After talking recently with colleagues at IOActive as well as some heads of industry-leading red teams, we wanted to share a list of attributes that we believe are key to any effective Red Team.
[ NOTE: For debate about the relevant terminology, we suggest Daniel’s post titled The Difference Between Red, Blue, and Purple Teams. ]
To be clear, we think there can be significant variance in how Red Teams are built and managed, and we believe there are likely multiple routes to success. But we believe there are a few key attributes that all (or at least most) corporate Red Teams should have as part of their program. These are:
Let’s look at each of these.
is the requirement that the Red Team be able to effectively act like a real-world attacker in terms of scope, tools, and techniques employed. Many organizations restrict their Red Teams to such a degree that they’re basically impotent, which in turn lulls the company into a false sense of security.
is the requirement that Red Teams regularly interact with their counterparts on the defensive side to ensure the organization is learning from their activities. If a Red Team is effective on its own, but doesn’t share its knowledge and successes with the defense in order make it stronger, then the Red Team has lost sight of its purpose.
is the requirement that the organization remain under constant, rolling attack by the Red Team, which is the polar opposite of short, penetration-test-style engagements. Red Teams should operate through campaigns that span weeks or months in duration, and both the defensive teams and the general user population should know that at any moment, of any day, they could be targeted by both a Red Team campaign of some sort, or by a real attacker.
is the requirement that Red Team campaigns should be regularly updated based on the actual tools, techniques, and processes employed by real-world attackers. If cyber-criminals are doing X this quarter, let’s emulate that. If we’re seeing some state actors doing Y this year, let’s emulate that. If you’re not simulating—to some significant degree—the techniques being used by actual attackers, the Red Team is providing questionable value.
is the requirement that Red Teams know how effective they are at improving the security posture of the organization. If we can’t tell a clear story around how our defenses are improving, i.e., that it’s getting increasingly more difficult to compromise, move laterally, and achieve attacker goals, then you’re getting limited value from any work that’s being done.
Here’s a pointed capture of those points:
There are many other components of a solid Red Team that were not mentioned—top-end malware kits, elite security talent, deep understanding of the attacker mindset, etc.—but we think these five components are both most fundamental and most lacking.