What is offensive security?
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What is offensive security?

Offensive security, or “OffSec,” refers to a range of proactive security strategies that use the same tactics malicious actors use in real-world attacks to strengthen network security rather than harm it. Common offensive security methods include red teaming, penetration testing and vulnerability assessment.

Offensive security operations are often carried out by ethical hackers, cybersecurity professionals who use their hacking skills to find and fix IT system flaws. Ethical hackers perform simulated breaches with permission, unlike real cybercriminals who break into systems to steal sensitive data or drop malware. They stop short of causing real damage and use the findings from their fake attacks to help organizations improve their defenses.

Historically, offensive security has also referred to strategies for frustrating would-be attackers, such as by luring threat actors into dead-end directories. These antagonistic methods are less common in today’s information security landscape.

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The value of offensive security

To understand why offensive security is important, it is helpful to compare it to defensive security.

Defensive security measures, like anti-virus software and firewalls, are reactive by design. These tools are built to either block known threats or detect suspicious behavior. Some advanced defensive security tools, like SOAR platforms, can also automate responses to ongoing attacks.

While defensive security tactics can help thwart cyberattacks in progress, these methods do create a hefty workload for security teams. Analysts must sort through alerts and data to separate real threats from false alarms. Likewise, defensive security measures can only protect against known attack vectors, leaving organizations exposed to new and unknown cyberthreats.

Offensive security complements defensive security. Security teams use OffSec tactics to discover and respond to unknown attack vectors that other security measures might miss. Offensive security is also more proactive than defensive security. Instead of responding to cyberattacks as they happen, offensive security measures find and address flaws before attackers can exploit them.

In short, offensive security yields information that makes defensive security even more effective. It also reduces the burden on security teams. Because of these benefits, offensive security is an industry standard in some highly regulated sectors.

Offensive security tactics

The tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) that offensive security professionals use are the same ones that threat actors utilize. By using these TTPs, OffSec professionals can root out the potential vulnerabilities that real hackers might use while testing existing security programs.

The main offensive security tactics include:

Vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process for detecting vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT assets. It involves using a specialized tool to scan computer systems for vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability scanners can search assets for known vulnerabilities associated with specific software versions. They can also perform more active tests, like seeing how apps respond to common SQL injection strings or other malicious inputs.

Hackers often use vulnerability scans to identify vulnerabilities they can exploit during an attack. In turn, OffSec experts use the same vulnerability scanners to find and close these vulnerabilities before hackers can seize them. This proactive approach allows organizations to stay ahead of threats and strengthen their defenses.

Penetration testing

Penetration testing, or “pen testing,” is the use of mock cyberattacks to find vulnerabilities in computer systems. Essentially, pen testers act as human vulnerability scanners, searching for network flaws by mimicking real hackers. Pen testers adopt an attacker’s perspective, which in turn allows them to effectively pinpoint the vulnerabilities that malicious actors are most likely to target.

Because human security experts carry out pen tests, they can detect vulnerabilities that fully automated tools might miss and are less likely to turn up false positives. If they can exploit a flaw, so can cybercriminals. And because pen tests are often provided by third-party security services, they can often find flaws that in-house security teams might miss.

Red teaming

Red teaming, also known as “adversarial simulation,” is an exercise in which a group of experts use the TTPs of real-world cybercriminals to launch a simulated attack against a computer system.

Unlike pen tests, red teaming is an adversarial security assessment. The red team actively exploits attack vectors, without causing real damage, to see how far they can go. The red team also faces off against a blue team of security engineers who aim to stop them. This gives the organization a chance to test its hands-on incident response procedures.

Organizations will either employ an in-house red team or contract a third party to conduct red team exercises. To test both technical defenses and employee awareness, red team operations may use a range of tactics. Common red team methods include mock ransomware attacks, phishing and other social engineering simulations and even on-site breach techniques like tailgating.

Red teams may conduct different types of tests depending on the amount of information they have. In a white-box test, the red team has full transparency into the target system’s internal structure and source code. In a black-box test, the red team has no information about the system and must break in from the outside, much like real-world hackers. In a gray-box test, the red team may have some basic knowledge of the target system, like IP ranges for network devices, but not much else. 

Offensive security skills and tools

Practical hacking experience, knowledge of programming languages and familiarity with web application security are vital for offensive security efforts. To validate their expertise in these domains, offensive security professionals often earn certifications like Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) or Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH).

OffSec teams also follow established ethical hacking methodologies, including open-source projects like the Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM) and the Penetration Testing Execution Standard (PTES).

Offensive security professionals are also skilled with common offensive security tools, including:

Metasploit: A framework for developing and automating exploits against IT systems. It is mainly used for pen testing and vulnerability assessment.

Kali Linux: A Linux operating system designed for pen testing and digital forensics.

Burp Suite: A web application security testing tool that can scan for vulnerabilities, intercept and modify web traffic, and automate attacks.

Wireshark: A network protocol analyzer that captures and inspects network traffic, helping to identify security issues in network communications.

Nmap: A network scanning tool used for network discovery, port scanning, and service identification.

Aircrack-ng: A suite of tools for testing Wi-Fi network security, with the ability to sniff packets, capture handshakes, and crack password encryptions.

John the Ripper: A password cracking tool that performs brute-force attacks against password hashes.

sqlmap: A tool that automates the process of exploiting SQL injection vulnerabilities in web apps.

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Resources What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a staged security attack that pen testers use to help security teams uncover critical security vulnerabilities and improve overall security posture.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is the continuous discovery, prioritization and resolution of security vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT infrastructure and software.

What is cyber hacking?

Hacking (also called cyber hacking) is the use of unconventional or illicit means to gain unauthorized access to a digital device, computer system, or computer network.

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The IBM X-Force Red global team offers a full range of offensive security services—including penetration testing, vulnerability management and adversary simulation—to help identify, prioritize and remediate security flaws covering your entire digital and physical ecosystem.

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