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Purple Teaming

Purple teaming is a form of security testing that combines resources from attacking (“red”) and defending (“blue”) security teams, aligning them to optimize and improve an organization’s security posture continually. (Red teams typically play the role of a hacker, trying to compromise an organization’s security defenses. Blue teams play the role of an organization’s security teams, defending their cyber infrastructure.) Purple teams aim to optimize the performance of both the red and blue teams. In this sense, the purple team combines some red and blue team elements to provide more excellent overall value to the organization. Successful purple teaming brings the two groups together to better collaborate on the mission to improve the organization’s cybersecurity. Purple teaming is an emerging security best practice. Smaller organizations may only have a purple team. Larger organizations may have a red team, a blue team, and a purple team.

Purple teaming works to find the vulnerabilities so that they can be mitigated and strengthened. In addition, purple teams work to optimize security control operation, team performance, and policy alignment. The purple team develops a virtuous loop of analysis starting with the vulnerabilities detected by the red team, which continues through to the remediation done by the blue team. 

Red teams and blue teams typically work in silos – the purple team works on a goal to improve cybersecurity by fostering greater communication between the two.  A red team is a group, either internal or external to the organization, that takes the role of an adversary and continually probes to find weaknesses in the cybersecurity infrastructure. The concept of red teams spans many areas beyond cybersecurity. For example, you will often see red teams probing the defenses of various military agencies, airports, nuclear power plants, and storage facilities. In addition, red teams often execute penetration tests, which are systematic attempts to probe and compromise the organization’s defensive posture. Generally, the personnel that are best at the red teaming exhibit the proper mindset of an attacker. 

A blue team is a group that performs almost continual analysis of systems, networks, and applications to optimize the performance of security controls, processes, and personnel actions. Once the red team has identified a new vulnerability and perhaps exploited it, the blue team will work to mitigate it. Mitigation may be a function of reconfiguring existing security controls and/or applications, process changes, or other information technology landscape modifications. In addition, the blue team must vigorously defend the organization’s assets exposed in cyberspace. 

The need for a purple team has become compelling. Speed of response, risk reduction, and expense reduction are immediate benefits. Purple team members require deep knowledge of cybersecurity and must understand attacker behavior. Purple teams should be able to demonstrate near wizardry in analyzing and interpreting logs. Some of the best purple teams include a few bona fide white hat hackers. White hat hackers instinctively can find weaknesses in the defensive armor and then expose them.

Purple teams and their constituent red and blue teams need a common language to describe threat actors and their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). They also need to lay out their security infrastructure, control by control, to ensure they are best addressing the threats that particular organizations are most likely to face. To support this, organizations will adopt various frameworks. For example, Cymulate provides an advanced purple teaming framework and dashboard, which seems to have been well received. Other good choices include using MITRE ATT&CK, NIST, and ISO 27001/02. Various frameworks bring structure and organization to the attackers’ activities or the organization’s defensive infrastructure. All of this is important. Most successful security operations centers and IT teams work with more than one framework.

The process of purple teaming is iterative and should happen continuously. The centerpiece of this process is continuous improvement. Blue teams should drive forward to improve cyber defenses; red teams should seek to test and bypass these defenses. The purple team should bring the results together with both organizations to ensure that new learnings are rapidly brought into the cyber defense strategy. In this sense, more rapid and precise communications are an essential outcome of a purple teaming organization. Purple team assessment reports are an important part of the purple team work product. 

Despite the best-laid plans, it is a fact that security controls will always fail. Therefore, purple teams must address a broader mix of variables to include your personnel and the processes they follow, both within network operations, information technology operations, and security operations. All personnel and the activities they undertake present daily opportunities for the observant threat actor to exploit.

Automation can also support the red, blue, and purple teams and enhance their success. Automation saves resources, improves execution precision, and scales your team’s overall productivity. Automation also eliminates the fatigue often experienced by red teams. Manual approaches to finding weaknesses are difficult to impossible to run continuously. Through automation, it is easier for red teams to detect new vulnerabilities caused by errors in software configuration, even in areas where none existed even a day prior. 

Education and training are essential. Purple teams require a continual investment in enablement, training, and education. They must understand the latest trends on all fronts, and their insights, in turn, will enable your organization to improve cyber defenses and reduce risk.


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