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Red team, blue team: Understanding enterprise cybersecurity roles

Posted on September 19, 2019

If you’re trying to understand how cybersecurity works in an enterprise setting, you’re bound to come across terms like “red team”, “blue team”, and “purple team”.

The terms have their origins in the war games used by militaries to assess and improve their readiness. But what do these color-coded teams mean in the context of cybersecurity? What does each of them do, and how are they different from one another? 

That’s what we’ll cover in this guide to different roles in cybersecurity testing and improvement.

Red team

Red teams, in cybersecurity, assume the role of an attacker in order to help organizations assess their defenses and practice responding to simulated attacks. They attempt to provide the most realistic assessment possible by using the same tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) that a real-world malicious actor would use.

Red team activities can include things like penetration testing, in which pentesters play the role of an outside threat actor and attempt to find vulnerabilities in an organization’s network security or other IT systems. They research, observe, and eventually attack an organization’s defenses to see if they are “hackable”.

But red teams don’t restrict themselves to testing only the formal security apparatus of organizations, because no actual attacker would either. This means that they may also attempt to breach an organization’s defenses by employing phishing and social engineering attacks directed at company employees.

Other red team activities can include simulating cyberattacks over a period of hours or even days in order to stress-test defenses and help security teams analyze their incident response protocols. The purpose is to help internal security teams improve their response to a cyberattack, and can include goals like improving damage mitigation and shortening recovery times.

Businesses sometimes have their own internal red team groups, but they often hire outside security consultants to perform red team assessments and tests. The reason for this is that an outside group, being unfamiliar with the existing defenses and protocols of the organization, is generally a much better proxy for an actual attacker—and can often help internal security teams think outside the box and discover vulnerabilities that they never would have found on their own. 

Blue team

Blue teams are almost exclusively internal to an organization attempting to improve its security. Whereas red teams play the role of attackers, blue teams are the defenders.

Blue teams work to harden a company’s defenses against possible attack—eliminating vulnerabilities and reducing the attack surface available to a potential threat actor. They do this, in part, by modeling likely attack scenarios and trying to guess how an attacker would attempt to compromise their organization’s security.

Blue teams are well aware of the TTP used by their red team adversaries (as well as real-world malicious actors), which means they will likely include intrusion detection and malware analysis as a part of their response to a simulated threat.

Blue teams attempt to learn from Red/Blue exercises in order to improve their organization’s security posture—and so a part of their work is to follow up by patching vulnerabilities, maintaining newly implemented security standards, and helping train coworkers in security basics like phishing awareness and password best practices.

Purple team

In recent years, the term “purple team” has been used more and more in discussions of cybersecurity testing and assessment. So what does it mean?

In some organizations, a purple team can literally refer to a single security group that performs both the functions of attacker and defender in order to game out and improve organizational security. It can also, at times, refer to an intermediary group tasked with improving communication between red and blue teams.

But more commonly, the term “purple team” indicates an organizational philosophy rather than an actual group of people. It refers to a commitment to improving the synergy between red and blue teams. 

As the name implies, a purple team approach has to do with blending the activities and roles of the red and blue teams. This is desirable, because while both red and blue teams have traditionally created detailed reports about their activities along with findings and recommendations, they have often operated a bit too independently of one another to be maximally effective. 

The idea of “purple teaming” is to create a dynamic in which the red and blue teams can work collaboratively, sharing information and helping one another perform their separate roles more productively. The end result is the creation of stronger red teams as well as stronger blue teams—and, ideally, improved organizational security.

We hope that this short article sheds some light on the meaning of these terms, and helps you understand how both red and blue teams (as well as a “purple mindset”) come together to build robust enterprise security. 

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