red team vs blue team in cybersecurity: key roles & responsibilities

Editorial Policy
ImageImage
Favicon_EPAM_Anywhere_2@3x.png
written by

The EPAM Anywhere Editorial Team is an international collective of senior software engineers, managers and communications professionals who create, review and share their insights on technology, career, remote work, and the daily life here at Anywhere.

The EPAM Anywhere Editorial Team is an international collective of senior software engineers, managers and communications professionals who create, review and share their insights on technology, career, remote work, and the daily life here at Anywhere.

Red team vs blue team is an approach to organization security. By simulating attacks against a company’s defensive setup, you can determine the effectiveness of the security operations. Copied from the military, the security drill emulates a real-world adversary, making it far easier to prepare for potential intrusions.

But which team security strategy should you follow? Here’s what you need to know about red team vs blue team approaches and best practices in cybersecurity services.

tired of job hunting?

Scroll no more. Send us your CV and we’ll match it with our best remote tech jobs for your skills.

find me a job

What is a red team in cybersecurity?

Red teams are security experts who take on an offensive position. They develop strategies of attack and try to exploit possible weaknesses. Often consisting of independent ethical hackers, red teams will use advanced cybersecurity techniques to overcome cybersecurity controls.

To red teamers, all people, processes, and technologies within a company are fair game for attack. And once the red team discovers a novel way to access private assets, they deliver recommendations for how to fix the problem. Better for a red team to find the flaw than a criminal. In the long run, the simulations help improve an organization's security posture.

Red team responsibilities

Most work by red team security involves attack planning that follows a five-stage methodology:

  • Reconnaissance: Red teams will use several software tools (OpenVAS, Spiderfoot, etc.) to discover weak security vectors. When a vulnerability is determined, the hackers will devise a plan of attack to gain access to exposed business assets.
  • Attack delivery: When ready, the red team will deliver the payload. The payload type can be a malicious link, developed malware, phishing site, compromised email, or other social engineering scam.
  • Persistence: Once they gain access, the red team will run the exploit (scripts, codes, etc.). The hackers hope to have their attack persist through the standard defensive measures and own local systems.
  • Escalation: Once they establish persistence, red teams attempt to improve privilege access. This can occur through planned OS exploits or hacking passwords with better access credentials.
  • Command and control: Finally, the red team will take complete control with a high level of authentication. Soon, sensitive data may be exfiltrated and further assets seized.
red team operations attack lifecycle

Red team activities and techniques

A red team will use a variety of techniques to expose vulnerabilities in a system. Common and standard attack exercises include:

  • Penetration testing: Expert red teams use or develop security software tools designed for ethical hacks and other pentests as part of network security assessment.
  • Security breaches: Red teams will exploit physical security systems in person to gain access.
  • Directory: Teams may employ a path traversal attack, where they access files stored outside of root folders.
  • Endpoints: A connected device can serve as an access point for further cyberattacks.
  • Social engineering: Red teams will create scams that entice or threaten users to divulge access information.
  • Servers: Some hackers will attempt to find weak points in servers from which they deploy an attack.

Typical red team composition

Most red teams start with as few as 2 engineers but can include up to 20 people. Team size depends on the available resources of the cybersecurity service provider and the scope of the planned attack.

An operator usually leads a red team. The operator executes all red team attacks or assumed scenarios. Most operators are highly trained and have extensive job title experience as a penetration tester.

Ideally, the rest of the red team members include experts and ethical hackers who possess specific attacking skill sets. Many businesses invest in numerous types of security postures — having team members who are aware of business administration systems and can deploy different attack types increases the efficacy of a test.

What is a blue team in cybersecurity?

Blue teams are security experts who uphold a defensive position. They provide guidance to the security teams who maintain and monitor cybersecurity systems. Often consisting of incident response consultants, blue teams identify security flaws and take the necessary steps to fix any vulnerabilities.

Blue teams also try to improve the sophistication of an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. In particular, they offer suggestions to lower break-out time (the time it takes to detect and remove an intruder once they access a system). As a result, blue teams engage in reverse engineering based on data from red teams.

Blue team responsibilities

Blue teams optimize security operations center (SOC) and improve event management protocols. They will also establish the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) needed to achieve the desired security strategy. Most blue teams deploy a three-step methodology to achieve those goals:

  • Current state: First, response teams execute risk assessments to define a system's defense standards and risk exposure. After identifying all key assets, blue teams compare the current security posture according to the desired risk appetite.
  • Target state: Blue teams then document the importance of each asset and define the business impact of a breach or absence. Crucial assets are ranked according to the level of weakness and priority. An ideal state is also determined to help the in-house security team develop the needed policies and tools.
  • Integrate: In agreement with senior management, blue teamers implement any possible improvements and configurations. A cost-benefit and gap analysis inform what defensive procedures and intrusion prevention systems the business will integrate. Upon completion, monitoring tasks ensue.

Blue team activities and techniques

Blue team exercises involve analysis and the creation of attack countermeasures. Common activities include:

  • Evaluating all present issues through cybersecurity audit
  • Improving endpoint security
  • Assessing risk
  • Analyzing system logs and data for unusual activity
  • Implementing security information and event management (SIEM) solutions
  • Educating security teams on new security controls
  • Configuring firewalls and user restrictions
  • Integrating incident management systems
  • Automating security processes and network security
  • Conducting hardening techniques
  • Developing a defensive strategy and protocols for incidents

Typical blue team composition

A blue team is composed of hired cybersecurity professionals. On certain occasions, internal security teams or employees will also join as a member to help facilitate learning and education. Many blue team members are hired for their particular skill in a niche area of defensive security (e.g., incident response consultants), but such diversity is more typical of red teams.

The pros and cons of red team vs blue team

Red and blue teams operate with different techniques built around opposing goals. As a result, each team security strategy offers several advantages and drawbacks:

Red team

Pros:

  • Vulnerability scanning and discovery: Red teams are highly effective at finding potential attack vectors. The goal of a cybersecurity red team is focused and singular — that allows them to rapidly assess the most apparent weak points in any defensive structure. They help gain a clear understanding of attack susceptibility and overall risk toward a business asset.
  • Tests replicate real-world conditions: Defensive postures make generalized forecasts that protect against the many possible attack formations. But that does little to prepare for the exact tactics or activities of a malicious hacker in real time. Red teams offer a far more accurate example of the real-life actions or activities a bad actor is likely to execute. Attacker-like thinking with its various motives and desires improves security assessments.
  • Designed to evolve: Cybersecurity continues to change. New technology offers innovation, but that also exposes weak points. Threat actors continue to act with increasing sophistication, and red teams allow a company to prepare for such rapidly changing attacks. It is a strategy with outside-the-box thinking crucial for up-to-date protection.

Cons:

  • Coverage: Red teams are limited to specific attacks — it is not a comprehensive approach to the entirety of a cybersecurity posture. Moreover, red teams are constrained by a time window and available resources that can hurt overall effectiveness.
  • Not a true representation of real life: As much as ethical hackers attempt to mimic real attackers, they simply cannot offer a perfect picture of an attack. A bad actor will employ numerous details, formations, or technologies that a red team cannot recreate completely.
  • Errors: A cybersecurity red team can still operate with a bias that leads to incorrect recommendations. Many hacking teams glean information about the organization during the hiring process and have access to data that a threat actor usually would not have. Some people also note problems with compliance readiness, as red teams do not build complete security strategies but solely focus on aggressive penetration testing.
red team vs blue team

Blue team

Pros:

  • Security readiness: Cybersecurity blue teams work to continuously improve an organization's defensive structures. They take concrete actions that mitigate or eliminate a problem (likely discovered by a red team). Blue teams develop strategies that limit risk with threat intelligence, incidence response, and bastion host creation.
  • Holistic approach: Blue teams take a bird’s eye view of all of your security operations. They do not prevent singular attacks but keep the entire defensive strategy in mind. That helps manage resources, discover internal blind spots for all assets, and invest in effective monitoring. Threat detection, management, and mitigation take center stage, offering a stronger defensive position.
  • Education: Blue teams take steps to inform and educate security teams (as well as all stakeholders via reporting). Increasing overall security awareness throughout the company leads to a unified security posture. Blue teams take pains to offer their expert knowledge to organization members.

Cons:

  • Reactive approach: Blue teams only respond to incoming threats. It is a passive prevention tactic, and it cannot possibly defend against the myriad of attack types. Plus, blue teams only look at the internal workings of a company and assessments occur after a breach, not before. Maintenance of internal systems against risk holds greater importance than taking proactive steps toward evolving cyber threats. Many organizations battle complacency from their blue teams, as a constant defensive stance places little emphasis on the innovations needed to protect against new threat developments.
  • Resource intensive: Cybersecurity blue teams look at the entirety of an organization’s security setup, which demands a greater resource share.
  • Quantifying success: Since a blue team adopts a defensive posture, success is hard to measure. It is difficult to assess the total number of attacks prevented (while it is quite easy to determine failures). When success is unknown, it discourages use.

Purple team and others on the cybersecurity color wheel

The cybersecurity color wheel refers to the various fields of cybersecurity. Each color represents a team and denotes the specific roles and responsibilities they manage.

cybersecurity color wheel with red, blue, purple and other teams

Purple is a secondary color, so it refers to the combination of both red and blue teams. Instead of following the divided workflows of each team (one attacks and delivers suggestions for the other to implement), a purple team completes both defensive and offensive security activities.

This is an efficient way to streamline cybersecurity. But it is also more effective, as purple teams can share information. The recommendations of a red team are of little value if there is no blue team to implement changes. Both should operate in tandem. As a result, “purple teaming” is now the standard for most blue team/red team exercises within software development.

How to build effective cybersecurity teams: tips for leaders

Cyber attacks pose a significant threat to businesses and their reputation. A well-developed IT security strategy is a necessity in today's digital-first approach. But implementing robust cybersecurity is a challenge, especially with the ever-changing methods of attack bad actors deploy.

For tech leaders and chief security officers aiming to decide on their perfect cybersecurity team composition, here are a few final tips:

  • Balance red and blue teams: Given the distinct yet complementary roles of the red and blue teams, a perfect cybersecurity team must strike a balance between these two teams, ensuring resources are efficiently allocated towards both offensive and defensive strategies.
  • Invest in regular training and exercise: An important aspect of any cybersecurity framework is continuous learning and improvement. Regular training and joint exercises should be arranged for the teams to keep their skills sharp and up-to-date.
  • Encourage collaboration: The most effective and secure systems result from the collaborative efforts of the red and blue teams. Hence, ensure a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing is cultivated within the cybersecurity team.

By following these guidelines, tech leaders can create an efficient and dynamic cybersecurity team that can safeguard their organization’s assets effectively.

published 19 Jan 2024
updated 05 Feb 2024
Favicon_EPAM_Anywhere_2@3x.png
written by

The EPAM Anywhere Editorial Team is an international collective of senior software engineers, managers and communications professionals who create, review and share their insights on technology, career, remote work, and the daily life here at Anywhere.

The EPAM Anywhere Editorial Team is an international collective of senior software engineers, managers and communications professionals who create, review and share their insights on technology, career, remote work, and the daily life here at Anywhere.

get the latest tech insights, career growth, and lifestyle tips right in your inbox