Red Team vs. Blue Team in Cybersecurity

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 29, 2021

Red teams and blue teams work as attackers and defenders to improve an organization's security. Which team will you play for?

A team of cybersecurity specialists sit at a conference table with their laptops planning an exercise.

Both red teams and blue teams work toward improving an organization’s security, but they do so differently. A red team plays the role of the attacker by trying to find vulnerabilities and break through cybersecurity defenses. A blue team defends against attacks and responds to incidents when they occur.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what it’s like as a cybersecurity professional on a red or blue team so you can decide which might be a better fit. We’ll also discuss some emerging roles within the cybersecurity color wheel. 

Benefits of a red team vs. blue team approach

One way organizations can assess their security capabilities is to stage a red team/blue team exercise. These two teams of professionals face off to put a security infrastructure to the test in a simulation meant to mimic a real attack. Taking a red team versus blue team approach to cybersecurity can have several benefits, allowing security teams to:

  • Find vulnerabilities

  • Strengthen network security

  • Build experience in detecting and containing attacks

  • Develop response plans and procedures

  • Create healthy competition and cooperation

  • Raise security awareness among other staff

If you're just starting out in the world of cybersecurity, consider an entry-level credential, like the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate. You can build job-ready skills in less than eight months while earning a shareable certificate from an industry leader.

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What is a red team?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines a red team as “a group of people authorized and organized to emulate a potential adversary’s attack or exploitation capabilities against an enterprise’s security posture.” The red team plays the part of the attacker or competitor with the intention of identifying vulnerabilities in a system. 

Red team activities

When you’re part of a red team, you’re tasked with thinking like a hacker in order to breach an organization’s security (with their permission). Some common red team activities include:

  • Social engineering

  • Penetration testing

  • Intercepting communication

  • Card cloning

  • Making recommendations to blue team for security improvements

Red team skills

The offensive mindset of red team activities requires its own set of skills. If you’re interested in a red team role, building these skills could set you up for success:

  • Software development: When you know how applications are built, you’re better able to identify their possible weaknesses (as well as write your own programs to automate the attack process).

  • Penetration testing: Much of a red team’s job is to identify and try to exploit known vulnerabilities on a network. This includes familiarity with vulnerability scanners.

  • Social engineering: An organization’s biggest vulnerability is often its people rather than its computer network. Social engineering tactics like phishing, baiting, and tailgating can sometimes be the easiest way past security defenses.

  • Threat intelligence and reverse engineering: Knowing what threats are out there—and how to emulate them—can make you a more effective attacker.

  • Creativity: Finding ways to beat a blue team’s defenses often requires creating new and innovative forms of attack. 

Red team job titles

Even if a company doesn’t have defined red and blue teams, certain roles tend to have similar tasks and skill requirements as red teams. If you enjoy playing the part of the threat actor in cybersecurity, look for jobs like:

  • Vulnerability assessor: $80,096

  • Security auditor: $83,015

  • Ethical hacker: $98, 177

  • Penetration tester: $102,274

Salary data represents average annual salary in the US as of September 2021 (Glassdoor).

Learn more about how to become a penetration tester.

Red team certifications

If you’re looking for a job as an offensive security specialist or red team member, having a credential to validate your skills in penetration testing and offensive security could enhance your resume. Here are some popular cybersecurity certifications that target offensive skills:

  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

  • Licensed Penetration Tester (LPT) Master

  • CompTIA PenTest+

  • GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN)

  • GIAC Exploit Researcher and Advanced Penetration Tester (GXPN)

  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

  • Certified Red Team Operations Professional (CRTOP)

Spend some time looking at job listings for roles you might be interested in to see what certifications are commonly requested or required.

Read more: 10 Popular Cybersecurity Certifications

What is a blue team?

NIST defines a blue team as “the group responsible for defending an enterprise’s use of information systems by maintaining its security posture against a group of mock attackers.” If the red team is playing offense, the blue team is playing defense to protect an organization’s critical assets. 

Blue team activities

As a blue team member, it’s your job to analyze the current security posture of your organization and take measures to address flaws and vulnerabilities. Playing for the blue team also means monitoring for breaches and responding to them when they do occur. Some of these tasks include:

  • Digital footprint analysis 

  • DNS audits 

  • Installing and configuring firewalls and endpoint security software 

  • Monitoring network activity 

  • Using least-privilege access

Blue team skills

Defending a company against attack involves understanding what assets need to be protected and how to best protect them. Here are some skills that could serve you well in a blue team role:

  • Risk assessment: Risk assessment helps you identify key assets that are most at risk for exploitation so you can prioritize your resources to protect them. 

  • Threat intelligence: You’ll want to know what threats are out there so you can plan appropriate defenses. Blue teams have to stay a step ahead of attackers.

  • Hardening techniques: Recognizing weaknesses in your organization's security is only helpful if you know the techniques for fixing them.

  • Monitoring and detection systems: As a blue team professional, you’ll need to know how to use packet sniffers, security and information event management (SIEM) software, intrusion detection systems (IDS), and intrusion prevention systems (IPS).

Blue team job titles

The roles and responsibilities of a blue team more closely match with those of traditional cybersecurity roles. If you’re interested in a career in defensive cybersecurity, look for jobs like:

  • Cybersecurity analyst: $80,003

  • Incident responder: $88,818

  • Threat intelligence analyst: $90,257

  • Information security specialist: $96,942

  • Security engineer: $111,630

  • Security architect: $153,160

Salary data represents average annual salary in the US as of September 2021 (Glassdoor).

Learn more about how to become a cybersecurity analyst.

Blue team certifications

Many of the most commonly-requested cybersecurity certifications are also appropriate for defensive security professionals. Some popular options include:

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)

  • CompTIA Security+

  • GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC)

  • GIAC Certified Incident Handler (GCIH)

  • Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP)

  • CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+)

Choosing your team: Red vs. blue

Both offensive and defensive security professionals are in demand, and jobs on both teams tend to pay well. Choosing which side of the cybersecurity spectrum to work on comes down to your interests and personality traits.

If you’re creative, outgoing, and prefer to try new things over keeping to a strict plan, red team-like roles could be a good fit for you. If you’re proactive, a natural planner, and feel more confident making decisions backed by data and industry standards, the blue team might be a better fit.

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Cybersecurity color wheel: Yellow, green, orange, and purple team 

As the world of cybersecurity becomes more specialized, new roles are emerging beyond the red versus blue framework. You may see this referred to as the cybersecurity color wheel. Let’s take a look at some of the other colors you might encounter.

  • Purple team: A purple team integrates defensive and offensive tactics to promote collaboration and shared knowledge between red teams and blue teams. An effective read team/blue team interaction should naturally create a purple team.

  • Yellow team: The yellow team are the builders—the security architects and coders who develop security systems. 

  • Green team: The green team takes insights from the blue team to enhance the code written by the yellow team. They may also automate blue team tasks for a more efficient defense.

  • Orange team: The orange team takes what they’ve learned from attackers (red team) to encourage the yellow team to be more security conscious. They teach developers to think like attackers to build better security into their code.

Get started in cybersecurity

You don’t have to pick a team to start a career in cybersecurity. Start building job-ready defensive and offensive skills with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. Learn at your own pace from the security experts at IBM, and earn a credential for your resume in less than eight months.

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Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 29, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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