on a specific response.

Even though red team tests decide on an objective before attempting the attack. It's important to emphasize that this objective isn't necessarily a single piece of data. It could be something like spreading malware to multiple computers or sabotaging an entire database.

A red team campaign can be as broad or specific as the organization wants. This flexibility is what makes it a valuable tool for introspection alongside penetration testing.

The Importance of Red Teaming

Performing these attack trials is vital because it prevents complacency in an organization. Some weaknesses aren't apparent until you're slapped in the face with the real thing. It feels good to build higher walls and keep out new threats constantly, but everyone must periodically take some time to inspect their existing defenses for cracks. After all, a crack at the base can have the whole thing crashing to the ground.

It's easy to drop a multiple-choice quiz in front of your security team and see what they know. All of your team members might score 100 percent and ultimately understand how to deal with every situation in their heads.

The problem is the dissonance between having knowledge and having experience. Some people might struggle with the stress of a real-time attack. Some of your machines might not have the right applications to respond in a timely manner. There might be a new file type your team members aren't familiar with.

Dealing with the unexpected, real-time factors and stress of an attack is an essential step to your cybersecurity preparedness.

This last point isn't unique to red teaming but is more of an ode to preparing a solid cybersecurity infrastructure in general. According to IBM, the average cost of data breaches in the US is over $4 million. This is roughly double the international average and is only getting more expensive every year. It also doesn't take your loss of reputation and trust into account.

With the sheer number of attacks happening each day, it's more a question of when you'll be targeted. The financial cost of hiring and running a red team campaign as a preventative measure is a far better concession than falling victim to a data breach and paying the associated penalties.

Red Team Tactics

Before going through a red team's tactics, it's crucial to understand how they choose to attack. Selecting an objective involves scrutinizing multiple domains, including:

  • Technology: The attackers utilize hacking and tampering tactics to uncover potential risks in technologies like routers, applications, services, and other hardware.
  • Human Elements: Targeting employees is more of a psychological game than it is technical. Red team members test employee education (former and current) and preparedness against various attack factors to see how likely they are to fall for scams.
  • Infrastructure: Cybercrimes aren't always done over the cloud. Unauthorized physical access to hardware and products is a severe threat and is a definite consideration for red team campaigns.

Now that we've reviewed the possible attack domains, let's get a little more specific. Some standard attack strategies a red team can simulate include:

Phishing, Vishing, and Smishing Attacks

Email, text, and calls are prime vehicles for social engineering attacks. With just a little bit of information stolen from social media, criminals can create compelling reasons for employees to overshare. They'll pose as the CEO or manager and ask a lower-ranking employee to send over important information immediately.

Network Service Attacks

Misconfigured networks constitute a significant attack vector for cybercriminals. Once they get in, they can leave a back door and continue access in the future without anyone knowing. Red teams can quickly locate these types of weaknesses as they already have internal access and can check network settings.

Facility Infiltration

It's not hard to get into a building.

  • "I'm here to meet Susan Tawney for lunch."
  • "There's a package for the warehouse."
  • "I left my access badge at my desk."

Depending on the business' size, any number of excuses could work, especially if you name an actual employee. Sometimes, you can just walk in without giving a reason.

Gaining access to a business' facilities can start any number of problems for them. Criminals could install man-in-the-middle switches like Packet Squirrels onto ethernet ports or access the warehouse database. Red teams sometimes test on-site security to prevent these situations.

Building a Red Team

An effective red team should reflect the skill sets you expect from attackers. They should be experienced, knowledgeable, and able to think outside the box. The ability to leave their morals at the door doesn't hurt either.

A few skills you should prioritize first include:

  • Penetration Testing Skills
  • Social Engineering Experience
  • Switch/Router Knowledge
  • Software Development

These four specializations are enough to cover most situations a red team tests for. We recommend building a red team from your existing cybersecurity squad if possible. It's worth it to train existing employees, even if that means spending a little money for them to learn the right skills.

Internal hires are better because understanding your day-to-day operations is a big part of red teaming. This will inform the team of how they should attack and greatly expedite the process.

Make Sure You Stay Aware of Your Risks and Safety Measures

Every business should understand the basics of red teaming and how to implement it in its security routine. Even if you don't want to create a dedicated attack squad, you can run many tests and simulations even without highly paid-professionals.

Some perfect starting tests include seeing who responds to a fake HR email or asking a close friend to enter the building without an access card.

What separates Red Teaming from its more technical compatriots is that it can address every cybersecurity domain. Today, it feels like there's too much emphasis on preparing for sophisticated attacks, but hackers rely on simple attacks like phishing more than anything else.

If you want to learn more about creating a cybersecurity plan that protects you against all facets of online threats, visit IDStrong's massive library of articles!

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