What Are Red Team Exercises and Why Are They Important?

Pick a side. It’s game time, and nothing is off the table.

For most organizations, a true defense-in-depth strategy includes the proactive testing of company cyber defenses. A Red Team Exercise is designed to reveal vulnerabilities in a company’s security through hands-on testing, uncovering exposure and blind spots in the defenses of your processes and network safety. It tests your software defenses, your team’s response, your policies and procedures, and your overall readiness across the full attack surface.

Red Team exercises differ from penetration testing in that they don’t focus on a single application or system, but instead set out to exploit multiple systems and potential avenues of attack. The gloves are off, and “Think like an attacker” is the rule of play. Usually, Red Teams are part of your internal security team, though sometimes they can be from external or dedicated agencies. While thinking like an attacker, a Red Team group acts as (and provides security feedback from the perspective of) a malicious threat or challenger. It’s up to the business’s dedicated security team – the Blue Team – to provide a suitable response in detecting, combating, and weakening their opposition. Prior to the Red Team exercise, it’s usual that the Blue Team won’t know the plan or what is coming. This is in order to make the exercise as realistic as possible.

Red Team vs Blue Team may seem like a time-consuming game of cops and robbers, but there’s far more to it than that. These exercises highlight vulnerabilities and help your cybersecurity staff to get a truer understanding of the risks and exposure that your company might be facing. Tests might range from adding harmless malware via a USB key left in the company canteen, to creating simulated phishing emails, or looking for insufficient updates and improper protection processes by attempting to overcome a file filtering system using an SQL injection. Naturally, it is important to get sign-off on any Red Team exercise before you begin.

Red Team exercises encourage security teams to think as a protagonist, helping to recognize and fix all identified security weaknesses and processes, and so be in a state of readiness and already pre-prepared, boosting team collaboration and critical security thinking. Post-exercise reporting is important to document the how, what, where, and to improve processes and business defenses for the future.

Sometimes there may be a requirement for a Purple Team. Communication is essential in an exercise like this. Purple Teams, though often unnecessary, can be there to foster information sharing between the Red and Blue teams and to make the most of their separate and combined effectiveness. Usually, Red and Blue teams communicate after the fact to effectively deep-dive into individual approaches and findings – these are known as Purple Team Assessments – but sometimes it is necessary to grease the wheels of communication. This is also useful during the exercise and can be especially important when physically testing a visible vulnerability. No one outside of the teams, least of all your C-suite, wants the unpleasant surprise of your company servers going down – even if it is at midnight. Purple Team Assessments should discuss how machines were compromised and how attacks were spotted, plus what methods and techniques were used by Blue Team to counter attacks and to deal with compromised assets. Communication like this helps Blue Team staff to recognize attack methods and to understand how to detect and react to these types of attacks if they happen in a real-world situation.

The average cost of a data breach in 2020 was US$3.86 million, and the average time to identify a breach was 207 days (IBM). Taking constructive action to identify your cybersecurity vulnerabilities, streamline your processes and defenses, identify your weaknesses, and knowing how to act accordingly, is vital to your future business safety. Done correctly, and seen as a regular part of your security staff training, a Red Team Exercise is an excellent starting point for learning and for identifying your vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities that are best mitigated now, before they become an issue in the future.

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