Red Team vs Blue Team: Who Are They in Cybersecurity?

Red Team vs Blue Team: Who Are They in Cybersecurity?

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Red teaming and blue teaming — what’s the difference? We’ll dive into what each team does, how they help your organization’s IT and cybersecurity, and why the “red team vs blue team” format gets the best results

Red team vs. blue team… No, this isn’t high-school gym class. Red team/blue team is a way to assess your organization’s IT and cybersecurity defenses. And when you’re talking about IT security, you’re talking big money. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports that more than $3.5 billion was lost to cybercrimes in 2019. With stats like that, it is easy to see why Gartner projects that companies will invest up to nearly $4 trillion into IT by the end of 2020.

That’s a lot of money. And keep in mind that we aren’t even factoring in the long-term effects of reputation damage and loss of trust when your company goes through a public cybersecurity issue… When the stakes are this high, you want to ensure you are covering all your bases. This is where knowing the difference between red team vs blue team — and how they help — becomes so important.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the red team vs blue team simulation process. We’ll explore what each team is all about and what running a red team/blue team exercise helps your organization accomplish in terms of cybersecurity.

The Ultimate Goal of Red Team vs Blue Team

A photo of a red team vs blue team soccer match to illustrate the cybersecurity concept of pitting the two teams against each other
A shot of two soccer teams (football for those of you non-U.S. readers) that illustrates the concept of red team vs blue team. The red team is trying to score against the blue team while the blue team tries to defend their net.

The primary goal of pitting red team vs blue team is to improve and strengthen your organization’s overall cybersecurity capabilities through a simulated multi-layered attack. If you were to put it into sports terms, the red team is the offense while the blue team is your defense. The former looks for weaknesses to attack and keeps you on your toes while the latter is there to keep the other team at bay and prevent them from scoring any goals.

Despite being on separate “teams,” this very much an iron-sharpens-iron type of situation. The red team ensures they are educated on the latest malware, social engineering, and penetration methods. The blue team must stay up to date on the latest prevention methods, cybersecurity defense tools, and general attack techniques to ensure the network (and other IT systems) remains secure.

With both of these teams working at full capacity, your organization’s defense will be prepared for any IT security situation. But as for what each of these teams actually does to accomplish this, let’s break it down!

What Is a Red Team?

A red team is a group of IT security professionals (also called “ethical hackers”) who either are hired as a group vendor, independent contractors, or they’re internally assembled by your organization. Their job is to test the strength and effectiveness of your cybersecurity defenses by trying to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that exist within your technology, physical defenses, and “human firewall” (i.e., your employees’ cybersecurity awareness and knowledge).

So, if this sounds like a red team is a hired group of hackers that simulate or execute cyber attacks on the organization that hired them, then you’re correct — this is basically what a red team does.

But as you can see, red teaming is done for a good purpose and not for malicious intentions. These attacks are one of the most effective ways to find weaknesses that could cause your organization to lose money, people to lose their jobs, and many others to be negatively affected as well. By finding these weaknesses, the red team and your organization can create a stronger defense.

How Does a Red Team Function?

Like any successful criminal, the red team spends much of their time studying and planning. A home burglar will watch a home and its occupants to learn the “ins and outs” of it — i.e., who lives there, when they are at home or work, if and where they have cameras, which alarm system they use (if any), etc.

When it comes to organizational security, red teams take the same approach to their job. Their planning may consist of:

  • Network mapping — i.e., being able to visualize the physical relationships between the numerous systems and computers in your network. This helps red team members pinpoint weaknesses between these connections.
  • Uncovering what cybersecurity tools are being utilized and the intricacies of the security tools and software that your organization uses (i.e., if your organization is using a firewall, discovering if you’ve updated it with your own set of rules or you simply used what’s provided, etc.).
  • Mapping out the physical buildings your organization is housed in to find opportunities to infiltrate the network, such as security camera blind spots, entry points, and where hardware is located (such as server rooms). 

Putting these puzzle pieces together enables the red team to gain a better understanding of where to attack. The red team will then use this information to look for hardware and software vulnerabilities. These tactics could include:

  • Intercepting communications using a program such as a packet sniffer.
  • Attacking software or IT systems that haven’t been patched or updated.
  • Using password-cracking tools to launch brute force attacks.
  • Deploying keylogging programs to learn passwords.
  • Identifying weaknesses in incident response processes.

Red teams don’t limit themselves to just looking for hardware and software vulnerabilities. They will also attempt to exploit human error and any security vulnerabilities that exist within your physical location. This could include phishing attempts or attempting to trick employees into letting red team members into secure physical zones such as your server room.

Red Teaming vs Pentesting vs Vulnerability Scanning

Red teaming often gets mistaken for penetration testing and sometimes even vulnerability scanning. While they’re related, they are not the same thing. See the differences below:

  • Vulnerability Scanning — This involves finding vulnerabilities, making a list of them, and reporting those weaknesses to your organization. Part of this process may involve the use of automated tools.
  • Penetration Testing — This task also involves finding vulnerabilities, but pentesting takes this process a step further. The IT security professional would look into what ways they could exploit the vulnerability but stop short of going any further.
  • Red Teaming — We are going another step further. Once the vulnerabilities and ways to exploit them are found, a red team member attempts to exploit the vulnerabilities to get into the system and see what they can get away with. This could include attempting a DoS attack.

What Is a Blue Team?

The blue team is, basically, your IT security defense team. They are the literal opposite of the red team in terms of what they do. Their purpose is to study, test, strategize, and implement a sound cybersecurity protection plan for your organization. But just like the red team, this team of IT security professionals could be your internal team of employees, a third-party service provider, or a group of independent contractors.

How Does a Blue Team Function?

Once again, maybe the best way to describe the blue team is in the terms of red team vs blue team. If a red team is simulating what hackers and other cybercriminals are attempting to do in reality, then the blue team is fighting those attempts. The biggest difference is that what the blue team does is not just a simulation — they’re fighting off real threats every day. This type of exercise gives them the hands-on, practical experience they can use in that daily fight.

Just as the red team preys upon your employees to try to get them to make a mistake, the blue team is:

  • Providing security awareness training to your employees.
  • Ensuring all software, hardware, and other systems are updated and vulnerabilities are patched.
  • Updating, testing, implementing, and improving your organization’s cybersecurity tools and programs (they would be the ones updating their WAF rules in hopes of staying one step ahead of the red team).
  • Installing Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) in the company network.
  • Implementing endpoint security at employee workstations.
  • Being at the front lines to handle any IT security issues that arise.
  • Helping your organization improve its incident response capabilities and processes.

You might think it’s the blue team’s job is to assess and improve your organization’s overall cybersecurity capabilities at all costs. That’s not quite the case. They are assigned with the responsibility of improving the overall cybersecurity but not at all costs. A huge challenge for a blue team is managing priorities, time, and budget. What is considered critical? What resources are needed? What can be done manually and what needs automation? These are just some of the questions that face a blue team.

Blue teams typically tackle this task by performing a risk assessment. By determining what are the higher risks and weakest points in your network and organization, blue teams can identify what is considered “critical.” From there, a cost-benefit analysis will help the blue team determine which of those weaknesses will do the most long-term financial damage and which ones require the least mitigating.

It’s a big juggling act. One way to look at is that the blue team is juggling a bunch of balls. Some of the balls are plastic and some are glass. First, they need to identify which ones are plastic and which are glass. Once they know this, when they are running low on bandwidth or budget, they know which balls they can let drop (the plastic ones) and which they have to keep juggling (the glass ones).

What Is a Purple Team?

Wait, purple team? You thought this article was about red team/blue team exercises! It is, don’t worry. While the whole red team vs blue team approach is meant for the benefit of your organization — and they do need to work together to maximize the method — you don’t typically want them working too closely together.

There’s a strategy film directors and sports coaches use that involves pitting some of their top talents against each other. For example, NBA all-time great coach Phil Jackson famously pitted his two superstar players against each other, the late Kobe Bryant and Shaq O’Neal, to get the best effort out of them. By keeping a rift between the two players, the friction ensured the players (and the rest of the team) stayed on their toes and that competitive environment translated to top-notch performances.

In this same vein, the red team vs blue team process needs that same bit of friction. This way, the blue team is truly being tested while the red team needs to bring their A-game to have any success with penetrating the network and other targets. So, to keep that bit of distance, this is where a “purple team” comes in.

The purple team essentially acts as a liaison between the red team and the blue team. They collect data, conduct meetings, and pass along reports to better synchronize each team’s strategy and methods. The liaison-like purple team attempts to ensure the red and blue teams serve their purposes of strengthening your organization’s IT security. But they do it in a way that keeps a degree of separation to maximize the teams’ competitive natures.

Red Team vs Blue Team – Conclusion

We have come to the end of our journey in understanding the value of the red team vs blue team attack simulation. And as you can see, each of these teams — red team, blue team, and even the purple team — serves a critical role within your organization’s security.

Holding red team/blue team exercises is a sure way to strengthen your entire organization’s IT and overall cybersecurity defenses. It can be a bit of a balancing act, but when properly executed, there may be no better way to simulate the threats that face businesses every day. The old Benjamin Franklin quote rings true here, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

About the author

Danny is a writer and editor with a background in journalism, marketing and communications. He is a tech enthusiast and writes about technology, website security and cyber security.