When many people think about offensive security, they picture a mysterious figure wearing a hoodie, sitting behind a black-and-green terminal, diligently typing away as he probes enterprise networks. But the cybersecurity world has evolved well beyond this Hollywood hacker stereotype.

In the real world, offensive security operations — such as red-team simulations, penetration testing and vulnerability assessments — are undertaken by reliable, professional and knowledgeable teams of ethical hackers.

Let’s zoom in on the differences between these services and explore how they can help your organization stay one step ahead of malicious actors. How can an excellent offensive security strategy help protect your organization against those looking to slip through the cracks of your network defenses and swipe your most sensitive data?

Step Up Your Incident Response Game With Red-Team Exercises

A red team is a group of ethical hackers that organizations can hire to simulate a cyberattack, such as an advanced persistent threat (APT), a state-sponsored attack or a large-scale malware campaign. These teams can help responders strengthen their skills, which will help them in the event of a real breach. These simulated attacks enable security leaders to stress-test their incident response strategy, identify gaps and adjust accordingly.

When considering investing in red-team services, it’s essential to understand the goal you hope to achieve. If you need an in-depth analysis of the vulnerabilities in your environment, for example, a cyberattack simulation may not be the most effective solution. A red team’s primary objective is to challenge your defenses and help your responders develop the skills and poise to react when the heat is on and the stakes are high.

Penetration Testing Promotes Proactive Security

The goal of penetration testing is to assess the security of a limited set of assets during a specific period, under certain conditions. By proactively trying to breach their own network defenses, security teams can identify and remediate flaws in their infrastructure before threat actors have a chance to expose them.

This exercise is a great way to discover ad-hoc vulnerabilities and maintain compliance with security policies and data-privacy regulations. But it doesn’t deliver contextualized information about the organization’s overall security posture. Also, its limitation in scope and time distorts the results concerning the infrastructure at large.

Vulnerability Assessment: The Foundation of Offensive Security

While not technically an offensive security strategy, a vulnerability assessment is usually a foundational element to any red-team exercise or penetration test. A typical assessment identifies flaws and categorizes them by severity based on the criticality of the asset and other factors. It then provides advanced analysis to help security leaders decide, for example, whether to apply additional controls to reduce the risk of a threat actor exploiting the vulnerability or create a new exception based on a business need.

Stay One Step Ahead of the Bad Guys

In today’s ever-evolving threat environment, offensive security is absolutely critical for helping organizations sniff out cracks in their defenses before the bad guys do. Whichever strategy best suits your particular business needs, it must be deployed proactively and regularly reviewed for continuous improvement.

By engaging in these activities, security team can strengthen their cyberthreat monitoring, detection and response capabilities and generate more contextualized metrics to present to stakeholders. It may not be fit for the silver screen, but these activities play a major role in the battle our cyber heroes fight every day to make the real world a safer place.

Meet the offensive security experts of X-Force Red

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