The military does it. The Government Accountability Office does it. So does the NSA. And the concept is making its way into the corporate world, too: war gaming the security infrastructure. Originally, the exercises were used by the military to test force-readiness. They have also been used to test physical security of sensitive sites like nuclear facilities and the Department of Energy's National Laboratories and Technology Centers. In the '90s, experts began using red team-blue team exercises to test information security systems.
This is one of the easiest ways to identify security vulnerabilities, and it also helps with an issue key to any successful red team-blue team exercise: buy in. Yes, it's one of the most overused phrases in a consultant's vocabulary, but the approval of management and employees is essential when testing information security systems.
The goal of a red team-blue team exercise is not just to identify holes in security, but to train security personnel and management.
Weakness: If not everyone agrees on the value of the exercise, it can quickly devolve into defensive posturing and wasted time. After all, you may be asking higher-ups for the time and budget required to fix flaws the exercise discovers.
An attacker will disregard more than rules; he or she will disregard the company's norms. Consider who your attackers may be. Power plants may be targeted by terrorists. Banks by criminals. Anyone by a disgruntled ex-employee. It can take time and effort to step back and view the system like an outsider, or even an insider who intends to harm.
Strength: One of the values of a tabletop exercise is that it lets players consider the system as a whole. Most companies that don't house nuclear materials are unlikely to engage in full-scale physical exercises with armed forces storming their building, but it's important to consider physical security when developing whiteboard attacks. A tabletop exercise provides the opportunity to reflect and assess response options as well as attacks. And then think about what possible breaches might mean. "This gives the blue team, the defenders, confidence," says Assante. "It's also very useful to the red team. You see vulnerabilities in a whole new light. And they bring that training back" to their coworkers.
Once you've fixed the holes your whiteboard exercises identified, however, a live attack-and-defend exercise can provide a whole new level of insight, but it's not an activity to be taken on lightly. In some cases, vulnerabilities can be safely demonstrated on a live corporate network, but it's not wise to launch a real attack against your production systems.
Examples: Even at National Labs, employees are often the weakest link in a security plan. But even if you don't have to worry about employees copying classified material onto home computers, it's important to think about how an enemy could exploit weaknesses in your employees' behavior. Do they prop-open automatic doors? Click on e-mail attachments from strangers? You can test for these problems and similar ones. Assuming you have a written security policy and employees are aware of it, you may not want to announce a red-team exercise, since your goal is to determine the risks of normal behavior. Other managers have left USB devices lying around office buildings to see who picked them up and plugged them into their computers. They've also sent phishing e-mails to employees to see who would take the bait.
Conclusions: "Many people migrate from a wired network to a wireless one assuming it works exactly the same, because from their perspective it does work the same," explains Sandia Parks. "They don't realize that there are different characteristics that provide different attack surfaces."
"Red-teaming is good at helping the customer understand interdependencies," says Clem, who advocates bringing a red-team mentality to design decisions. He wants his clients to think, How does that added functionality affect security? What could the bad guy do if we do that?