When you hear about offensive work in security, it may conjure up images of malware, malicious actors, and mischief. But offensive security is also an important component in protecting your digital assets by proactively putting your security controls to the test. In a world of rapidly evolving landscapes and threats, offensive security provides a practical way to test new concepts and ideas in a safe setting, gathering data on vulnerabilities and weaknesses that can improve your defenses and demonstrate your security posture.
Offensive Security Defined
In simple terms, offensive security involves testing an organization’s defenses by conducting simulated attacks to identify any weaknesses that can be exploited. The goal of offensive security is to discover vulnerabilities before malicious actors can exploit them, and to make necessary adjustments to improve security. It’s a proactive approach to cybersecurity that complements defensive measures like firewalls, antivirus software, and intrusion detection systems.
Offensive Security vs Defensive Security
Defensive security is a reactive approach that focuses on securing an organization against potential threats. It often relies on securing the perimeter and applying established best practice in tactical areas like security hygiene, data handling, or access controls, as well as strategic considerations such as defense in depth or zero trust.
Offensive security is a proactive approach that turns theory into practice. It means looking at security as a problem to be solved, rather than an abstraction. The goal of offensive security is to actively identify and fix vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, often by applying creativity to an organization’s specific assets, practices, and subjective posture.
Both approaches are essential for a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. However, the main difference is that defensive security is focused on preventing attacks, while offensive security is focused on finding and fixing vulnerabilities.
Types of Offensive Security
There are a number of approaches to offensive security: one common theme is that while they are supported by automation, human hackers play a crucial role.
- Penetration Testing—Penetration testing, or pen testing, simulates an attack on an organization’s systems and networks, where experts find vulnerabilities by testing, often in line with defined methodologies. You also have the option of more sophisticated pen testing delivered as penetration testing as a service (PTaaS).
- Red Teaming—Red teaming began as a military exercise in the 1960s, where a group representing the Soviet Union would act as the “red team” in simulations against the US “blue team.” Similar to pen testing, red teams act as attackers to discover and exploit security vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Where pen testing typically takes place for a set time and draws more from methodologies and meeting compliance standards, red teaming is more flexible and tests processes and people as well as technology.
- Blue Teaming—Blue teams are the counterpoints to red teams, seeking to foil attacks during security exercises by playing defense. They focus on modeling threats and preventing incidents, as well as responding to incidents and countering attacks by the red team.
- Purple Teaming—Purple teams combine red teaming and blue teaming by breaking down silos and emphasizing communication while addressing security challenges. They focus on enabling collaboration between the two groups and synthesizing their skills and experiences. For more on applying the latest team colors to cybersecurity, take a look at our blog on the topic.
- Social Engineering—Social engineering involves manipulating individuals or groups within an organization to gain access to sensitive information. It can target the whole range of human emotions and biases, and tactics might include sending texts or emails claiming to be from a trustworthy entity to acquire sensitive data (phishing), or even using recordings of crying babies to emotionally manipulate employees into sharing sensitive data.
- Managed Bug Bounty Programs—Bug Bounty Programs are initiatives that incentivize hackers to test digital assets and find vulnerabilities in exchange for financial rewards. By making these rewards proportionate to the criticality of the bugs submitted, they offer clear ROI to buyers while tapping into hackers’ offensive impulses in order to improve security.
- Vulnerability Scanning and Management—Vulnerability scanning involves using automated tools to scan an organization’s systems and networks to find vulnerabilities. While these scans are a useful component in the offensive security toolkit, they need further expert input in order to interpret results and ultimately resolve vulnerabilities.
- Attack Surface Management—Attack Surface Management (ASM) is the process of defining and cataloging an organization’s entire IT footprint, then rapidly identifying and prioritizing risks deriving from these assets. Because the vast majority of organizations’ assets are growing, it is often possible for shadow IT to grow with it, and ASM pairs advanced scanning software with recon experts to find every asset and deal with their associated risks.
What are the Benefits of Offensive Security?
- Separates theory from practice
Traditional security focuses on best practice and builds defenses based on presumptions and expectations of how malicious actors would behave. Investing in offensive security is an opportunity to put these theories to the test and see how defensive measures hold up against active tests. It’s a way of stress testing any assumptions baked into your security, and potentially finding blind spots or gaps.
- Draws from established methodologies as well as the latest techniques
Offensive security covers the application of tried and tested methodologies, particularly in pen testing, as well as tapping into the latest innovations from emerging technologies and associated techniques. Bringing this range of knowledge to bear amounts to a comprehensive test of your security that can provide clear recommendations on handling vulnerabilities, as well as a confident assessment of your security posture.
- Ensures compliance in industries that require testing
Certain industries, such as financial services and defense, have high standards of regulation, which includes security. Companies operating in these sectors often need to demonstrate the use of offensive security such as pen tests to meet these requirements and assure regulators that security standards are being met, avoiding associated penalties.
- Provides rapid feedback on security posture and ROI
Security can be hard to define and benchmark, with Knightian uncertainty common and some risks difficult to quantify. Offensive security can offer quick feedback through testing, as well as providing clear ROI from spending on “pay for results” investments such as bug bounty programs.
- Creates a strong security brand by publicly following best practice
Some great minds have considered how to define security: it is a process rather than a destination, an emergent property rather than a characteristic. But we also believe that high quality security means engaging with the security community, which includes these thinkers as well as the hackers, testers, developers, and more. Investing in offensive security is a way to engage directly with some members of this community, but also a way to build a brand for taking security seriously. Like any brand this helps your relationship with stakeholders, including regulators, employees, prospective hires, and customers.
Offensive Security Frameworks
Offensive security frameworks are methodologies that security professionals use to understand the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) of cyber adversaries. These frameworks provide a structured approach to identify vulnerabilities, simulate real-world attacks, and develop strategies to mitigate potential threats. All frameworks provide valuable insights into attacker behavior, and they should be used together for the most comprehensive understanding of offensive security.
Three of the most widely recognized offensive security frameworks are the MITRE ATT&CK, Lockheed Martin Cyber Kill Chain, and the Mandiant Attack Lifecycle.
- MITRE ATT&CK—A globally accessible knowledge base of adversary tactics and techniques based on real world observations. This framework describes the actions that an attacker may take after gaining access to a system or network, and is divided into a series of matrices focusing on different environments. MITRE regularly updates the framework with new findings from cybersecurity research.
- Mandiant attack lifecycle—Also known as the Cyber Attack Lifecycle, this framework lays out the stages of an attack from the adversaries’ perspective. By understanding each stage, defenders can identify weak points in their security posture and implement necessary controls to prevent or disrupt attacks.
- Cyber Kill Chain—Developed by Lockheed Martin, this framework also provides a seven-part blueprint for the stages of an attack. By understanding the sequence of events in an attack, this helps organizations to implement appropriate countermeasures at each stage and ensures a comprehensive approach to security.
Offensive Security Tools
There are too many tools to cover in one post, but the below list includes some of the trusty hacker aids that are commonly used. It’s worth noting that many are open source, and ingenuity is more important to hackers than proprietary investments.
- Sliver—Somewhere between a tool and a framework, Sliver is a highly configurable, open-source approach for post-exploitation use. Designed by Bishop Fox, it offers red teams capabilities such as defense evasion and privilege escalation.
- Metasploit—This robust open-source platform is beloved by hackers and used for developing, testing and executing exploit code against remote machines. Its modular architecture allows users to create custom modules, and its influence on offensive security even led one blogger to coin HD Moore’s Law that “Casual Attacker power grows at the rate of Metasploit”.
- Burp Suite—A comprehensive testing tool for web applications that enables testers to identify vulnerabilities in web applications. Burp Suite has a wide range of features and is considered to have a user-friendly interface.
- Nmap—This open-source utility for network discovery is used for port scanning and network exploration. As well as having a flexible feature set that allows it to be used by network administrators and red teams alike, it is also Hollywood’s favorite security tool and has had cameos in The Matrix Reloaded, Oceans 8 and Die Hard 4.
- Sn1per—An open-source tool for automating vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. This can automate fingerprinting, Google hacking and even brute-forcing.
- Cobalt Strike—Emulates tactics and techniques associated with quiet, long-term threat actors embedded in a network. This provides a range of capabilities including reconnaissance, delivering payloads and establishing command and control channels.
- ZAP—This open-source web application scanner was developed by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) and is the world’s most widely-used security scanner. It acts as a proxy, capturing data in motion and determining how the application responds to possibly malicious requests.
It is hard to know how good a new car is until you have taken it for a ride. Offensive security is the practical, hands-on approach to ensuring that the steps you are taking to protect your organization are paying off, and to finding any gaps or oversights across your estate. It tests your assets, your tools, your processes, and even your people. While it is necessary for compliance in some sectors, the main benefit is the practical benefits of knowing how your defenses stack up against attackers.
Investing in offensive security is a way of getting skin in the game and having an accurate assessment of security posture. The best way to start is by investing in crowdsourced security testing: this allows you to access offensive security while only paying for results. To see how Bugcrowd can help, take a 5-minute tour of the platform.