A customer reaches out to you. They’ve spent the money. They have a network defense team that innovates and actively hunts for adversary activity. They own the different blinky boxes. They have a highly-rated endpoint protection in their environment. They’re worried about these cyber attacks they see in the news. Despite this investment, they don’t know how well it works. The CEO thinks they’re invincible. The CISO has his doubts and the authority and resources to act on these doubts. They want to know where their program is at. They call you.
You run through the options. You dismiss the idea of looking at their vulnerability management program. They have this and they receive penetration testers on a semi-regular basis. They’re comfortable that someone’s looking at their attack surface. They’re still worried. What about something very targeted? What if someone finds a way that they and the myriad of vendors they worked with didn’t know about.
After discussion, you get to the heart of it. They want to know how effective their network defense team is at detecting and mitigating a successful breach. The gears start to turn in your mind. You know this isn’t the time to use netcat to simulate exfiltration of data. You can download some known malicious software and run it. Or, better, you could go to one of the underground forums and pay $20 for one of the offensive showpieces available for sale. Your minded quickly flashes to a what-if scenario. What happens if you go this way and introduce a backdoor into your customer’s environment. You shake your head and promise yourself that you will look at other options later.
Wisely, you ask a few clarifying questions. You ask, what type of breach are they worried about? Of the recent high-profile breaches, what’s the one that makes them think, “could that be us?” Before you know it you’re on a plane to New York with a diverse team. You bring an offensive expert from your team, she is a cross between operator and developer. You also bring a new hire who used to work as a cyber threat analyst within the US intelligence community. You engage with the customer’s team, which includes trusted agents from the network defense team who will not tell their peers about the upcoming engagement. The meeting is spent productively developing a threat model and a timeline for a hypothetical breach.
Your customer introduces you to another player in this engagement. Your customer pays for analyst services from a well known threat intelligence company. This company is known for working intrusion response for high-profile breaches. A lesser known service is the strategic guidance, analysis support, and reports they provide their customers on a subscription basis. This analyst briefs you on a real actor with capability and intent to target a company like your customer. The hypothetical breach scenario you made with your customer is amiable to this actor’s process. The analyst briefs your team on this actor’s capabilities and unique ways of doing business. Your customer doesn’t know what they want here, but they ask if there’s a way you can use this information to make your activity more realistic, please do so.
You and your team leave the customer’s site and discuss today’s meetings with a fast energy. The customer wants to hire you to play out that hypothetical breach in their environment, but they want to do this in a cost effective way. A trusted insider will assist you with the initial access. It’s up to you to evade their blinky boxes and to work slowly. Paradoxically, the customer wants you to work slow, but they want to put a time limit on the activity as well. They’re confident that with unlimited time, you could log the right keystrokes, and locate the key resources and systems in their network. To keep the engagement tractable, they offer to assign a trusted agent to your team. This agent will white card information to allow you to move forward with the breach storyline.
The customer’s interest is the hypothetical breach and the timeline of your activity. They don’t expect their network defense team to catch every step. But, they want to know every step you took. After the engagement, they plan to analyze everything you did and look at their process and tools. They’ll ask the tough questions. How did they do? What did they see, but dismiss as benign? What didn’t they see and why? Sometimes it’s acceptable that an activity is too far below a noise threshold to catch. That’s OK. But, sometimes, there’s a detection or action opportunity they miss. It’s important to identify these and look at how to do better next time.
You look at this tall order. It’s a lot. This isn’t something your team normally does. You know you can’t just go in and execute. Your new hire with the intel background smiles. This is a big opportunity. Your developer and analyst work together to make a plan to meet the customer’s needs. Your intent is to execute the breach timeline but introduce tradecraft of the actor the threat intelligence company briefed you on. These few tricks you plan to borrow from the actor will show the customer’s team something they haven’t seen before. It will make for a good debrief later.
This engagement will require some upfront investment from your team and it may require a little retooling. You’ll need to analyze each piece of your kit and make sure it can work with the constraints of your customer’s defensive posture. You verify that you have artifacts that don’t trigger their anti-virus product. Some of the cloud anti-virus products have made trouble for your team in the past. You look at your remote access tool options. You need a payload that’s invisible to the blinky boxes and their automatic detection. If you get caught, you want to know ingenuity and analysis made it happen. You won’t give yourself up easily. At least, not in the beginning.
You also want to know that you can operate slowly. Your favorite penetration testing tools aren’t built for this. Big questions come up. How will you exfiltrate gigabytes of data, slowly and without raising alarms? You know you’ll need to build something or buy it. You also work to plan the infrastructure you’ll need to support each phase of the breach timeline. You know, for this particular engagement, it makes no sense to have all compromised systems call home to the one Kali box your company keeps in a DMZ.
As all of this planning takes place, you pause and reflect. You got into this business to make your customers better. You built a team and you convinced your management to pay them what they’re worth. You carry the weight of making sure that team is constantly engaged. Sometimes this means taking the less sexy work. Unfortunately, your competitors are on a race to the bottom. Everyone sells the same scans and vulnerability verification as penetration tests. It keeps getting worse. You know you’ll lose your best people if you try to compete with this way. This engagement brings new energy to your team.
This mature customer is willing to pay for this service. The value to them is clear. They want to know how well their security operations stands up to a real world attack. They understand that this is a task that requires expertise. They’ll pay, but they can’t and won’t pay for a long timeline. The white carding is the compromise.
You’re excited. This is something that will use the expertise you’ve collected into a cohesive team. Your customer appreciates how real the threat is. You make plans. Big plans. You wonder who else might pay for this service. You go to your sales person and brief them on the customer and this engagement. Your sales person nods in agreement. “Yes, I see it too”.