Red and blue teams in cybersecurity: what’s the difference?

The notion of opposed red and blue teams is not an idea limited to games, sport, or combat training. It has a place in cybersecurity too. Namely, the red and blue teams of cybersecurity professionals working to keep systems and networks safe.

But what differentiates these teams, and how do they approach cybersecurity?

Here, we explore the concept of red and blue teams in cybersecurity.

Red and blue teams: in the red corner

Red teams focus on the offensive side of cybersecurity. They’re made up of people known as ‘ethical hackers’. They are experts at attacking systems and networks.

Red team goals: the detection, prevention, and elimination of cybersecurity vulnerabilities

Red teams work externally to a business’s systems and networks. They take on the role of an adversary — that is, they launch cyberattacks on a business’s systems.

A good way to think of red teams in cybersecurity is like a teacher giving a mock exam. A mock exam shows the student where they’re weak (and so need to focus their study.) A red team’s attack shows a business where their cybersecurity is weak — and so needs attention.

Red and blue teams: in the blue corner

This brings us to the other side of the red and blue teams question. Blue teams focus on the defensive side of cybersecurity. They’re the team that works to keep a business’s systems impenetrable, and address attacks and intrusions should they happen.

Blue team goals: The prevention and detection of — and response to cybersecurity vulnerabilities and attacks.

Blue teams work internally — they’re the people in charge of your defence against cyberattack. They are also the ones that respond to attackers and threats.

In short, the job of the blue team is to make things as hard (read: impossible) as possible for the red team.

Typical practices of the red team

Differences between red and blue teams in cybersecurity also become clear when you look at the skills and practices each team employs. Red teams, with the focus on offence, put themselves in the attacker’s shoes. They keep on top of potential new tools and techniques to infiltrate target systems.

Some of their skills and tasks include:

•       Research: deep knowledge of different systems

Red team cybersecurity specialists benefit from maintaining a deep knowledge of different systems, tools, protocols, and libraries. They’ll keep on top of trends in technology. This knowledge and interest helps them to find more ways to discover and exploit vulnerabilities in different target systems.

•       Hunting: social engineering

One thing a cybersecurity red team will spend time doing is known as social engineering. In cybersecurity, humans can often prove the single point of failure. That is, the majority of data breaches are the direct result of human error. (As many as 90% of them, in fact.)

Social engineering is all about manipulating people into performing an action or divulging information. It’s a tool that can allow an attacker to gain access to a victim system.

•       Attack: penetration testing

Red teams in cybersecurity are all about penetration testing. That is what they do. Penetration testing involves simulating attacks on a system to find weaknesses.

Read more about penetration testing: ELI5: what is penetration testing?

Typical practices of the blue team

The comparison of tasks between red and blue teams in cybersecurity highlights the different roles of these teams. The blue team sits within the business and has intimate knowledge of the systems and networks they’re protecting. Rather than looking for creative or manipulative ways in, the job of the blue team involves analysis, planning and vigilance.

Some of their skills and tasks include:

•       Build a defence: managing system security

Blue teams are in charge of building the cybersecurity defence of a business. They’re the ones that install and manage the security software and cyber protection processes within a business.

This means they set up the shield protecting the business. They deploy antivirus software and tools like automation. They also look to incorporating good security practices within a business’s processes. For example, creating robust security policies for teams to follow while they carry out their tasks.

•       Guard systems: monitoring and analysing

With the defence built and being maintained, the blue team also watches for possible attacks — acting as guards. There are a host of different things that need monitoring and analysis to keep a system secure.

For example, the team will analyse a business to identify potential targets of attack as well as weaknesses — which they will then work to strengthen.

Or, by monitoring activity and traffic levels, security teams have a better chance of detecting DoS/DDoS attacks.

Read more about DDoS attacks: ELI5: what does DDOS mean?

•       Fight back: responding to attacks

As well as building a cyber defence and monitoring for attacks, the blue cybersecurity team are the ones that respond when attacks do happen. That is, when a threat or a breach is detected.

This involves activities like minimising damage, regaining control of systems or restoring system security integrity. It may also include monitoring attackers and identifying any compromised data or intrusions as this information may need to be communicated to customers. It also includes the aftermath of rebuilding and improving defence to prevent future attacks.  

Read more about how to respond to service outages: Managing caSaaStrophe: communication during a crisis

The value of red and blue teams in cybersecurity

Both red and blue teams in cybersecurity offer valuable information and skills to help keep networks and systems safe from cyberattack.

Red teams shine the spotlight on vulnerabilities, while blue teams implement defences to make cyberattack harder in the first place.

Red and blue teams in cybersecurity are two sides of the same coin. They’re offence and defence. That’s all there is to it.

Useful links

Privilege creep: do you really need access? A message from your IT team

Is shadow IT as shady as it sounds?

ELI5: what is a DoS attack?