Breach and Attack Simulation vs. Red Teaming

Multi-Layered Defense Strategy

Building a Robust Defense-in-Depth Strategy with Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS)

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In this blog, we delve into the evolving landscape of IT infrastructure and cybersecurity threats, where adversaries are continually escalating their tactics. As noted in The Red Report 2023, the complexity of malware is increasing, with the average instance now exhibiting 11 different MITRE ATT&CK Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs). This trend is challenging the efficacy of traditional, human-centric security assessment approaches like penetration testing and red teaming. These methods, which provide a snapshot visibility of an organization's security posture, are struggling to keep pace with rapidly advancing threats. This gap underscores the need for a more dynamic, automated, and continuous solution – Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS).

In this context, we'll explore why red teaming, with its heavy reliance on human expertise, is finding it increasingly difficult to tackle the current threat landscape. We will also discuss how BAS solutions, as modern and innovative tools, can complement and enhance an organization's cybersecurity arsenal.

What Is Red Teaming? 

Red Teaming is an intensive approach in cybersecurity and risk management. It involves a team of offensive security experts emulating the role of potential attackers, using the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as real-world adversaries, often encompassing advanced and sophisticated cyber threats.

The primary goal of Red Teaming is to rigorously test, challenge, and ultimately enhance an organization's defensive, detection, and response mechanisms. Unlike other security testing methods, Red Teaming is conducted in a realistic environment that closely mirrors actual operational conditions. This approach inherently carries risks due to its unscripted and aggressive nature, which can potentially impact live systems and operations.

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) Explained

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) is an innovative approach in cybersecurity, designed to proactively assess and enhance an organization's security posture. By simulating a wide array of cyberattacks, BAS tools mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by real-world attackers. These simulations encompass various attack vectors, including network and email infiltration, lateral movement, and data exfiltration. The purpose of these simulations is not just to identify vulnerabilities but also to provide a realistic assessment of how the organization's security controls would perform against actual cyber threats. This process results in detailed reports that highlight security gaps, enabling organizations to prioritize remediation efforts based on the level of risk.

Breach and Attack Simulation vs. Red Teaming

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) and Red Teaming are both crucial in cybersecurity but differ in their approaches and outcomes. BAS excels in automated, wide-ranging attack simulations for continuous and comprehensive security assessment, while Red Teaming employs human expertise for complex, real-world attack scenarios, offering strategic insights beyond mere vulnerability analysis. 

Each method plays a distinct role in shaping a comprehensive cybersecurity defense strategy.

Feature

Breach And Attack Simulation (BAS)

Red Teaming

Fully automated

Consistent and continuous assessments

Validates security control effectiveness

Identifies vulnerabilities

Has an up-to-date comprehensive threat library

Simulates attacks targeting specific CVEs

Performs testing across the cyber kill chain

Supplies mitigation insights (both vendor-based and vendor-neutral) for security controls

Limited

Accelerates adoption of security frameworks

Generates quantifiable metrics

Safely assesses production environments

(some risk)

In this section, we delve deeper into five core characteristics that distinctly set BAS apart from Red Teaming engagement. This analysis aims to provide not just an overview, but an in-depth understanding of these two differing security control assessment methodologies.

  • Automation vs. Human-centric Approach: BAS vs. Red Teaming

  • Continuous vs. Snapshot Visibility on the Security Posture: BAS vs. Red Teaming

  • Low vs. High Risk Level: BAS vs. Red Teaming

  • Customized Threat Intelligence: BAS vs. Red Teaming

  • Actionable Mitigation Insights vs. General Suggestions: BAS vs. Red Teaming

First, we are going to take the comparison from the nature of these two approaches: automation vs. human-centric.

Discover how to enhance your defense against evolving cyber threats. Explore our comprehensive whitepaper on Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) – a cutting-edge approach that complements traditional Red Teaming methods.
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Automation vs. Human Expertise: BAS vs. Red Teaming

Red teaming is a practice that closely emulates the actions of advanced threat actors, focusing on the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) these adversaries use. It's an adversarial approach that aims to test an organization's defenses by simulating real-world attacks. In red teaming exercises, the participating organization is usually kept in the dark about the specifics of the attack, such as its timing and origin. This lack of information adds a layer of realism to the exercise, as it mirrors the unpredictability of real cyber threats.

Red teaming is highly dependent on human expertise. A red team professional might physically infiltrate a building, introduce malware through devices like USBs, or employ social engineering for domain-joined user credentials. After thorough network and host enumeration, the professional may develop custom payloads or tools to bypass defenses, moving laterally across the network to gain access to critical assets like domain admin accounts. While this human-centric approach can highlight specific vulnerabilities and simulate sophisticated attacker behaviors, it often focuses on a singular critical attack path, potentially leaving multiple security controls untested or unassessed.

On the other hand, BAS offers a different perspective. Though it does not replicate the full experience of a sophisticated adversary, BAS provides a comprehensive overview of an organization's prevention and detection capabilities. BAS solutions automatically, continuously, and repeatedly simulate attacks on each layer of an organization’s defense-in-depth strategy, from Next-Generation Firewalls and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) to data layer protection like Data Loss Prevention (DLP), including cross-layer solutions like SIEM and Extended Detection and Response (XDR).

Layer

Solutions

Network

NGFW, IPS, IDS, VPN, NAC, SWG

Host

EPP, EDR, HIPS, HIDS, Anti-Virus Software, Anti-Malware Software

Application

WAF, SEG

Data

DLP

Cross Layer Solutions

SIEM, SOAR, XDR

The automated nature of BAS enables organizations to swiftly execute attack simulations on targeted security controls. For instance, to assess the efficacy of Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions, an BAS can deploy internal and external agents to simulate attacks, including malware and ransomware campaigns, or target known vulnerabilities with proof-of-concept attacks. This automated approach allows organizations to test various implemented solutions efficiently. 

breach-and-attack-simulation-bas

Figure 1. Testing the Prevention and Detection Layer Solutions with BAS.

Platforms like Picus Security Control Validation, which utilize advanced Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) technology, offer a crucial resource in cybersecurity defense: the Picus Threat Library. This extensive and constantly updated library is a cornerstone of the platform, providing simulations of the latest cybersecurity threats, including zero-day vulnerabilities. In cases where publicly available proofs of concept exist for these vulnerabilities, the platform is exceptionally responsive, integrating these threats into the library within 24 hours. This rapid inclusion demonstrates a strong commitment to delivering accurate and timely assessments of an organization's security controls.

By utilizing such a dynamic and comprehensive threat library, organizations gain a data-driven perspective on their actual security posture. This insight is invaluable in understanding and responding to the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats.

Continuous vs. Snapshot Visibility on the Security Posture: BAS vs. Red Teaming  

The duration and continuity of Breach and Attack Simulation versus Red Teaming engagements present notable differences in their approach to assessing an organization's security posture. 

Red Teaming engagements are typically more extended and resource-intensive, often spanning up to months, including the time taken for comprehensive reporting. This method, while thorough, offers only a snapshot of the organization's security at a specific point in time. Given the dynamic nature of IT infrastructures, especially in large organizations where new privileges, hosts, and potential vulnerabilities are constantly emerging, this snapshot can quickly become outdated. Red Teaming's intensive nature, coupled with its episodic output, means that it might not capture newly evolving critical attack paths

In contrast, BAS provides a more sustainable solution with its continuous, automated, and repetitive approach to security control assessment. BAS operates on an ongoing basis, consistently updating and adapting to changes in the IT environment. This continuous assessment ensures that security insights are current and reflective of the ever-evolving nature of cybersecurity threats and organizational changes, making BAS a more dynamic and responsive tool in maintaining robust security defenses.

Risk Level: BAS vs. Red Teaming

When comparing the risk levels associated with BAS and Red Teaming, a key distinction lies in the environment where these tests are conducted. BAS is typically carried out in a controlled setting, ensuring that the simulations do not disrupt the actual operational environment. 

In BAS scenarios, simulations are structured so that one agent acts as the target, while another sends attack simulations to this target agent. This setup is designed to assess how security controls respond to various simulated attacks. Crucially, these simulations are not executed on the actual hosts or network infrastructure but are confined to the agent, which is safeguarded by the same security mechanisms that protect real endpoints. This approach minimizes the risk of unintended disruptions or damage to the operational environment, making BAS a low-risk, yet effective, method for evaluating security posture.

attack-simulations

Figure 2. Performing Attack Simulations on IPS/IDS with Picus Security Control Validation Platform.

In contrast, Red Teaming is conducted within the real production or organizational environment, inherently carrying a higher risk level. This method involves actual penetration attempts and other adversarial actions within the live environment, aiming to realistically test the organization's defenses against sophisticated threats. 

While Red Teaming provides valuable insights into how an organization would fare against a real-life attack, it also poses the risk of potential disruptions or unintended consequences in the live environment. This real-world testing scenario underscores the importance of careful planning and coordination to mitigate risks, but it also means that Red Teaming inherently involves a higher level of risk compared to the more controlled and contained simulations of BAS.

Customized Threat Intelligence: BAS vs. Red Teaming

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) offers a high degree of customization, enabling simulations that align closely with an organization's specific risk profile. For example, if a company is particularly concerned about certain types of malware or attack vectors prevalent in their industry or region, BAS can concentrate simulations on these exact threats. This level of customization results in more targeted and relevant security assessments, providing a contrast to the broader, less specific approach typical of Red Teaming.

Take, for instance, the Picus Security Validation platform. It features an extensive Threat Library, meticulously updated by seasoned Red Team professionals. This library categorizes threats into five key areas: 

  • Network Infiltration Attacks, 

  • Endpoint Attacks, 

  • Web Application Attacks, 

  • Email Infiltration Attacks, and 

  • Data Infiltration Attacks. 

These categories cover a range of commonly used operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and macOS.

Users of the platform can view the latest threats added to the library and select specific ones for simulation. Additionally, the platform offers ready-to-use threat templates, enabling users to test their defenses against particular types of threats. Whether it's the latest emerging threats grouped in a specialized template or simulations designed to challenge security measures against recent Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) campaigns and their associated malware, the platform provides options to suit various testing needs. 

emerging-threats

apt-groups

Figure 3. Ready-to-Run Threat Templates with Picus Security Control Validation.

Therefore, in comparing BAS with Red Teaming practices, it's important to note the limitations of even the most skilled and experienced Red Teaming professionals. For instance, it's impractical for a Red Teaming engineer, regardless of their expertise, to test an organization's security measures against a hundred APT campaigns in a single engagement. This task exceeds human capabilities. Hence, organizations that engage in Red Teaming should also consider the benefits of automated and continuous solutions like BAS, which can comprehensively and efficiently simulate a wide range of sophisticated cyber threats.

Actionable Mitigation Insights: BAS vs. Red Teaming

After a Red Teaming engagement, a comprehensive report is generated, detailing a proof of concept for the critical attack path that could potentially compromise an organization's most valuable assets, often referred to as the "crown jewels." These reports meticulously outline the step-by-step process a skilled adversary might use to breach the organization's environment. However, while they effectively identify these critical paths, the reports typically provide only a high-level overview of potential mitigation strategies. This can leave organizations in a predicament: they recognize that their expensive security controls are not as effective as expected, but they lack specific guidance on how to address these high-risk vulnerabilities. This situation can lead to frustration and hesitancy regarding the value of Red Teaming engagements, as organizations find themselves aware of their vulnerabilities but without clear directions for remediation.

In contrast, one of the key advantages of BAS solutions is their ability to provide actionable mitigation strategies following each simulation. These solutions analyze how certain threats circumvent existing security measures and reach internal endpoints. Based on these results, BAS platforms offer both vendor-specific and general mitigation suggestions, enabling security professionals to promptly reinforce their defenses.

For example, the Picus Security Control Validation platform, empowered by BAS technology, includes a comprehensive mitigation library. After conducting attack simulations, users receive a range of mitigation signatures sourced from various vendors. These signatures are carefully selected and vetted by the platform's blue team engineers.

Consider a scenario where an organization, particularly in the North American finance sector, is alert to the threat posed by the Kimsuky APT group, known for targeting sectors like energy, finance, and healthcare. 

kimsuky-threat-group

Figure 4. Kimsuky Threat from Picus Threat Library.

In response, the organization opts to simulate a Kimsuky campaign. Post-simulation, they discover that certain attack vectors can indeed penetrate their defenses. The BAS platform then steps in, providing specific vendor-based mitigation recommendations tailored to these vulnerabilities. 

After the simulation is done, security professionals see that some attack actions can actually bypass the security measures. As a next action, the organization can check the offered vendor-based mitigation suggestions. 

apt-campaign

Figure 5. Mitigation Suggestions for the Kimsuky APT Campaign.

This aspect of BAS – the provision of targeted mitigation strategies – is vital for organizations to execute swift and effective remediation actions, turning insights into practical, defensive measures.

Discover Enhanced Cybersecurity: Explore our whitepaper on Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS). Gain in-depth insights into advancing your cybersecurity strategy with BAS. Learn how it complements and elevates your existing measures.
Download Now: "Achieving a Threat-Centric Approach with BAS"

 

Can Breach and Attack Simulation Out-thrown Red Teaming?

Determining whether BAS can completely replace Red Teaming is complex, as both methodologies have unique strengths and cater to different aspects of cybersecurity. Red Teaming offers a real-life experience of an actual attack, often including unpredictable elements and even physical intrusion, such as a team member entering a building with a malware-laden USB stick. The element of surprise and the diverse skill set of the red team can provide invaluable insights into an organization's preparedness for a real-world attack. 

On the other hand, BAS offers continuous, comprehensive testing against a variety of threats, including emerging ones. For instance, the Picus Security Control Validation Platform, which employs cutting-edge BAS technology, rapidly simulates specific adversarial behaviors. This includes both known and emerging malware, as well as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) campaigns targeting specific sectors or regions. Critical and high-severity threats, along with actionable IOCs, are added to the Picus platform within 24 hours.

picus-platform

This automated and continuous approach, which doesn't rely solely on the expertise of human attackers, provides data-driven results on security gaps, making BAS an essential tool for organizations looking to swiftly evaluate their defenses against evolving cyber threats. 

However, it’s important to note that BAS doesn't entirely replace the nuanced and unpredictable challenges presented by Red Teaming, suggesting that a combined approach might offer the most comprehensive security assessment.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) and Red Teaming each play a pivotal role in the cybersecurity landscape, though their approaches and outcomes differ significantly. Red Teaming offers in-depth, human-driven insights, simulating real-world attacks with a level of unpredictability and sophistication. However, it is episodic and offers only a snapshot of an organization's security at a particular moment. In contrast, BAS provides a broader, more consistent, and safer approach due to its automated nature. It delivers continuous, comprehensive testing against a spectrum of threats, both known and emerging, ensuring that security assessments keep pace with rapid changes in the threat landscape.

The choice between BAS and Red Teaming, or a blend of both, hinges on an organization's specific needs and its appetite for risk. A combined approach, leveraging the strengths of both methodologies, often proves to be the most effective strategy for a robust cybersecurity posture. This synergy allows organizations to benefit from the thorough, human-centric insights of Red Teaming while also enjoying the broad, continuous coverage and up-to-date threat intelligence offered by BAS. Together, they provide a comprehensive defense mechanism, equipping organizations to effectively counter the dynamic nature of cyber threats.

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