What Is a Red Team?

Red Team Definition:

Red teams are “ethical hackers” who help test an organization’s defenses by identifying vulnerabilities and launching attacks in a controlled environment. Red teams are opposed by defenders called blue teams, and both parties work together to provide a comprehensive picture of organizational security readiness.

In the realm of information security, the good guys often wear red ― while posing as the bad guys.

That’s a reference to the practice of “red teaming,” a methodology that helps organizations identify and rectify shortcomings by using an outside group to test their systems, defenses or operational strategies.

While red teaming is often associated with information security, the practice is also followed in the intelligence and government communities.

Defining Red Team Security

In the context of information security, red team security testing is best conceived as “ethical hacking.” An independent security team (the red team) poses as an attacker in order to gauge vulnerabilities and risk within a controlled environment.

Red team tests are designed to expose vulnerabilities associated not only with security infrastructure (networks, routers, switches, etc.) but also with people and even physical locations.

During a red team test, skilled security operatives typically launch a range of attacks leveraging the vulnerabilities within any of these elements. Standard techniques employed include penetration tests, phishing attempts, social engineering and tools such as packet sniffers and protocol analyzers.

Before the attacks commence, a red team begins by learning as much as it can about the intended target. Information is gathered by identifying the operating systems in use, network infrastructure, vulnerable ports and other factors.

Once this reconnaissance is complete, the red team has enough information to develop a network map and a broader idea of the attack paths and techniques that are likely to succeed.

Red Team vs Blue Team Exercises

During red team testing, the security environment is defended by a “blue team,” which is generally comprised of the security professionals who are normally tasked with protection of the organization’s infrastructure and assets. Because they are intimately familiar with organizational defenses and security objectives, their goal is to raise the level of defense and avert unfolding attacks.

Blue teams typically begin by gathering data and creating an in-depth risk assessment that outlines what steps need to be taken to strengthen overall security. This may include technical solutions and tighter user protocols, such as stronger password policies.

Blue teams will often deploy monitoring tools, allowing information to be logged, checked and scanned. Anything anomalous can then be subjected to greater analysis. Blue teams will also launch countermeasures, engaging in exercises such as DNS audits, footprint analysis and configuration checks to ensure that defenses are robust.

Why Red Teaming Is Critically Important

Maintaining strong organizational security has never been more challenging, something reinforced by the ever-rising number of annual security breaches reported by today’s enterprises and governments. As companies continue to shift to the cloud, the burden on security professionals to establish robust defenses in hybrid environments grows even more significant.

Red teaming plays a key role in evening the playing field between attacker and defender. It allows defenders to shed their reactive posture, assume the mindset of the attacker and take an aggressive approach to rooting out security vulnerabilities.
While some organizations may rely on “security by obscurity” or feel that their smaller size makes them an unlikely target, the truth is that no enterprise is safe.

Attackers often choose smaller enterprises because the level of defense is lower or because they wish to use that company’s network as a staging ground for a separate attack on a larger company further along the supply chain. Red teaming is also flexible enough to focus on the threats that are specific to a company’s size or industry, which makes it adaptable to almost any organization.

Given this context, it’s fair to say that red teaming should be a core security tool for just about every modern organization.