Red Team Vs Blue Team Testing for Cybersecurity

Category: Web Security Readings - Last Updated: Thu, 14 Nov 2019 - by Zbigniew Banach

Red team versus blue team exercises simulate real-life cyberattacks against organizations to locate weaknesses and improve information security. In this wargaming approach, the red team are the attackers and they attempt to infiltrate an organization’s digital and physical defenses using any attack techniques available to real attackers. The blue team’s job is to detect penetration attempts and prevent exploitation. Red team vs blue team exercises can last several weeks and provide a realistic assessment of an organization’s security posture.

Red Team Vs Blue Team Testing for Cybersecurity

More than Penetration Testing

While penetration tests are a crucial aspect of security infrastructure testing and can include both manual tests and continuous automated penetration testing, red teaming goes much further. The red team simulates real-life attackers, so penetration tests are merely part of the recon phase. Depending on the agreed scope of the exercise, the red team might use any techniques available to real attackers to breach existing defenses and obtain sensitive data. This means not just attacks against the IT infrastructure but also attempts to bypass physical security, as well as social engineering attacks such as identity fraud or phishing – a major cause of data breaches in real organizations.

Assembling the Red Team

The simplest approach to red teaming is to designate an internal group of security professionals as the red team. While this may be the easiest option, better results are usually attained when red team members are recruited from external entities. This provides the most authentic attack situation, as internal staff might overlook some attack vectors or unintentionally ignore testing in areas that they (perhaps wrongly) consider well secured. Specialized red teams typically include ethical hackers, penetration testers, social engineering experts, and other specialists with experience in circumventing a variety of security measures.

Who Are the Blue Team?

In a red team vs blue team exercise, the blue team are the defenders. Often this will simply be the internal security team, but blue team members can also include staff other than security professionals and security analysts. In a wider sense, all personnel need to support the blue team, so suitable security training may be required. While this applies in particular to physical security staff, all employees need to know what to look out for and how to report unusual errors, suspicious behavior, or unexpected contacts.

What Is the Purple Team?

As the color implies, a purple team combines the roles of the red and blue teams. Executing a full red team vs blue team simulation with a dedicated and independent red team can be costly and time-consuming. For some organizations and scenarios, an internal or external unit might be used that acts as both the red and the blue team, and this is the purple team. Its members will include attack and defense specialists who temporarily act as the red and blue teams. While not as effective as full-scale red vs blue exercises, purple team operations can be useful to maintain security in between more extensive tests or to perform spot checks in large organizations.

Preparing for the Attack

In a real-life attack, nobody is going to warn organization staff in advance, so blue team preparation is less about bracing for impact and more about reviewing existing security controls, tools, and incident response procedures in the context of practical use. Detailed knowledge of the organization’s physical and virtual infrastructure is also vital. For example, some disjointed security solutions and procedures may already be in place, and preparation might involve documenting and integrating them using security information and event management solution (SIEM) to provide real-time threat intelligence. For web applications, the blue team might use an online vulnerability scanner to find and eliminate existing weak points in web-accessible infrastructures, such as misconfigurations and forgotten test deployments.

For the red team, preparation is all about recon and research. If external red teaming consultants are used, they might stake out and analyze the targeted organization just like real attackers would. This will typically include scanning for vulnerabilities, mapping out the virtual and physical infrastructure, identifying virtual and physical security systems, and harvesting staff identities and contact details for social engineering attacks. If it’s necessary to gain physical access, the red team might even set up a dummy business to pose as a business partner, contractor, or other legitimate entity.

Running the Wargame

Unlike penetration testing or security auditing, which tend to be one-off checks, a red team vs blue team exercise tests the resilience of an organization doing its day-to-day business over a longer period. Depending on the agreed scope of operations, the red team can use this time to attempt all sorts of intrusions on all levels of the organization. In terms of cybersecurity, this might involve not just direct attacks against company websites, web applications, network infrastructure, and internal applications, but also social engineering tricks and phishing emails to obtain login credentials or install malware. However, physical security is also tested by trying to gain physical access to the client site by faking employee ID cards or posing as a delivery driver, cleaner, or building contractor.

As the defenders, the blue team has to stay alert and organized to detect and prevent infiltration attempts. To ensure that the exercise provides actionable results, detected attacks and blue team responses should be carefully logged for postmortem analysis.

The Benefits of Red Teaming

By simulating real-life attack scenarios, red team versus blue team exercises provide invaluable information about the state of an organization’s security infrastructure. Used in conjunction with security audits, physical security checks, web application vulnerability scanning, and other ongoing security programs, they can be a highly effective tool to eliminate weak points and maintain a robust security posture in a constantly evolving threat environment.


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