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What is red teaming in cybersecurity? | SureCloud

What is red teaming in cybersecurity? | SureCloud
Written by

Nick Hayes, Mark Wardlow, Steve Velcev

Published on

20 Apr 2023

Why Red Teaming Should be an Essential Pillar of your Organization’s Cybersecurity Strategy


The financial and reputational damage caused by a cyberattack can be devastating for governments and organizations. Research from IBM estimates that in 2021 the average cost of a cyberattack to US-based organizations had soared to more than $9 million. As a result, businesses across the globe are investing vast amounts in cybersecurity defense strategies.


As security teams continue to develop innovative ways to strengthen their defences, a new role has emerged within cybersecurity – the ethical hacker. Driven by organizations’ need to improve their cybersecurity posture, using ethical hacking is becoming commonplace. Often referred to as white hat hackers or red teams, these groups are helping organizations to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals and better understand their ability to respond to a real cyberattack.


Why do we need ethical hackers? Well, the cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving, and cybercriminals are continually finding new ways to exploit organizations or individuals. As a result, organizations have recognized the need to carry out stringent testing of their security procedures to identify if they are capable of repelling a sophisticated cyberattack.


Ethical hackers, or red teams, use their skills to find and exploit weaknesses in an organization’s defenses, pushing them to their limits to offer solutions to any gaps identified in their cybersecurity strategy. In this blog, we’ll examine what red teaming is, what the process involves, and the benefits it can offer.


Using red teaming or ethical hackers can identify potential security threats before they even occur.


What is red teaming, and how does the process work?

The term ‘red teaming’ refers to a technique used within cybersecurity to test how an organization responds to a genuine cyberattack. It’s a form of penetration testing with a very different set of objectives from a traditional pentest. Typically, a pentest focuses on identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities via a predetermined set of rules.


In this scenario, the red team is target-driven and aims to access pre-agreed targets within an organization’s network and exploit them. Red teams can target anything from web applications to backup servers and attack them in whatever way they believe will cause the most disruption. The procedure tests an organization’s entire security stack, but unlike pen-testing, it doesn’t generate a list of vulnerabilities once the test is complete.


An independent cybersecurity provider simulates the attack scenario, and the organization’s defense system is known as the blue team. The tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by a red team are modeled on real-world threats to highlight any holes in an organization’s cyber defenses.


The attack happens without warning so that those experiencing the red teaming gain a realistic insight into the impact of a potential cyber breach. The main objective of the process is to help organizations understand the effectiveness of their security strategy and what is required to repel a real-life attack.


A red team test typically has five stages, which include:


  • Goal-mapping: The organization sets its desired objectives for the red team exercise.
  • Target reconnaissance: Once the objectives have been set, the red team selects its targets for the exercise.
  • Exploitation: The attack is launched, and the team aims to exploit any vulnerabilities.
  • Probing and limitations: The team sees how far they can take the attack and if any further vulnerabilities can be identified.
  • Analysis: When the attack is concluded, both red and blue teams debrief the exercise and discuss the key vulnerabilities that were identified.


Ultimately, red teaming aims to find the weak spots in any aspect of an organization’s security strategy, whether that’s people or technology.


What are the benefits of red teaming?

The 2022 Microsoft Digital Defense Report (MDDR) suggests that nation-state actors have become increasingly aggressive, and there is an increasing willingness to use cyber weapons for destructive purposes. With such a significant threat looming, the use of red teaming has never been more important. Government infrastructure is a prime target for nation-state hackers, so understanding the threat before it happens is critical.


An attack led by nation-state actors is a mission, and those leading it will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. Investing in a red team will offer critical insight into the capabilities needed to cope with a high-level cyberattack. Its benefits cannot be underestimated.


However, for a red team exercise to be successful, it requires buy-in from all levels of government or an organization. Unless every department is committed to the test from the beginning, it could compromise the desired outcomes. It’s important to remember that the reason for conducting the exercise isn’t just to identify vulnerabilities within an organization’s cybersecurity procedures but also to encourage business leaders to think outside the box regarding their approach to security.


If the buy-in is secured and your organization commits to the process, red team tests can deliver a multitude of benefits, including:


  • Identifying the level of risk and susceptibility of an attack against your organization’s critical infrastructure.
  • Understanding the techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) of a genuine attack through an effective simulation in a controlled and risk-managed environment.
  • Establishing your organization’s capabilities to detect, respond, and prevent targeted and sophisticated threats.
  • Creating a close relationship between red and blue teams to provide meaningful mitigation and feedback in post-exercise debriefs.


Conducting red team testing helps organizations understand and continually improve their cybersecurity posture.


As the threat landscape continues to evolve, the ability to stay ahead of the latest invasion technique is invaluable. Red teaming may seem like an extreme way to test cybersecurity posture, but organizations and governments need to understand their weaknesses.


The process will benefit businesses of all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re a single-premises operator, an online e-commerce platform with thousands of monthly users, or a government department, it can add significant value to cybersecurity processes and procedures. Adding a red team to your cybersecurity team could be the difference between developing an industry-leading security strategy or adding your organization’s name to a long list of others that have suffered a significant data breach.


To hear more from Nick, Mark, and Steve’s discussion on what value red teaming can add to your organization, check out this episode of our Capability-Centric GRC & Cyber Security Podcast.