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Models for Red Team Operations

July 9, 2015

Recently, I had an email from someone asking for a call to discuss different models of red team operations. This gentlemen sees his team as a service provider to his parent organization. He wants to make sure his organization sees his team as more than just dangerous folks with the latest tools doing stuff no one understands. This is a fair question.

In this post, I’ll do my best to share different models I see for red team operations. By operations, I mean emulating the activities of a long-term embedded adversary in a network, one that works from a remote location. This ability to gain, maintain, and take action on access over a (potentially) long period of time is a different task from analyzing an application to find flaws or quickly enumerating a large network to identify misconfigurations and unpatched software.

You may ask, what’s the point of emulating a (remote) long-term embedded adversary? Two words: Security Operations. I’m seeing a shift where organizations are leveraging their red assets to validate and improve their ability to detect and respond to intrusions.

With all of that said, let’s go through a few of the different models:

Full Scope Penetration Tests

A full scope penetration test is one where a hired or internal team attempts to gain a foothold into their customers environment, elevate their rights, and steal data or achieve some desired effect. These engagements mimic the targeted attack process an external actor executes to break into an organization. When a lot of my peers think about red team operations these assessments are immediately what comes to mind.

Full scope penetration tests provide a data point about the state of a security program, when all aspects are exercised in concert against an outside attacker. Unfortunately, full scope assessments are as much a test of the assessor as they are of the organization that commissioned these tests. They are also expensive and assessors have to cope with restrictions that are not placed onto a real adversary [less time, fewer resources, compliance with the law].

Given time, resources, and competent execution, a full scope engagement can offer valuable insight about how an external actor sees an organization’s posture. These insights can help identify defensive blind spots and other opportunities for improvement. These engagements are also useful to re-educate executives who bought into the hype that their organization is un-hackable. Making this point seems to be a common driver for these assessments.

Long-term Operations

I see several red teams building long-term operations into their services construct. The idea is that no organizational unit exists in isolation of the others. The organizational units that commission engagements from their internal assets are not necessarily the organizational units that are most in need of a look from a professional red team. To deal with these situations, some red teams are receiving cart blanche to gain, elevate, and maintain access to different organizational units over long period time. These accesses are sometimes used to seed or benefit future engagements against different organizational units.

Long-term Operations serve another purpose. They allow the red team to work towards the “perfect knowledge” that a long-term embedded adversary would have. This perfect knowledge would include a detailed network map, passwords for key accounts, and knowledge about which users perform which activities that are of value to a representative adversary.

It’s dangerous to require that each red team engagement start from nothing with no prior knowledge of a target’s environment. A long-term embedded adversary with a multi-year presence in a network will achieve something that approximates perfect knowledge.

For some organizations, I’m a fan of this approach and I see several potential benefits to it. The perfect knowledge piece is one benefit, but that is something an organization could white card if they wanted to. There’s another key benefit: our common understanding of long-term offensive operations is weak at best. Maintaining and acting on access over a long period of time requires more than a good persistence script and a few VPS nodes. The organizations that take time to invest in and get good at this approach will find themselves with interesting insights about what it takes to keep and maintain access to their networks. These insights should help the organization make investments into technologies and processes that will create real pain for a long-term embedded actor.

War Games

Several organizations stage red vs. blue war games to train and evaluate network defense staff. These exercises usually take place in a lab environment with multiple blue teams working to defend their representative networks against a professional opposing force. The role of this opposing force is to provide a credible adversary to train participants and keep pressure on them throughout the event.

Each of these events is different due to their different goals. Some events white card the access step completely. Some also white card the perfect knowledge of the long-term embedded adversary. It all depends on the event’s training objectives and how the organiser’s want to use their professional red team assets.

To an outsider, large scale Red vs. Blue events look like a chaotic mess. The outsider isn’t wrong. Red vs. Blue events are a chaotic mess. They’re chaotic because they’re fast paced. Some compress a multi-year attack scenario into an event that spans days or weeks.

There’s value to these events though. These events provide a safe opportunity to exercise processes and team roles in a fast-paced setting. They’re also an opportunity to field immature or new technologies to understand the benefit they can provide. Unlike more structured tests, these events also give blue participants opportunities to observe and adapt to a thinking adversary. Done right, these events encourage full disclosure between red and blue at the end so participants can walk away with an understanding of how their blue TTPs affected the professional adversary.

Threat Scenarios / Cyber Security Exercises / Attack Simulations

Another use for red assets is to help design and execute cyber security exercises to train and assess network defense teams. These exercises usually start with a plausible scenario, a representative or real actor, and a realistic timeline.

The red asset’s job is to generate realistic observable activity for each part of the timeline. The red operator is given every white card they need to execute their observable effect. Each of these carefully executed items becomes a discussion point for later.

These exercises are a great way to validate procedures and train blue operators to use them. Each unique generated activity is also an opportunity to identify procedure and technology gaps in the organization.

While this concept is new-ish to security operations, it’s by no means new. NASA has had a concept of an Integrated Training Team led by a Simulation Supervisor since the beginning of the US space program. NASA’s lessons learned in this area is a worthwhile study for security professionals. When I think about emerging job role of the Threat Emulator, I see these folks as the equivalent of NASA’s Simulation Supervisors, but for Security Operations.

Who is doing this?

I see several red teams re-organizing themselves to serve their organizations in different ways from before. Established teams with custom tools for long-term operations are trying to retool for engagements that require full disclosure afterwards. Other teams mirror external consulting firms in their services. These teams are now trying to give their leadership a global long-term perspective on their organization’s security posture. Day-to-day these teams are working towards the credibility, capability, and skills to bring the benefits of long-term operations to their organization. I see a trend where many internal red teams are expanding their services to benefit their organization’s at the tactical and strategic levels. It’s an exciting time to be in this area.

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