BlackHat is about to start in a few days. I think this is an appropriate time to share a non-technical, business only post.
There is a new market for offensive tools and services. Our trade press doesn’t write about it yet. I don’t believe industry analysts have caught onto these ideas yet. The leaders behind mature security programs have converged on these ideas, in isolation of each other. I see several forward-thinking consulting firms aligning in this direction as well. I also see movement towards these ideas in a variety of sectors. This isn’t limited to banks, the government, or the military.
The Sword that Hones the Shield
Today’s market for penetration testing software and services is driven by a need to find vulnerabilities in a network and build a prioritized list of things to fix to make it safe. The services and tools in this market reflect this problem set.
What happens when an attacker gets in? It happens, even in the most well maintained networks. At this point all is not lost. This is where security operations comes in. This is the part of a security program designed to detect and respond to an intrusion before it becomes a major incident.
Security Operations is a big investment. There is no lack of devices on the market that promise to stop the APT or detect 99.9% of malware that the vendor tested. When a breach happens, in the presence of these devices, the vendor usually claims the customer didn’t use their magical dust correctly. These devices are all very expensive.
Beyond the devices comes the monitoring staff. These are the folks who watch the APT boxes and other sensors to determine if there is malicious activity on their network. Some organizations outsource this to a Managed Security Services Provider. Others have an in-house staff to do this. Either way, this is an on-going cost that organizations pay to protect their business if an intrusion occurs.
Security Operations is not just passive monitoring. At the high end of the market, security operations also involves highly skilled analysts who deploy agents that collect details about user and process behavior that were previously unavailable. These agents generate a lot of data. The collection, processing, and analysis of this data is difficult to do at scale. Because of this, these analysts usually instrument systems and investigate when another form of monitoring tips them off. These highly skilled analysts have the task to find signs of an intrusion, understand it in full, and develop a strategy to delay the actor until they know the best way to remove the actor from their network altogether. This is often called Hunt.
If an organization invests into security operations in any way, they have an obligation to validate that investment and make sure these parts of their security program work. This problem set is the driver behind this new market for offensive services and tools.
The new service I speak of has a number of names. Adversary Simulation is one name. Threat Emulation is another. Red Team-lite is a term my friends and I use to joke about it. The concept is the same. An offensive professional exercises security operations by simulating an adversary’s actions.
In these engagements, how the attacker got in doesn’t matter as much. Every step of the attacker’s process is an opportunity for security operations staff to detect and respond to the intruder. Some engagements might emulate the initial steps an attacker takes after a breach. These initial steps to escalate privileges and take over the domain are worthwhile opportunities to catch an attacker. Other engagements might emulate an attacker who owns the domain and has had a presence on the network for years. The nice thing about this model is each of these engagements are scoped to exercise and train security operations staff on a specific type of incident.
Adversary Simulations focus on a different part of the offensive process than most penetration tests. Penetration Tests tend to focus on access with a yelp for joy when shell is gained. Adversary Simulations focus almost entirely on post-exploitation, lateral movement, and persistence.
The tool needs for Adversary Simulations are far different. A novel covert channel matters far more than an unpatched exploit. A common element of Adversary Simulations is a white box assume breach model. Just as often as not, an Adversary Simulation starts with an assumed full domain compromise. The goal of the operator is to use this access to achieve effects and steal data in ways that help exercise and prepare the security operations staff for what they’re really up against.
Adversary Simulation Tools
What tools can you use to perform Adversary Simulations? You can build your own. PowerShell is a common platform to build custom remote access tools on an engagement by engagement basis. Microsoft’s red team follows this approach. One of my favorite talks: No Tools, No Problem: Building a Custom Botnet in PowerShell (Chris Campbell, 2012) goes through this step-by-step.
Cobalt Strike’s Beacon has shown itself as an effective Adversary Simulation tool. My initial focus on the needs of high-end red teams and experience with red vs. blue exercises has forced me to evolve a toolset that offers asynchronous post-exploitation and covert communication flexibility. For example, Malleable C2 gives Beacon the flexibility to represent multiple toolsets/actors in one engagement. Beacon Operators rely on native tools for most of their post-exploitation tasks. This approach lends itself well to emulating a quiet advanced threat actor. Cobalt Strike 3.0 will double down on this approach:
Immunity has their Innuendo tool. I’ve kept my eye on Innuendo since Immunity’s first announcement. Innuendo is an extensible post-exploitation agent designed to emulate the post-intrusion steps of an advanced adversary with an emphasis on covert channels. Innuendo is as much a post-exploitation development framework as it is a remote access tool. Immunity also offers an Adversary Simulation service. I’m convinced, at this point, that Immunity sees this market in a way that is similar to how I see it.
One of the company’s doing a lot to push red team tradecraft into penetration tests is the Veris Group. Will Schroeder has done a lot in the offensive powershell space to support the needs of red team operators. The things Will works on don’t come from a brainstorming session. They’re the hard needs of the engagements he works on. At B-Sides Las Vegas, he and his colleague Justin Warner will release a post-exploitation agent called Empire. This isn’t yet-another-powershell post-exploitation agent. It’s documented, polished, AND it builds on some novel work to run PowerShell in an unmanaged process. This talk was rejected by other conferences and I believe the conference organizers made a mistake here. Empire is the foundation of a well thought out Adversary Simulation tool.
You’ll notice that I talk a lot about the playing field of Adversary Simulation tools today. I think each of these options is a beginning, at best. We as an industry have a long ways to go to support the needs to make professional Adversary Simulations safe, repeatable, and useful for the customers that buy them.
Adversary Simulation Training
The tools for Adversary Simulation are coming. The tools alone are not the story. Adversary Simulations require more than good tools, they require good operators.
A good Adversary Simulation Operator is one who understands system administration concepts very well. Regardless of toolset, many Adversary Simulation Tasks are do-able with tools built into the operating system.
A good Adversary Simulation Operator is also one who understands what their actions look like to a sensor and they appreciate which points a sensor has to observe and alert on their action. This offense-in-depth mindset is key to evade defenses and execute a challenging scenario.
Finally, Adversary Simulations require an appreciation for Tradecraft that simply isn’t there in the penetration testing community yet. Tradecraft are the best practices of a modern Adversary. What is the adversary’s playbook? What checklists do they follow? Why do they do the things they do?
I see some of my peers dismiss foreign intelligence services as script kiddies, equal to or beneath penetration testers in capability. This makes me cringe. This hubris is not the way forward for effective Adversary Simulations. Adversary Simulations will require professionals with an open mind and an appreciation for other models of offense.
Right now, the best source of information on Tradecraft is the narrative portion of well written and informed Threat Intelligence reports. A good Adversary Simulation Operator will know how to read a good report, speculate about the adversary’s process, and design an operating concept that emulates that process. CrowdStrike’s Adversary Tricks and Treats blog post is an example of a good narrative. Kaspersky’s report on Duqu 2.0 also captures a lot of key details about how the actor does lateral movement and persistence. For example, the actor that operates with Duqu 2.0 uses MSI packages kicked off with schtasks for lateral movement. Why would this quiet advanced actor do this? What’s the benefit to them? A good Adversary Simulation Operator will ask these questions, come to their own conclusions, and figure out how to emulate these actions in their customer’s networks. These steps will help their customers get better at developing mitigations and detection strategies that work.
Adversary Simulations are not Penetration Testing. There’s some overlap in the skills necessary, but it’s smaller than most might think. For Adversary Simulations to really mature as a service, we will need training classes that emphasize post-exploitation, system administration, and how to digest Threat Intelligence reports. Right now, the courses meant for high-end red teams are the best options.
Adversary Simulation Services
Adversary Simulation Services [someone pick a better acronym] are driven by the need to validate and improve Security Operations. This isn’t a mature-organization-only problem. If an organization is mature enough to hire external security consultants for vulnerability assessments AND the organization invests in security operations, they will benefit from some service that validates or enhances this investment.
What makes Adversary Simulation interesting is it’s an opportunity for a consulting firm to specialize and use their strengths.
If you work for a threat intelligence company, Adversary Simulations are your opportunity to use that Threat Intelligence to develop and execute scenarios to validate and improve your customer’s use of the Threat Intelligence you sell them. iSight Partners is on the cutting edge of this right now. It’s so cutting edge, they haven’t even updated their site to describe this service yet. Their concept is similar to how I described an Aggressor at ShowMeCon in May 2014:
If you’re a penetration testing company that focuses on SCADA; you have an opportunity to develop scenarios that match situations unique to your customers and sell them as a service that others outside your niche can’t offer.
Some organizations outsource most of their security operations to a third-party provider. That’s fine. If you work with these organizations, you can still sell services to help your customers validate this investment. Look into MI SEC’s Security Exercise model and come up with scenarios that take one to two days of customer time to execute and give feedback.
If you’re an organization on the high-end working to build a hunt capability–Adversary Simulation is important to you too. You can’t just deploy Hunt Operators and assume they’re ready to tackle the scariest APT out there. An Adversary Simulation Team can play as the scrimmage team to train and evaluate your Hunt capability.
For any organization that you work with, an Adversary Simulation is an opportunity to offer them new services to validate their security operations. There are different models for Adversary Simulations. Each of these models is a fit for different organizational maturity levels.
I predict that Adversary Simulations will become the bulk of the Penetration Testing services and tools market in the future. Now’s a good time to help define it.