Red team testing: hacking and lying your way to data

Tom Wyatt Headshot
Tom Wyatt
Penetration Tester
30th November 2018

What is red teaming?

We at Bulletproof provide a range of different cyber security services, including penetration tests, managed SIEM, and DPO outsourcing. Though undoubtedly the most interesting (and cool) service we offer are our red team assessments.

So, what is a red team test? Put simply, a red team test is where security experts compromise a company’s cyber and physical security through a mix of penetration testing, social engineering and deceit. A red team aims to get hold of data remotely or through direct contact with an organisation's on-premises machines. Preferably, not getting caught in the process. Once done, the team can report back to the company with what they did, how they did it (with evidence), and most importantly, how the business can stop it from happening again.

Typically, only one or two people at the organisation being red teamed will know about it – the majority of staff will be completely unaware of what’s going on. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven, only with significantly less George Clooney and more time spent on research. In fact research is the most important element.

Red team security guards
"Do these uniforms not make us stand out a bit?"
“Yeah, but we look awesome, so cross your arms and look menacing.”
Red teaming can provide an awareness as to just how susceptible a business is to social engineering.

What does red team testing involve?

As red team testing requires us to test every aspect of an organization's security infrastructure it can involve a variety of strategies and present some diverse challenges for the team. Typically, we begin with an internet search including any social media profiles associated with the company to see what information is freely available for us to leverage. We were once asked to assess an office and its systems with only the name of the company we were targeting and their website address, which while it is the most ‘true to life’ hacking scenario is the most extreme environment for a red team to work in, especially if the test is time sensitive. So, we set to work by scouring the Internet for any information we could use to plan or carry out our attack.

Social engineering with a pint of milk!

Funnily enough, it was through a red team test we discovered we could compromise a business using only a few pints of milk – and this didn’t involve pouring it over the servers! Red team assessments require a multi-layered approach that seeks to test every aspect of a company’s security – the technical and physical elements, the people. Even management aren’t exempt. We try to compromise a business using any means at our disposal, and as it happens posing as the milkman is a great way to gain access.

Our phishing portal was very hard to spot because it was on their server, on their domain and complete with a valid SSL certificate.

Red teaming recon

Our first bit of Internet recon revealed some useful information:

  • Photographs of staff members were posted on Twitter, each wearing their office ID badge with, crucially, the printed side facing the camera.
  • Floor plans of the office, obtained from the estate management company.
  • Google Street View and satellite photos suggested that there was a backdoor into the office.
  • Staff members’ personal Twitter accounts showed photos that included desk phones and colleagues wearing casual clothes in the background.

In all, it took us just under an hour of looking at publicly available information to learn:

  • Friday dress code was casual
  • What the office ID badge looked like, how it was laid out and what text was used (hmm, wonder what we could use this for!?)
  • Roughly where things would be in the office
  • Where the entrances to the building were
red team social
Being secure doesn’t just stop at locking the door

Scanning for vulnerabilities

We discovered some potential digital vulnerabilities as well. Firstly, their website was running a vulnerable version of WordPress, and although we couldn’t fully compromise the server as it had been well hardened, we were able to write new pages and sites for it.

Based on this, we decided on a two-pronged attack:

  1. We’d create a phishing portal on the hacked WordPress server designed to look like their Outlook Web Access page.
  2. One of us would visit the physical offices with a photoshopped ID badge based on the one we found on Twitter, wander onto the premises and try and attach malicious hardware to the network, or to any machine we could get close to.

Setting up remote access

Our phishing portal was very hard to spot as it was well disguised on its own server, on the company domain and complete with a valid SSL certificate. Several workers were caught out by it, and this gave us access to their accounts. The client didn’t expose any remote desktop or cloud-based services for us to use, so we hung onto these stolen credentials for later…

Gaining entry

Thanks to modern smartphones being so advanced, the images of employee badges were good enough for us to replicate their appearance. While they looked legitimate enough at first glance, we didn’t know what technology we needed to access the automatic door system. We created several kinds of cards based on known electronic badge types. These didn’t work, but one using the same technology made a warning ‘beep’ sound, which we used to add a sense of authenticity.

Once I arrived on the premises, a quick look around the general area confirmed that there was indeed a back door. However, it was a fire exit adorned with a sign that read ‘this door is alarmed’. As I was trying to be inconspicuous as possible, I decided to go through the front, non-alarmed door. This was obviously a bold move as it meant marching right into the line of sight of a security guard, who wouldn’t recognise me and could ask questions I was completely unprepared for.

Now, this truly separates red team testers from penetration testers. I strolled in, carrying several bottles of milk I purchased previously. I nodded to the security guard and gestured to the milk in my hands, saying ‘milk run’. Next, I swiped my card, triggering warning beeps. I repeated the process, pretending to get annoyed with it not working until the security guard came over.

“This thing hasn’t worked properly since I put it through the wash”, I said. With a pleasant chuckle, the security guard swiped me through and even pressed the call button on the lift for me. From here, blagging my way into the office itself was easy, and I even dropped off the milk in the kitchen area. After all, if I’m about to steal a load of information, it’s the least I could do!

The exploitation phase

Once in the office, I took out my laptop (complete with large Wi-Fi antennas) and strolled around with an intense look of concentration. Fortunately, if you work in IT, most people are reluctant to speak to you unless they absolutely must, so I was able to make my way to a partially empty office and plug a disguised USB ethernet adaptor into an unmanned desk PC.

Our USB ethernet adaptor contained a small Linux machine that would remotely connect to our own servers and allow us to tunnel into the target network. However, it seemed the internal network had some form of filtering in place that blocked unknown devices, which would have meant that the entire endeavor could have ended there, (wasting several pints of perfectly good milk). You’d be forgiven for thinking this meant game over – but I wasn’t giving up easily. Remember, we were also armed with several user credentials we’d obtained via our phishing portal. After logging into the computer, we were able to bypass this filtering and gained access to their servers.

From here on in, the rest is mostly the same as any internal penetration test. We found things that were broken, abused them, stole passwords, spread further and kept on going and gathering evidence until there was nowhere else to go or until we were caught. We weren’t caught on this occasion. But as part of this experiment, we provided our client with a comprehensive report and helped them to tighten their processes and improve their cybersecurity. We demonstrated how far a malicious threat could be willing to go to gain access to their business. It’s not always someone at a laptop on the other side of the world. Sometimes it’s simply a man with some milk.

You are a target

As you can see, a red team test is very involved. You might think that your company is too small to attract this level of attention, and to some extent you might be right. We’re not likely to try to sneak into a five-person strong team claiming to be the new intern, but we will try every other trick in the book. We adapt our tactics to the situation. Smaller companies tend to have less sophisticated technology or be laxer in their processes. Hackers often take the path of least resistance, meaning smaller companies will always be in their crosshairs.

Of course, not every company would benefit from a red team test, but if you’re storing large quantities of sensitive data that would benefit nefarious entities, it’s good to make sure every aspect of your security is as strong as it could be, because hackers will try to get at it one way or another.

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Meet the author

Tom Wyatt Penetration Tester

Tom is a penetration tester and ethical hacker who writes insightful articles on all things ethical hacking and red team testing.

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