The security community is continuously changing, growing, and learning from each other to better position the world against cyber threats. In the first post of our new Voice of the Community blog series, Microsoft Product Marketing Manager Natalia Godyla talks with Jake Williams, Founder of Rendition Infosec. In part one of this blog Jake shares his insights on the 2020 threat landscape—who to watch for and why—and how to think about red and blue teaming within your organization.

Looking back at the threat landscape of 2020, what stands out?  

The biggest thing that stands out has to be the continued ransomware advances. With IANS, I actually coined the term ransomware 2.0 in early 2019. We were trying to differentiate between the drive-by ransomware attacks and what I call the more APT-style ransomware attacks, where they’re doing lateral movement and actively targeting backups before encryption. Disaster recovery (DR) plans work for the former but really not the latter because the latter cases are actively targeting disaster recovery infrastructure. What I saw this year was just a lot of advancement in attacks.

The second thing is that the number of different groups that are using that commodity malware has definitely gone up. They’re using that commodity malware to get back into orbit for initial access into a network. We’re seeing a lot more of that, like TrickBot. Cybersecurity professionals I’m talking to say, “the TrickBot takedown” but it was an interruption, not a takedown, unlike other malware and botnets in the past that have been wiped out. DNSChanger is a good example. DNSChanger was cut off at the knees but not TrickBot. This is a flesh wound.

We’re seeing a lot more of this commodity malware being used as an entryway. This is the stuff that a lot of folks, myself included, have been talking about for years. This is always a risk. You can’t just say, “Don’t worry, Microsoft Defender Antivirus caught and quarantined it so we’re good now.” From maybe mid-September on, it’s been even more viral than the rest of the year put together. It’s really accelerating, too.

What critical threat groups should security teams be actively monitoring? 

The week before last, I was in a dark web forum and an account that I and a number of other folks in the intel community assess with moderate confidence to be associated with Ryuk was advertising for help with their ransomware operations. They’re looking for experienced ransomware operators, and they have a whole set of criteria, including that they want to see a history that you’re getting an average $400,000 payout. They haven’t asked for help in the past. They have more work than they can handle. That gives you an idea of scope, and I think it comes from the commodity malware. Before now, I haven’t seen large, established ransomware groups advertising for help with their operations. If they thought those accesses were going to last forever, they wouldn’t worry about recruiting others right now.

There’s definitely a place for dark web monitoring but most organizations don’t have the maturity level where they’re getting a good return on that investment. Because even if I tell you that cybercrime groups are recruiting, how do I take that and turn that into something actionable that will help with detection and prevention? I don’t know how much any guidance I provide will help if you’re not patching domain controllers.

From a cybercrime standpoint, we’re seeing a lot more lateral movement being critical to cybercriminals’ attacks. We’re not seeing as many point attacks where they land a phishing email and bam, they’ve extracted a bunch of data and gone. It sounds almost like a cop-out but focus on lateral movement because it kills two birds with one stone. Nation-state groups have to do a lateral movement. So do cybercrime groups to get maximum payouts. Once they’ve had a bite of that big apple, how do they ever go back? I think you’re seeing more groups spending in some cases up to six weeks in a network before they’re doing data extraction and playing a little bit of a longer game versus that immediate gratification.

Cybersecurity mixes both defensive and offensive practices to combat cybercrime. How should organizations think about red and blue teaming in their organization? Do organizations need both, and why?  

A huge majority of people who get into cybersecurity these days want to be red team. I get it. It’s sexy. Bottom line, if you’re thinking of red team as those folks who are actually attempting to penetrate your internal network, I think the number is 1 to 20, 1 to 25, or something like that compared to blue team. You need a lot less red team focus. I’m not saying that organizations where red team is similarly sized to blue don’t provide value. They definitely do, but it’s a question of could you take those same resources and plug them elsewhere and get more value? I think generally, I need a lot more defense than I need offense.

In way too many organizations that have much more balanced red and blue teams, I see a lot of red teams identifying problems that the blue team simply can’t fix from a resourcing standpoint. I also am working with organizations that have very large red teams but haven’t yet moved into hunt teaming. In those situations, I don’t know whether you put hunt under red or blue. I’m ambivalent there but the bottom line is I do need the red team, but I need them for a lot less than a lot of people use them for. I say that as an ex-government hacker; and I still do red team occasionally, but it’s just not where most organizations are going to get the most significant return on investment. I’m not trying to say red team isn’t important but generally, we need to structure significantly more blue team people than red team, and that’s just an unpopular thing for a lot of people to hear.

If you don’t have a solid blue team and have holes today in your defenses, you shouldn’t have a red team. When people say, “We need our own internal red team,” my question is, “Have you had an external red team come in and do a red team evaluation? And if you have, have you actioned those findings?” Not one of them but all of them. If the answer is no, we need to step back and figure out what we need to do. Let’s make sure that you’ve got a blue team that is functioning today and ready to roll forward with the recommendations from the red team. Separate from pragmatism, there’s also a legality issue. Knowing about something and not doing anything about it puts you in a more legally compromising position than not knowing about it at all.

That’s what we find a lot of folks with internal red teams end up with. They’ve got this red team that is basically pushing identified risks into a funnel. How much are we stuffing that funnel? How much do we need defense versus offense?

How does an organization know when to hire an internal red team? What’s the breaking point?

A lot of that depends on the reaction. How quickly are you actioning those findings? If you’re in a spot where you fix all the findings from the annual red team in two months, that’s when I would say, “Yes, without a shadow of a doubt, let’s go hire a red team.” Because that’s going to give me more of that constant churn of findings. On the other hand, if it takes you nine months to get through those findings, you’re going to have another external red team likely in a month anyway. Where’s our value there? If it takes you somewhere in the middle, a lot of it is going to depend on how much risk do we accept.

When we’re documenting where we have gaps and where we don’t, it comes down to where can I get the best return on my investment for our organization? If I still have a lot of blue team gaps, investing in red team would be throwing more gaps at blue team, which causes huge morale issues.

Keep an eye for the second part of the interview as Jake Williams shares best practices on how to structure and evolve red and blue teaming within your organization.

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