The field of cyber security includes all of the activities that companies and security teams take to protect themselves and their IT assets against attack. This includes both defensive and offensive security tasks.
Offensive security involves using the same tools, tactics, and techniques as a real attacker would when targeting an organization. However, instead of using these techniques to cause harm, security teams can use them to improve an organization’s security.
Cyber defenders play a constant cat-and-mouse game with cybercriminals and other cyber threat actors. As attackers develop new tools and techniques, defenders implement defenses against them. Then, the attackers work to circumvent these defenses.
If an organization approaches cyber security only from a defensive perspective, then the tools and defenses that it develops are only truly tested when the organization comes under attack. Additionally, the development of new defenses is performed in a vacuum with limited insight into what is actually needed to close holes in an organization’s defenses.
Offensive cyber security provides organizations with a means of testing their defenses and identifying security gaps that need to be addressed. By simulating real-world attacks, offensive cyber security testing identifies the vulnerabilities that pose the greatest risk to an organization, enabling the company to focus security investment and effort where it provides the greatest return on investment.
Defensive cyber security includes the efforts that an organization makes to protect itself against attacks. Deploying security solutions, enacting security policies, training employees to recognize phishing attacks, and similar efforts all fall under the defensive umbrella. Defensive cyber security includes both proactively attempting to prevent cyberattacks from occurring and reactively attempting to identify, block, and mitigate ongoing attacks.
In essence, offensive cyber security is what defensive cyber security is working to protect against. Cybercriminals test, circumvent, and break through an organization’s defenses to steal data or cause damage. Ethical hackers test, circumvent, and break through an organization’s defenses to find the holes so that they can be fixed before a real attacker can take advantage of them.
A mature cyber security program incorporates both offensive and defensive cyber security activities. This combination both defends an organization against cyber threats and uses offensive cyber security techniques to refine and improve these defenses.
Vulnerability scanning is an automated process used to identify vulnerabilities in an organization’s applications. A vulnerability scanner will attempt to identify the applications that are running on target systems and determine if they contain vulnerabilities. This can be accomplished via a combination of looking for known vulnerabilities for a particular software version and sending malicious inputs — such as common SQL injection strings — to an application.
Vulnerability scanning is commonly used by cyber threat actors to identify potentially exploitable vulnerabilities in preparation for an attack. By performing regular vulnerability scans, an organization can identify and close these vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.
Penetration testing is a form of offensive security testing in which a human tests an organization’s cyber defenses. These assessments are designed to identify as many vulnerabilities as possible in an organization’s defenses.
Pen tests can identify vulnerabilities that would be missed by an automated scanner because they are guided by human intelligence and knowledge. Regular pen tests help organizations to close the vulnerabilities most likely to be exploited by a human attacker.
Red team exercises are similar to pen tests in that they are performed by humans, not fully automated. A major difference is that red team engagements test an organization’s defenses against a particular threat, while pen tests are designed to identify as many vulnerabilities as possible.
Blue and purple team exercises refer to the involvement of different parties in the exercise and their level of collaboration. For example, a purple team exercise involves more collaboration and knowledge sharing between the offensive red team and the defensive blue team.
Red team assessments are intended to imitate real-world attacks often with a particular goal, such as data breach or ransomware delivery. By performing regular penetration tests, an organization can identify the vulnerabilities that a human attacker would find and exploit, enabling it to close these security gaps.
White-box, black-box, and gray-box exercises are not a different form of assessment. Instead, they describe the level of knowledge and access granted to the attackers. Each approach has its own pros and cons:
These three approaches to offensive security testing can be applied to any of the forms of tests mentioned above. With more knowledge and access, a pen tester or red teamer has more options than they would with a black-box assessment. Similarly, additional knowledge and access can influence the placement and configuration of automated tools for vulnerability scanning.
Many of the tests mentioned above focus on targeting an organization’s IT systems and evading digital defenses. However, many cyber threat actors will target the human element in their attacks rather than attempting to identify and exploit software vulnerabilities.
Social engineering testing is focused on assessing how well an organization’s employees, contractors, etc. protect its data and systems. Social engineers will use trickery, manipulation, and similar techniques to trick or coerce targets into performing some action that benefits the attacker, such as handing over sensitive data or granting access to secure corporate applications or spaces.
Offensive cyber security testing is an essential component of an effective corporate cyber security strategy. Without the means to perform simulated attacks, an organization lacks insight into the effectiveness of its defenses and the vulnerabilities most likely to be exploited by an attacker. This information is crucial to developing security strategies and planning strategic investments.
Check Point offers a range of offensive security services, including both automated and human-driven assessments. With Check Point’s free Security CheckUp, you can identify many of the major threats and vulnerabilities in your environment that need addressing.
Check Point Professional Services also offers a range of services designed to help improve the maturity of your organization’s security program. This includes both identifying vulnerabilities and providing short-term or long-term support to improve cyber defenses and prevent cyberattacks against your organization.