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red team exercises

Red Team Exercises on a Budget

How can busy and financially stretched security teams conduct red team exercises on a budget? 

In our business world of escalating cybersecurity threats, the role of red team exercises is becoming increasingly vital. Yet, resource limitations and budget constraints can make these exercises seem daunting for many organizations. I heard one CISO, a friend of mine, say, “We can’t justify the budget when management thinks we’re just playing games.”

Ok, so some of this is about educating the c-Suite on the importance of conducting red team exercises and getting them to see the value, but it is entirely possible – and indeed crucial – to conduct effective, budget-friendly, and time-efficient red team exercises as part of day-to-day organizational cybersecurity best practices.  

Embracing a ‘Guerilla’ Mentality to Red Team Exercises 

First and foremost, when conducting a red team exercise on a limited budget, it’s crucial to adopt a “guerilla warfare” way of thinking when it comes to your overall cybersecurity. This approach involves rolling up our sleeves, getting a bit dirty, and maximizing resources by focusing on the most impactful strategies. Here’s how it works in practice:  

  • Strategic planning: Prioritize the most sensitive and vulnerable parts of your system. Identify the core data and processes that, if compromised, would have the most serious repercussions. 
  • Efficient execution: Instead of full-scale, time-consuming exercises, use quick, targeted attacks that replicate the strategies used by real-world adversaries. 
  • Start with the weakest point: This is often your colleagues, and leaving an infected data stick in the canteen or conducting basic phishing exercises are an easy (and cheap) first port of call. 
  • Iterative learning: Constantly be refining your strategy based on the results and insights gleaned from each red team exercise. Each successful or unsuccessful penetration attempt offers valuable data to improve your security protocols.  

The Power of Open-Source Red Team Tools  

Cybersecurity doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. There are more open-source cybersecurity tools out there than you can shake a stick at, and many of them can be utilized effectively in red team exercises. Here are six of the classics to get you started:  

  1. Metasploit: An essential tool for penetration testing, Metasploit allows you to discover, exploit, and validate vulnerabilities, with a handy free trial.
  2. Wireshark: This network protocol analyzer is used for network troubleshooting, analysis, software, and communications protocol development, and education.
  3. Kali Linux: This open-source project comes with an array of penetration testing tools to assist with red team exercises.
  4. Nmap (Network Mapper): Nmap is a highly flexible, powerful, and comprehensive open-source tool used for network discovery and security auditing. It can be used to discover hosts and services on a computer network, thus creating a “map” of the system. Its features can be extended with scripts that can, for instance, help detect vulnerabilities within the network, making it an essential tool for red team exercises.
  5. Burp Suite Community Edition: This is a popular framework used for web application security testing. It’s designed for the hands-on tester and provides a suite of tools that work together to support the entire testing process, from initial mapping to the analysis of an application’s attack surface. Although its professional version comes with a fee, the community edition offers enough features for a basic red teaming activity.
  6. OWASP ZAP (Zed Attack Proxy): Developed by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), ZAP is a free, open-source web application security scanner. It helps find security vulnerabilities in web applications when developing and testing. It’s also an excellent tool for experienced pen testers for manual security testing. 

More details about these, and many more tools, can be found at Open Source Society’s GitHub 

Leveraging AI and Automation for Red Team Exercises 

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are transforming every facet of cybersecurity, and red team exercises are no exception. Implementing AI-driven tools can optimize your strategy by:  

  • Automating Routine Tasks: Penetration testing often involves repetitive tasks that can consume significant time and resources. Automation tools can perform these tasks faster and more accurately, freeing up your team to focus on more complex aspects of the exercise.
  • Predictive Analysis: AI can help identify potential vulnerabilities and predict future attack vectors by analyzing patterns and trends in your network. 
  • Continuous Learning: AI systems can learn from each exercise, becoming more effective at identifying vulnerabilities over time.  

Companies like Cyberbit offer AI-based cybersecurity solutions that can assist in red teaming.  

Collaborative Learning: Capture the Flag (CTF)  

Another cost-effective strategy involves leveraging competitive cybersecurity exercises such as Capture the Flag (CTF) events – no, not the Team Fortress kind. CTFs are competitions that focus on real-world scenarios to help enhance your team’s problem-solving and teamwork abilities. They often involve finding and exploiting vulnerabilities, just like in a red team exercise.

Participating in or organizing internal CTF events can be a fun, engaging, and budget-friendly way to boost your team’s skills. Platforms like CTF Time can help you get started. 

Red Teaming is Essential 

Even with limited resources, organizations can conduct effective red team exercises by focusing on the most impactful strategies, leveraging open-source tools, automating with AI, and learning through CTF events. This is so much more than “playing games,” just look at the recent cybersecurity statistics for 2023! 

Remember that the goal of these exercises isn’t to ‘win’ but for our teams to learn, improve, and ultimately fortify an organization’s cybersecurity infrastructure – without breaking the bank. A proactive, strategic, and cost-effective approach to red team exercises is not just a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have (and achievable).

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