Why it’s time to revisit your red and blue team approach

Anyone who has read the recent news of Yahoo’s data breach which affected around 500 million accounts will probably have questioned their own organization’s ability to defend itself against external attacks of all sorts.

The task of maintaining defences in the face of constant threats is often partly owned by two IT security groups, the “red”and “blue” team.:

Red: focused on testing the effectiveness of the organization by acting as hackers, using penetration testing techniques to identify and expose vulnerabilities. They will use offensive tools and use SQL injection, scan the network and be familiar with firewall and router commands.

Blue: take the role of defending the organisation, being constantly vigilant and ready to respond to any attacks. They will be expected to recognize unusual patterns, behaviours or outliers, and establish how and where attacks are about to take place. The blue team monitors the systems such as the central log file management system and  scans this for signs of attempted entry.

Whilst this role playing is a familiar exercise, there are potentially dangers if the approach is not regularly reviewed:

  • The mindset and culture developed in an organisation over time can inhibit fresh thinking both in terms of where and how to typically attack, and equally defend against these attacks. It does not prepare teams for a concerted attack by strangers who have no respect for the system.
  • Teams can become stuck in their ways and “go through the motions”, repeating similar attacks to the last role play.
  • As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. Unless exceptional, over time, many employees become conditioned by their surroundings and view situations based on their perception of established norms, and the prevailing culture. This can restrict fresh thinking and lead to a narrow testing focus.

    There a number of activities which can help keep the red/blue team sharp and effective:

  • Regular rotation: it is recommened to switch parts of each group g. 50% change sides on a frequent basis. This improves cross-team skills and also creates a view on how „the other half think“.
  • Full debriefs: after each game play has taken place, each team should explain and document how they were successful (either in attacking or defending), so learnings are formalised and captured.
  • Continuous learning: funds and time permitting, create an education budget for each team member where they can choose to attend a conference, external course or online learning and increase their knowledge base. It demonstrates investment in talent and also assists team morale.
  • Incentivise: introduce a trophy that is passed between teams (e.g. for not being hacked this quarter/half year etc), with the red and blue team exchanging ownership based on which was successful in the last role play.
  • Review the team composition: typically in a team of 10 people, three would be responsible for IT Sec Engineering, 5-7 would take a SecOps/Incident response (usually outsourced) role, and two would act as pen testers. How does your team’s make-up look?
  • Explore 3rd party participation: a real attacker doesn’t play by the rules or follow established thinking, and is going to overlook any rule, etiquette, company guidelines and ethical issues. Sometimes a genuine outsider approach is needed that does the unexpected, not permitted, daring or simply blindsides the blue team.

FOXMOLE’s penetration testing team has extensive experience in responsibly attacking client sites to identify weaknesses, whether based on an open brief or a speciifc area of concern.

The greatest opportunity offered by commissioning an external group is the discovery of pervasive, underlying vulnerabilities that have not been addressed as these were simply not on the radar. Remedial action plans can be developed in conjunction with clients, with scheduled progress review points.

 

 

Five typical enterprise security fails

At FOXMOLE, we have met with many large organisations and whilst they are all different in terms of their particular security challenges, there have been a number of commonalities observed:

Lack of mitigations

One example of this is the absence of a patch process, which is surprisingly frequent. Once a vulnerability with an internal or external application has been identified, how is a patch issued, and how quickly is the fix implemented? The issue is that the processes are not reoccurring as frequently as they should, leaving a window of opportunity for an attacker to compromise the system with known vulnerabilities. FOXMOLE has also observed that the patch process does not address all layers, for example only the server patches are applied, but not the service-layer, the used frameworks or the applications are part of it.

Too often we see either a piecemeal approach that only addresses part of the network, or a reinvention of the wheel each time – as if a patch has never occurred before. With attacks more than likely to succeed at some point (however small), it is time to factor in how these would be remediated so minimize the chance of reoccurrence.

Insider threat often underestimated

In modern company culture that often stress (rightly) collaboration, assumption of best intent and HR/privacy guideline adherence, it can be hard to stress the need to factor in actions by a disgruntled employee. A Forrester Research report, “Understand the State of Data Security and Privacy,” showed that 25% of survey respondents the most common breach occurred in the past year at their company derived from abuse by a malicious insider. If that insider has privileged account access, the risk is particularly significant.

One failure FOXMOLE sees in this respect is a focus on policies and the main solution. Companies tend to protect against external threats;  they patch every external server-system (available from the internet) and do not do that for internal systems (same applies to hardening…). In the end, the important systems (which often are not available from the internet such as SAP, HR-Systems, Customer Analytics,…) are in a weak security state (default passwords on the databases, old patch levels…). This means that anyone with access to the local network (an insider, subcontractor) has a very soft target which enables them to steal the data. In addition, if employees can bring their own devices (subcontractors with own laptops) they normaly have administrative rights with them and can bring their own attack tools and have all the time to exploit systems and extricate data – since no corporate compliance tool will typically check these BYOD devices.

Poor password practices

This seems like an old “classic”, but these present issues in multiple ways. A recent study in Luxembourg revealed that over 40% of respondents would share their passwords in return for chocolate. The significance of handing over a password still seems not resonate. Sharing password for admin accounts may be convenient and time-saving but presents major risks. Another challenge is laziness in creating passwords themselves, with “123456” or “welcome” remaining popular and of course easily hackable choices. Whilst it is hard to remember a wealth of complex passwords in work and personal life, using “password” for example, is not the smartest idea.

Linked to this is the fact that few companies seem to enforce strong passwords, or do not store the passwords in a secure manner (bcypt, scrypt with salts). It is essential to combine strong password policies with frequent password change requirements that will decrease the selected passwords to avoid predictability! Recent research showed that 63% of confirmed data breaches involved weak, default or stolen passwords.

General awareness of security

This may seem like a catch-all topic, but it’s really just a simple mindset issue. It’s about taking care of the basics such as locking the desktop, vetting sub-contractors, challenging non-familiar faces, not allowing visitors to walk around the building unescorted and not leaving valuables in the office. One service FOXMOLE offers is the “evil cleaner”; which involves consultants spending five minutes in an employee’s office to see how much could be taken by regular office presence with bad intentions.

Adherence to manual approaches

In a app-driven world, it is still a shock to witness the lack of automating of security and the modeling of this all into all processes. Addressing human weaknesses such as errors, laziness, absence of a repeated and consistent approach through automation is essential as the type, volume and complexity of security threats increase. FOXMOLE has observed on multiple occasions an absence of a defined, transparent and robust security framework.

There are no doubt many other common failings – look out for some more observations in a future blog!