It’s no secret that the cyber threat landscape is growing with each passing day. Companies of all sizes are increasingly at risk of data breaches, ransomware, social engineering, and many other types of malicious, sophisticated cyber activity.

At the root of all robust, multi-layered cyber defense strategies lies proactive solutions to monitor infrastructure and networks, and intuitively contain and remove anomalies before they materialize into full-scale breaches. However, for many organizations, that cannot be established without full analyses of their current cyber posture, risk exposure and system robustness. 

In a move to bolster cyber awareness and preparation, organizations regularly turn to red, blue and purple team exercises. These multi-faceted cyber security solutions test a company’s systems, teams and processes for weaknesses. However, the names of these services all sound eerily similar and often get conflated, with terms often used interchangeably. The specific purposes and goals of each exercise are starkly different, which organizations should be aware of if they are to isolate and understand specific facets of their cyber readiness.

The short guide below will clearly define what each type of cyber defense solution does, when it might be used, and how they differ from other related services like penetration testing.

What is a red team assessment?

A red team exercise simulates a real-world cyber attack to test an organization’s systems and cyber response procedures from its in-house staff or incumbent security company. The goal is to replicate and mimic attacks as if a malicious threat actor were undertaking one.

Red team engagements often encompass processes from intelligence gathering and reconnaissance to developing attack plans and actively probing networks and systems for access. The target organization is pressured to respond decisively under pressure to test overall resiliency and uncover potential security gaps that may be overlooked.

Organizations with established cyber defenses may request a red team assessment from a third-party cyber security specialist to assess their resilience in real-world cyber scenarios. If they have made significant changes to their architecture or networks, a regular sequence of red team exercises may be sufficient to validate their readiness.

Quite often, a red team assessment gets conflated with penetration testing and vulnerability scans. Penetration testing solutions, regularly conducted by specialist third-party vendors, also focus more on specific vulnerabilities in endpoints, networks and systems, rather than testing a team’s persistence. During a pentesting exercise, for example, an ‘ethical hacker’ might exploit vulnerabilities in the same way a red team assessor would, but simply provide an analysis of its exposure level, rather than the team’s effectiveness in responding to and containing the ‘threat’. 

What is a blue team engagement?

A blue team refers to the target organization’s cyber defense force. In other words, the blue team refers to the individuals (security analysts, incident responders, and other staff) that a red team will be assessing.

Blue team assessments involve simulated attacks by a red team, during which the blue team is tasked with detection, mitigation, investigation, containment, eradication of threats, evidence collection, and recovery from an attack. Therefore, blue team engagements are used in collaboration with red team engagements. The key difference is that the blue team must detect intrusions and respond quickly, while the red teams focus on breaching a company’s defenses and breaking in.

However, blue teams are measured against their use of security technologies like SIEMs, EDR, MDR, and firewalls. Engagements like this aim to improve response processes in line with cybersecurity policies and procedures, while addressing any knowledge or skills gaps.

Organizations that have not recently assessed their detection and response capabilities in real-world conditions often benefit from a blue team assessment.

What are purple team exercises?

While the red team and blue team's purposes remain abundantly clear in any cyber incident testing engagement, many companies often question the purpose of a purple team.

A purple team exercise would see the seamless integration of red team attackers and blue team defenders working together to test defenses, validate security controls and improve incident response processes. A purple team is often seen as a ‘mediator’ and point of liaison between the red and blue teams in a coordinated attack simulation. Purple teams bridge any communication gaps between the red and blue teams, while ensuring that both parties are fully aware of the goals, processes, and opportunities before an attack gets underway.

Many organizations consult a purple team to mediate simulated red team engagements and blue team tests to evaluate and enhance their overall security controls and strategies. Purple team engagements are seen as more immersive, providing real-time cooperation and collaboration between two dispersed teams, with learning outcomes clearly defined from the outset.

Organizations can benefit exponentially by commissioning red, blue, and purple team exercises. Not only can they witness first-hand how a sophisticated cyber attack can be conducted, but they can also prepare and validate the skills of incident responders and improve their breach mitigation and containment strategies. If companies want a collaborative experience to enhance cyber resilience, any of these exercises will be worth their weight in gold.

Understanding when and why to leverage each type of engagement is key. Periodic testing in one form or another will prove invaluable as part of a robust cyber defense program.