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Getting The Most Out Of A Security Red Team

Justify security expenses and improve defenses through the use of an internal red team
When used effectively, a working red team doesn't just help IT security organizations find vulnerabilities in their environments. Red teams can also help organizations prove the need for increased budget in focused areas, substantiate claims of security improvements, and generally sharpen the skills of IT defenders called on to regularly defend against real-world attack simulations carried out by these in-house "bad guys."

"One of the best things I've done when starting new [security organizations] is starting a red team first," says John Walton, principal security manager at Microsoft, in charge of the Office 365 security engineering team, who uses red teams to test the efficacy of the service's security. "A red team will tend to justify additional resources. A red team can actually prove out why you need that additional investment, and can also help get the management aware of what the risks are specifically." According to Maranda Cigna, senior IT security manager at financial services firm FIS, her organization has similarly helped her counterparts in the network and technology teams justify head count and better tell the story of the true risks faced by their assets when they aren't properly manned. In her organization, the red teams focus their work within the data center.

[Are you missing the downsides of big data security analysis? See 3 Inconvenient Truths About Big Data In Security Analysis.]

"We've got pen testing, in general, happening against network devices and our Web applications, but I have a specific red team that just targets and attacks our data centers, and we're spinning through that on an annual basis," she says, explaining that beyond setting certain bounds around the data center, it is crucial to let the teams be creative in how they probe their targets. "We let them organically go through, see what they find, go down whatever rabbit holes that they want. When targeting a large data center, there's no way we could actually hit every single asset in there. But it’s a good depiction of how an attack against that data center would actually happen."

Whereas many external penetration tests can be gamed by organizations limiting the parameters in which the pen tester can operate or can simply be ineffective in thoroughly examining an environment, red teams frequently find more success. According to Scott Erven, manager of information security for Essentia Health, he believes internal red teams are more effective than penetration testing services.

"One example: We just finished an external pen test and went through all our internal Web applications and got a big report," he says. "Then I brought in one of my interns, sat him down for four weeks, typing IP addresses. He was an internal guy, knew a little bit about healthc are, and he came out with a new list of 300 additional applications that they didn't find in that external report."

That's just a small example of what Erven's team does, as his organization is one of the few in health care that is fully red-teaming all of its biomedical equipment production systems, he says.

"I have not found anyone else who is doing that, in production, hooked up to patients and still exploiting them," he says, explaining his conviction that the only way to truly learn from red team activity is to conduct it live.

It's equally important to Walton, who explains that production systems are always different than test systems, and red teams will find a set of issues that it would never see anywhere other than in that environment.

"Your attackers are primarily going to go after that anyway," he says. "You should be aware of what your true risk is there. If you've got a good red team, where they're careful about how they approach it, I think that risk [of taking down systems] can pretty much be minimized."

One of the biggest lessons his red team has taught his organizations is how to prioritize defense of assets to defend against breach attacks. Rather than just focusing on front-end assets that are traditionally viewed as the organization's most risky assets, his red team has shown how advanced attacks are penetrating much deeper into the environment.

"So those assets that you may have deprioritized because they're back-end systems or because you thought the perimeter was secure, those things are just as important for us to maintain patches on," he says. "Our red team likes them just as much as any other asset."

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