Attack Simulations: What Type Does Your Business Need?

Attack Simulations

How can you be confident that your cybersecurity defenses are robust enough to fend off would-be attackers?

Every organization that suffers a significant data breach will learn a great deal about its weak points and vulnerabilities, but there’s a way to gain this knowledge without experiencing the pain that comes with being the victim of a cyberattack. Attack simulation exercises enable organizations to gauge the effectiveness of their security programs by testing the people, processes, and technologies within them against real-world attack scenarios. They’ll learn how their security teams would fare in the face of the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) that present-day attackers are most likely to employ.

Like so many concepts in cybersecurity, attack simulation exercises take their names from similar concepts in military operations. Red teaming involves the emulation of adversaries’ behavior, while blue teams are defenders. Purple teaming is a newer concept that involves bringing the two groups together to collaborate and share information.

Let’s take a closer look at the types of attack simulations that are most common today.


Penetration Testing

Generally speaking, a penetration test (or pen test, as it’s often referred to in the industry) entails an engagement that’s limited in time and scope. While there’s no universally agreed-upon standard for what constitutes a pen test (though NIST provides security testing guidance[1]), most are conducted over a period of one to four weeks and focus on common attack techniques like gaining access to user credentials, elevating that access, and then employing those privileges to exfiltrate as much data as possible.

Pen testers usually try to exploit both technology vulnerabilities and social engineering tactics to hack into an organization’s IT environment. Pen tests may reveal weak passwords, unpatched software or improper configurations, or they may uncover flaws in physical security or operating procedures.


Red Teaming

There’s no clear-cut difference between red teaming and pen testing. Some industry experts would argue that every pen test is by nature a red team exercise. Others would say that red teaming tends to be more in-depth than penetration testing, and that individual pen tests are a part of red team exercises.

Red teaming involves deliberately simulating the ways that attackers work to break into systems and networks. Most red team engagements go deeper over a longer time-period than a pen test – to better replicate the patience and persistence that real-world attackers can bring to offensive operations. Because red team engagements often take place over the course of one or more months, the red team can mimic the extensive reconnaissance techniques that adversaries often employ. They can try out multiple strategies for achieving their objectives over time, running complex campaigns that emulate the TTPs used by attackers in the real world.

In many cases, defenders aren’t made aware that a red team exercise is taking place. This enables the organization to conduct an objective evaluation of its security capabilities. But it means that there will always be lag time between gathering the lessons learned from the exercise and putting them into practice.


Purple Teaming

Purple teaming is a newer concept in attack simulation. A purple team exercise is designed to overcome the time lag between learning and implementing that’s inherent to the process of red teaming. Rather than waiting for the red team to report on the techniques it used — and which of these attempts succeeded — the purple team contains a mix of red and blue team members who work together to strengthen the organization’s security posture during the exercise.

Traditionally, many pen testers were unwilling to share their tradecraft, but if red teams don’t tell defenders what they did to infiltrate systems, they’re not helping the defenders hone their skills. In purple teaming, red and blue teams collaborate (hence, the name refers to a blend of the colors) so that defenders can learn more about how adversaries operate. Purple teaming fosters a more collaborative mindset among security professionals and helps security operations leaders identify where more training is needed. It is, however, only appropriate for organizations with mature security programs and advanced in-house capabilities.

To make the most of a purple team exercise, an organization should already be collecting logs extensively and should have implemented tools like a security information and event management (SIEM) solution and endpoint detection and response (EDR) or extended detection and response (XDR) platforms to give defenders necessary visibility across the environment.

What type of attack simulation would benefit your organization the most?

In recent years, the market for attack simulation services has evolved rapidly. Even a decade ago, penetration testing was considered state-of-the-art. Today, especially since pen testing is required for certain types of compliance (including PCI-DSS), many organizations are looking to take their engagements to the next level.

Before embarking upon an attack simulation, though, it’s important to think carefully about why you’re doing so. Is it merely for compliance purposes? Because your CEO or a board member thought it was important? Or because you learned about it from a vendor at an industry conference?

If you haven’t covered the basics first — including ensuring that your security team has adequate visibility across your environment and implementing 24/7 security monitoring — you won’t gain the maximum benefit from an attack simulation.

We recommend that organizations adopt a “crawl, walk, run” approach to attack simulations. Organizations that have relatively immature security programs should start with a vulnerability assessment rather than a full-scale penetration test. Adopting — and adhering to — a cybersecurity framework will ensure that you’re fixing the problems that an attack simulation is most likely to reveal, and it’s far less expensive to boot. Only when you have the basics in place should you consider a red team exercise.

However, increasing numbers of organizations are being asked to conduct pen tests or red team engagements for compliance purposes. There’s also a growing trend in third-party risk management: more and more companies are finding that their customers are asking them to carry out these kinds of activities.    

No matter what your reasons are for conducting one, there’s little doubt that an attack simulation will provide valuable insights into how your security program stacks up against real-world threats.

To learn more about how BTB Security is helping organizations like yours grow their cybersecurity maturity and stay ahead of the latest threats, check out our Threat Assessment Services. Or request a free consultation with a member of our expert team


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