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As security teams face off against attackers, they need to know that their technical security controls and detection rules work as intended. To validate their processes and technologies, cybersecurity teams engage in penetration testing, a type of authorized simulated attack against the company’s systems that evaluate a security program’s effectiveness.

To meet mission-critical compliance requirements and enhance cyber resilience, modern cybersecurity teams should engage in cyber range exercises and penetration testing against a neutral third party. However, because formal penetration tests are time-consuming and expensive, organizations should also perform in-house red team vs. blue team training exercises. While these can be performed as part of a cyber range exercise, they are also well-suited for smaller-scale simulations for ongoing assurance over the organization’s tools and processes. Done well, these exercises can prepare cybersecurity teams for their ultimate test against a live fire cyber range.

While red team vs. blue team exercises may take the form of a cyber wargame to exploit the organization’s security architecture, it’s not limited to attempting to enter the system through “backdoors” and security exploits. Rather, these exercises could start with company-wide phishing emails or attempting to gain access to restricted physical locations.

But that still leaves a lot of questions: what exactly is a red team vs. blue team exercise, how does it work, and how can your organization benefit from these activities? Let’s start with the basics.

What is the Red Team?

The security professionals on the red team think and act like adversaries, looking for weaknesses in the organization’s cyber defenses to achieve their chosen objective (like accessing restricted communications) without being detected. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines a red team as:

“A group of people authorized and organized to emulate a potential adversary’s attack or exploitation capabilities…The Red Team’s objective is to improve enterprise cybersecurity by demonstrating the impacts of successful attacks and by demonstrating what works for the defenders.”

Red Team Responsibilities

Red teams identify opportunities for improvement across people, processes, and technology. The red team is not simply playing a game to win, they are looking for ways to exploit the current security architecture and identify points of improvement.

The red team’s responsibilities include:

  • Determine objectives: Identifying target systems, networks, resources, or data
  • Exploit vulnerabilities: Using weaknesses in the organization’s technology stack to gain unauthorized access
  • Compromise security: Using unauthorized access to achieve the identified objective, like stealing information or accessing a restricted physical location
  • Evade detection: Compromising security without triggering security alerts
  • Develop report: Documenting findings and recommendations for improvement

Red Team Tactics and Strategies

Since red teams use real-world attack tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), their strategies mimic the steps of an actual adversary, including:

  • Planning and reconnaissance: Scanning networks to gain information about systems and engaging in social engineering (for example, simulated phishing attacks).
  • Identifying weaknesses: Using network scans to identify device, software, and physical control vulnerabilities like open ports or outdated network equipment firmware
  • Tailoring attack path: Finding ways to move from the identified weakness to the target system or resource

Red teamers may use the following tools to do their jobs:

  • Network scanners
  • Penetration testing frameworks
  • Phishing frameworks
  • Post-exploitation tool
  • Script tools

Red Team Skill Sets

Since red teamers are always thinking like adversaries, their skill set needs to support stealth, social engineering, and technological prowess. Red teaming can be a very different skillset than most cybersecurity professionals are used to, so be on the looking for team members who display:

  • Competitiveness: They want to achieve their objectives without getting caught or “losing.”
  • Creativity: They think about new ways to get around the organization’s controls and detections.
  • Cunning: They understand the psychology of social engineering and can talk people into taking actions against their best interests
  • Software development: They can develop their own tools or scripts to use as part of their emulated attacks and can find vulnerabilities in code-based infrastructures and resources.
  • System knowledge: They have deep knowledge about computer systems, protocols, libraries, servers, and technology trends so they can find vulnerabilities.
  • Reverse threat engineering: They can use information about known attacks and identify adversary attack paths
  • Penetration testing: They know how to identify and exploit different types of system and network vulnerabilities.
  • Research: They know how to gather and use information about potential attacks to emulate them.

Red Team Exercise Examples

Some common red team exercises include:

  • Application exploit: Attempting to use cross-site scripting, SQL injections, and cross-site request forgery tactics to gain control over a web application
  • Card cloning: Making a copy of an employee’s ID card to gain physical access to devices, like servers or workstations
  • Social engineering: Convincing employees to take an action against the organization’s best interests, like sharing a credential or providing access to a physical location
  • Phishing: Sending emails to employees that convince people to take action, like clicking on a “malicious” link or document
  • Intercepting communications: Using network scanning tools like packet sniffers or protocol analyzers to understand a system’s architecture or read messages

What is the Blue Team?

The blue team’s security professionals focus on defending the organization from both real adversaries and the red teamers. The blue team works with the organization’s cybersecurity technology stack to create detection rules and monitor systems. NIST defines the blue team as:

“The group responsible for defending an enterprise’s use of information system by maintaining its security posture…Typically the Blue Team and its supporters must defend against real or simulated attacks 1) over a significant period of time, 2) in a representative operational context…and 3) according to rules established and monitored with the help of a neutral group refereeing the simulation or exercise.”

Blue Team Responsibilities

Blue teams focus on identifying and responding to incidents by monitoring systems for suspicious activity.

The blue team’s responsibilities include:

  • Education: Mitigating potential social engineering and physical attacks by providing cybersecurity hygiene training.
  • Risk Analysis: defining critical assets and engaging in risk assessments
  • Detection: identifying suspicious activity across networks, users, systems, and devices
  • Investigation: locating exploitable vulnerabilities and responding to the detections
  • Containment: blocking red teamers from accessing the target systems and resources
  • Vulnerability scans: scanning networks to identify known or unknown vulnerabilities in operating systems, software, applications, and firmware
  • Evidence collection and analysis: gathering forensic data, like network traffic information, and analyzing it

Blue teamers use the following tools to do their jobs:

  • Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) /Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS): identify and prevent attacks against the infrastructure
  • Firewalls: allow/deny traffic in and out of the networks
  • Endpoint Protection: prevent malware infections, detect threats, respond to and remediate incidents
  • Centralized Log Management: collect, aggregate, correlate, and analyze all activity occurring within the environment
  • Security Information Event Management (SIEM): detect security incidents and alert security teams
  • Vulnerability scanners: identify technical vulnerabilities in devices

Blue Team Tactics and Strategies

Blue teams need to prevent and investigate attacks, so they need to:

  • Install security technology stack: Identify, deploy, and maintain cybersecurity tools, like antivirus, firewalls, and network scanners
  • Configure security tools: Write detection rules for security alerts
  • Implement technical controls: Segment networks, set user access permissions according to the principle of least privilege
  • Conduct Domain Name System (DNS) research: Examine DNS logs over time to identify suspicious activity

Blue Team Skill Sets

Because blue teamers must be ready for anything, they need a skillset that supports being risk-averse and technically astute. When selecting members of your team for blue team roles, look for people who are:

  • Organized: Ability to manage data and follow procedures
  • Meticulous: Detail-oriented to identify deviations from normal data patterns
  • Risk aware: Ability to identify risk and create threat profiles across various scenarios to prepare against future attacks
  • Investigative: Using threat intelligence to mitigate identified risks and uncover new ones
  • Technical hardening techniques: understanding technical weaknesses and remediating them to reduce the attack surface
  • Experience with detection systems: knowledge of various detection technologies, including network traffic monitoring, firewall rules, packet filtering, SIEM tools

Blue Team Exercise Examples

With blue teams, the exercise environment should mimic the organization’s security profile as closely as possible so that they can engage in typical exercises like:

  • Log analysis: Monitoring log and system memory dumps for anomalous data and patterns, practicing forensics
  • Packet Capture (PCAP): Reviewing third-party APIs for insights into file analysis and network monitoring
  • Attack surface and digital footprint analysis: Examining activities conducted over the public internet and reduce exposure
  • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) testing: Running tests at the 4- or 7-layer to test network service resilience
  • Develop risk scenarios: Building detailed description of possible attack scenarios

What are the Benefits of Red Team vs. Blue Team Testing?

Red team vs. blue team exercises enable organizations to improve their security posture, compliance program, and cyber resilience. Since these exercises emulate a real-world attack, red teamers try out new TTPs while blue teams gain incident response experience.

Realistic Testing Scenarios for Comprehensive Security Assessments

Exercise scenarios are based on real-world attack methodologies viewed “in the wild.” By running tests against people, processes, and technologies, organizations can respond to new risks and threats facing their organizations for a comprehensive, real-time view of their security posture.

Improved Collaboration for Faster Vulnerability Resolution

Red versus blue team exercises also help the teams collaborate more effectively. Each team takes a different view of the organization’s security, complementing each other’s skills. By engaging in these exercises, red teams can detect new vulnerabilities in systems and then work with the blue teamers who know how to remediate them. When the exercise is done, everyone is still on the same team, and both sides should come together with valuable insights that help the organization as a whole.

Enhanced Cyber Resilience through Incident Response Program Validation

In an ideal world, an organization never experiences an attack. Unfortunately, in the real world, most will experience one. Since these exercises use scenarios that emulate real-world attacks, security teams gain the necessary experience to respond to attacks faster.

Further, they can identify areas for improvement, enabling them to fine-tune tools or streamline processes. Through these exercises, organizations can improve their cyber readiness by testing and validating their incident response programs

Final Thoughts

Red team vs. blue team exercises are a cost-effective way to put your organization and your cybersecurity team to the test, but they are only one part of the bigger picture. While the insights gained from in-house teaming exercises are valuable, it is also important to formally engage in teaming exercises and penetration testing with third parties who bring the latest attack strategies and are unfamiliar with your organization’s interworkings.

SimSpace’s Cyber Force Platform offers customized live fire exercises that will put your team to the ultimate test in a safe environment. Our cyber range is proven to improve your security stack, reduce response times, and identify breach points. Plus, our military-grade cybersecurity professionals are available to guide you through the reporting process and determine next steps and actionable solutions.

If you’re ready to take your teaming exercises to the next level, contact SimSpace today for a free demo.

Blog bySimSpace
SimSpace is the leading innovative cyber security platform for enabling risk reduction through operational quantification, testing and training. No other organization has SimSpace’s depth of experience in creating high fidelity cyber ranges with unique user and adversary emulation techniques.