Red Teaming (Red Teams)

What is Red Teaming?

Red teaming is a security exercise that tests an organization’s ability to think like an opponent. The goal of red teaming is to challenge the status quo by adopting an adversary’s perspective.

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Red team exercises, which originated in the military, are used to challenge groupthink assumptions and cognitive biases about an organization’s current security posture.

Historically, red teaming was conducted by real people.Today, this type of exercise can be conducted with continuous automated red teaming software. Arguably, the most useful red team exercises take advantage of both human and automated approaches.

Let’s delve deep into the true meaning of red teaming with this comprehensive definition.

Techopedia Explains

Red team exercises simulate real-world exploits in a controlled manner. This type of exercise can be used to:

How Red Teaming Works

How Red Teaming Works

Red team exercises are used to assess and improve an organization’s overall security posture by testing both its physical and cyber defenses in an adversarial manner.

  1. The first step is for the organization to select red team members who have relevant, but varied, backgrounds and expertise. Depending on the organization’s resources, this step might involve reassigning internal security experts, hiring third-party security experts, and/or purchasing and deploying CART software.
  2. Once the red team has been established, the team needs to confirm the objective and scope of the exercise before activities can begin. The first activity is always reconnaissance. During this phase, the red team uses publicly available information to research the target. They may also use low-level attack vectors to assess the effectiveness of the target’s security posture. (Security posture refers to an organization’s defense capabilities. It includes physical, technological, procedural, and human elements.)
  3. Essentially, the red team uses the information it gains during reconnaissance to develop strategies for conducting simple straight-forward attacks as well as more advanced persistent threat (APT) exploits. Throughout the exercise, the red team documents everything they do and everything they discover. Because the goal is to replicate a real-world attacker’s methods as closely as possible, the team will typically use a mix of planned and opportunistic strategies.
  4. Once the red team has executed its strategies (virtually or physically), it provides the target organization with a detailed report that explains how the exercise was conducted, what the red team discovered, and what changes the organization needs to make to improve its security posture.

Here’s how a red teaming exercise for cybersecurity might work:

  • The red team and the target organization meet and agree to test the security of a newly acquired identity and access control service for one month.
  • The red team gathers information about the target organization’s IT department and the cloud service provider’s infrastructure and security policies.
  • The red team uses various tactics to conduct a series of cyberattacks.
  • After the exercise, the red team provides a detailed report of their activities and suggests technical fixes, changes to internal policies, and employee training.
  • The organization uses the insights from the red team exercise to remediate the identified vulnerabilities and security gaps.

How Can Red Teaming Mimic Real-World Attacks Without Causing Harm?

Red teams have to walk a tightrope between mimicking an opponent and being responsible. It’s important for team members to be able to replicate adversarial behavior, but it’s also important that this type of exercise does not cause actual harm.

Here are three strategies red teams can use to replicate real-world attacks without causing harm.

1. Establish Clear Boundaries

Before starting a red teaming exercise, the red team and the target organization meet and agree on the scope and boundaries of the exercise. This strategy requires time to decide which attack surfaces can be attacked and what types of security exploits are off-limits. For example, they might agree that during the exercise, the red team can observe – but not capture or exfiltrate – sensitive data.

2. Make the Attack Theoretical

This strategy requires the red team to use what they learn during reconnaissance to document the existence of a target’s security gaps and then make predictions about how an attacker might exploit them. In this scenario, the red team does not actually conduct an attack. They just explain (step-by-step) how one could be carried out.

3. Conduct Virtual Exploits

This strategy requires the red team to create a digital twin based on what they learned during reconnaissance. The red team uses the virtual model to identify and exploit vulnerabilities without impacting the target’s daily operations.

The Benefits of Red Teaming

Red teaming offers several benefits that go beyond just patching technical holes. It fosters a culture of security awareness, reminding everyone involved that threats are ever-present and vigilance is key. This proactive approach helps organizations prioritize security investments more effectively, and focus resources on the high-risk areas that are most likely to be targeted.

Red teaming exercises often uncover vulnerabilities and weaknesses that might go unnoticed. The benefits of red teaming are recognized in most security frameworks.

Advances in machine learning (ML) and automation make it possible to carry out red teaming activities more frequently. Continuous automated red teaming (CART) software can reduce the cost and complexity of traditional red teaming exercises, and make red teaming accessible to organizations of all sizes.

What is Continuous Automated Red Teaming (CART)?

As organizations increasingly focus on enhancing their security posture, the demand for continuous automated red teaming software solutions that can automate red teaming exercises has grown.

CART software can simulate various cyber threats, from basic phishing attacks to more complex, multi-stage breaches.

Key aspects of CART software functionalities include:

Key Aspect Description
Continuous Assessment Unlike traditional red team exercises that have a beginning and an end, CART software components can be run continuously.
Automated Attack Simulation CART software uses artificial intelligence to automate the process of conducting a wide range of simple and complex attacks simultaneously.
Real-time Threat Emulation CART modules can be programmed to emulate zero-day threat patterns as soon as they are identified.
Integration with Existing Security Tools CART products and services are often sold as add-ons for existing security incident and event management (SIEM) products and services.

Red Team Vs. Blue Team vs. Purple Team

In some cases, red team exercises are conducted independently to test the effectiveness of an organization’s existing defenses and incident response capabilities. Typically this type of red teaming is conducted without any prior warning.

Exercises that include simulated attacks tend to be more interactive. The red team will actively try to breach the target’s defenses, and the target’s security staff will try to detect and prevent the red team from being successful.

In this type of red teaming exercise, the security staff is called the blue team. The red team’s job is to test the effectiveness of the security measures put in place by the blue team, and the blue team’s job is to detect and mitigate the red team’s simulated attacks.

Mid-size organizations often adopt a collaborative approach, known as purple teaming. In this type of exercise, the red team informs the blue team of their attack strategies, and both teams work in tandem to identify vulnerabilities, test defenses, and improve the organization’s overall security posture.

Really large enterprise organizations might conduct exercises with separate red, blue, and purple teams. In this scenario, the red team plays offense, the blue team plays defense, and the purple team is the facilitator responsible for evaluating the exercise post-mortem and providing red and blue teams with suggestions for improvement.

Red Teaming and Generative AI

Red teaming strategies are increasingly being used to address issues with machine bias and the potential for large language models (LLMs) to generate harmful content unintentionally.

In this context, red team exercises are used to simulate various ways malicious actors might attempt to misuse a generative AI model. For example, during the exercise, the red team might write prompts designed to get the model to generate harmful content. Or they might feed the model poisoned data in prompts to see if the model will use the data in future outputs.

By anticipating how threat actors might be able to get around a model’s safeguards, red teams that use AI jailbreaking tactics can uncover potential weaknesses in a model after it has been deployed.

Pen Testing vs. Red Teaming

Penetration testing (pen testing) and red teaming are both proactive strategies for evaluating and improving security, but they differ in scope, objectives, and methodologies.

The duration of a pen test period is fairly short, and the goal is to discover (and hopefully remediate) technical vulnerabilities.

In contrast, red teaming exercises can last days, weeks, or even months, and the goal is to assess the organization’s overall security posture and response capabilities. Pen testing is just one of many tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) a red team can use during an exercise.

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Margaret Rouse

Margaret Rouse is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical, business audience. Over the past twenty years her explanations have appeared on TechTarget websites and she's been cited as an authority in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine and Discovery Magazine.Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages. If you have a suggestion for a new definition or how to improve a technical explanation, please email Margaret or contact her…