What Is an Offensive Security Strategy, and Why Should You Have One?

offensive cybersecurity

In cybersecurity, you’re always in a better position if you’re on offense versus defense. Being proactive about security concerns enables you to be more strategic. So, having an offensive security strategy should be a priority.

On the side of the offense, you can apply techniques and tactics that mimic what an attack would look like to practice the response. Uncovering vulnerabilities and weaknesses earlier means you can fix them before cybercriminals exploit them.

In this post, we’ll review what an offensive security strategy is, why you need one, and what it should include.

What Is an Offensive Security Strategy?

An offensive security strategy describes a range of proactive security measures that hackers use in real-world attacks. The objective is to improve the visibility of your cyber footprint and identify issues. From what you learn, you can then enhance your security posture.

The components of this strategy include:

  • Penetration testing
  • Vulnerability assessments
  • Social engineering and phishing testing

Why Is Having an Offensive Security Strategy Important?

Cyber professionals are in a constant battle against cybercriminals. They continue adapting their attacks and are lurking in the digital world, waiting to strike. As a result, technical folks must constantly be innovating on ways to protect networks.

In this scenario, you’re always on the defensive side. Focusing all your attention there can cause some blind spots. That’s why playing both offensive and defensive is a good idea. Another reason is that all the defenses you’ve built would only get deployed in a real attack. So, they aren’t truly tested and optimized.

Additionally, creating your arsenal happens in a vacuum without real-world feedback.

When you employ offensive security strategies, you can test defenses and pinpoint security gaps. Then, you have the opportunity to address and remediate them. Simulated real-world attacks offer key insight into the health of your network and where risk is present. Investing in this approach will yield many benefits and could be the difference between staying secure and suffering a breach.

Offensive vs. Defensive Cybersecurity: What’s the Difference?

When you look at your overall plans for cybersecurity, you have two sides—offense and defense. Both are essential and interwoven. Defensive cybersecurity encompasses protection actions and initiatives. Examples include:

  • Deployment of security solutions
  • Implementation of security policies for users
  • Cybersecurity training and education for employees
  • Using a variety of software tools to protect servers, applications, and data

Offensive cybersecurity is the driver behind what your defensive measures are working to protect against. Cybercriminals attempt to break through all your defenses to steal valuable data or plant malware or ransomware. Ethical hackers take the same steps as the bad guys. They just don’t damage anything. From these experts, you learn where you are on the risk meter.

The most impactful cyber programs look at strategy in this way, combining these approaches to be in the best position to thwart attacks.

Offensive Security Tactics

Several elements should be part of your offensive security framework. These are activities that you’ll do continuously, and they require hiring a third-party cyber firm. These teams can conduct penetration tests, vulnerability assessments, and social engineering and phishing testing.

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is an offensive strategy wherein ethical hackers simulate a cyberattack. They do this by looking for vulnerabilities and issues that could allow a cybercriminal to enter your network and cause havoc.

A human tester does the work using the same mechanisms that cybercriminals do. It’s much more involved than automated scanning. The goal is to find weaknesses and provide the appropriate recommendations to resolve them.

Pen testing has many variations, including access levels, methods, and types.

Access Levels

This component relates to what those performing the tests know about the systems.

  • Black Box Penetration Testing (Opaque Box): In this level, testers don’t have any information regarding the structure of the target system. This scenario is the closest to how an actual hacker would attempt attacks.
  • Gray Box Penetration Testing (Semi-Opaque Box): Those testing have some knowledge of the target system, usually the data structure or code. They may also have credentials.
  • White Box Penetration Testing (Transparent Box): Pen testers have access to systems and documentation. They launch an attack as an insider and may also be able to enter servers running the system.

Penetration Testing Methods

There are also pen test methods that refer to “where” digitally the exercises occur. The approach aligns with what your security priorities are.

  • External testing: Pen testers target your company’s visible assets. Those include web applications, company websites, domain name servers, and email. The goal of the method is to extract data.
  • Internal testing: This test occurs behind the firewall. The method simulates a human error breach, like credentials stolen through phishing.
  • Blind testing: Testers have the company game, providing security professionals with a real-time perspective of an application assault.
  • Double-blind testing: Internal security teams do not know the pen test. They’ll be reacting to it as if it were real.
  • Targeted testing: Testers and IT teams work together, delivering training for your team. They’ll learn from the feedback they receive from ethical hackers.

Types of Pen Tests

A pen test can evaluate any part of your digital footprint. Use all types that correlate to your security architecture.

Web application pen tests assess your overall security and can identify risks around code errors, injections, and broken authentication.

Network security pen tests uncover exploitable things across networks, focusing on those regarding routers, switches, or network hosts. Techniques include leveraging weak or misconfigured assets to attempt a breach.

Cloud security pen tests validate the accuracy of your cloud’s configurations. They also look for any cloud-related risks. Testers can perform them on any type of cloud.

IoT security pen tests evaluate the security of these devices and how they interact. These tests should be a priority for companies that broadly use these assets, like healthcare.

Social engineering pen tests use phishing schemes to discover how a network can defend, detect, and respond to them. This is a good way to see how effective your security training is, too.

The next tactic is vulnerability assessments, which complement pen testing.

Vulnerability Assessments

Vulnerability assessments evaluate all aspects of a network to locate any missing patches or configurations. A vulnerability could be a bug or code flaw, gaps in security procedures, or a lack of internal controls.

There are four categories of vulnerability assessments:

  • Critical: Vulnerabilities in this classification are the most urgent and should be the top priority for remediation.
  • High: Those at this level are urgent and next in line for attention.
  • Medium: These are not as concerning but should still be fixed.
  • Low/informational: These are cautionary or informational.

Categorization uses three criteria. First is how likely a hacker could exploit it. Second is the severity of the issue. Third is what the vulnerability provides to the hacker.

Types of Vulnerability Assessments

There are three vulnerability assessment options:

  • Network-based: In this approach, assessors look at distributed applications and machines. They are looking for security gaps in communication systems or networks. This assessment also includes a network device analysis that involves searching for compromised passwords. The third objective is evaluating a system’s ability to withstand typical attacks.
  • Application-based: In this exercise, testers review the application layer to determine if there are any misconfigurations or vulnerabilities.
  • Host-based: In this process, the objective is to analyze the weaknesses of machines, including workstations, servers, and network hosts.

Next, are the tactics used to evaluate the human element in cybersecurity.

Social Engineering and Phishing Testing

In this part of an offensive security strategy, you can simulate social engineering and phishing to assess the human risk. In pen testing, recall that there is a pen test for these tactics. Beyond that, you can have cyber firms execute other tests that involve an email phishing campaign that looks credible and accurate.

The email would request that employees take an action—divulge sensitive information, click on a link, or open an attachment.

For a test to truly assess social engineering, a firm would see what’s available online. An excellent tool for this test is OSINT (Open Source Intelligence), which is publicly available information. Service providers use it to gather information about your users. After collecting this intelligence, firms develop scenarios for subsets of users. OSINT enables the customization of campaigns to your environment and user population.

You then get a list of email addresses found, and the phishing attack commences. Users would receive two messages, and the results include:

  • Who fell for the phish (e.g., clicked the link or opened an attachment)
  • Any information divulged by the employee

From these findings, you can determine what tweaks would be beneficial in education and training.

Employ a Great Offense and Defense in Cybersecurity

While much attention in cybersecurity is on the defensive side, you’ll be more balanced and resilient when you have defensive and offensive strategies. Pen tests, vulnerability assessments, and social engineering and phishing tests are vital to your offense. Finding the right partner to support these efforts is, too. We can help. Contact our experts today to learn more.

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