The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Purple Teams

As we are approaching the new year I've been thinking about the milestones and achievements that I’ve been able to accomplish both personally and professionally. 2021 was a year of many challenges and many opportunities. Usually, when I am going through a particularly challenging period I look for a resource that can help to remind me of what it’s like to live a life according to the principles that I value. One such book is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people and another is Nonviolent Communication. Each one has its own strengths and applications. In this article, I’ll focus on how the 7 habits can map quite well to building and running effective Purple teams.

Habit 1: Be Proactive with Security Testing:

In the cybersecurity space, there are a lot of happenings that are outside of your team's control. What you do have control over is how you test the security tools and controls that you do have at your disposal. In Habit 1, instead of saying “I can’t detect APTs because I don’t have a multi-million dollar security stack defending everything in my environment.” Instead, we start with, a question like “What known or documented TTP can we test in our environment?” and theorize on what we may see, or what we may miss. Finally, in Habit 1, we are focusing on proactively identifying visibility gaps before a serious incident happens, and working collaboratively with other teams to address those gaps where appropriate.

Habit 2: “Begin with the end state of your security operations team in mind”

With respect to Habit 2, it’s important for all members of your Purple team to have in their mind a vision of what they want the team's capabilities to look like in the future, both individually and collectively. Each individual can think about what you can do to get closer to that final state one year, quarter, or month at a time. Personally, and for the Purple team at Code42, Habit 2 is also an important area to consider the values of your team and the individuals. Habit 2 goes beyond just “stopping the bad hackers” and asks you to reflect on how you want your own actions and the actions of your team to make an impact. Personally, I have a lot of respect for organizations that make meaningful contributions to the security community by releasing frameworks or powerful tools which contribute to making security better for many organizations. Another useful thought exercise with respect to this habit is taking time for self-reflection and asking if what you are doing now, and what you are working towards is something you will be proud of based only on your personal values and not what society deems as “valuable”.

Habit 3: Put critical incidents first

Habit 3 is one that I struggle with in some manner, the easy thing for me is to do what is important and urgent. The recent log4j issue is a great example. If you have something that is urgent (a new 0 day) it's easy to drop everything else and prioritize that which is urgent and important. However, what I struggle with is dealing with quadrant II activities which are important but not urgent. When I was in high school and college I’d procrastinate on assignments until I had really no other option but to do the assignment. The reality is in those cases those quadrant II activities had moved to quadrant I and then they got done. In some cases, it's impractical for Quadrant II activities to go on unplanned for so long, yes I’ve even completely forgotten a few Quadrant II activities from time to time. On our Purple team, we have a queue of planned test scenarios mapped to the MITRE ATT&CK framework to run through. While this work is important but not urgent, it can be the difference between an adversary being detected and removed from your environment and an adversary persisting in your environment! So planning and executing those quadrant II activities is critical to the long-term success of a Purple team program.

Our workstations in full purple team mode: image credit Bryn Felton-Pitt

Habit 4: Purple thinks win-win!

I think Habit 4 is the epitome of what a Purple team is intended to achieve. The idea behind win-win for a Purple team is of a team that is mutually invested in making the other side better. For instance, the red team finds a new attack method that goes undetected by the blue team. In an effective Purple team, the red team will be excited to share the results of these findings with the blue team. They are motivated by improving the organization's detection and response capabilities. Contrast this with an ineffective team where the red team doesn’t feel a shared goal or common purpose with the blue team. In that case, the Red team may feel incentivized to hoard vulnerabilities and detection bypass techniques without sharing them with the blue team until they’ve been thoroughly abused. This makes improvement take much longer. A contrasting example may be that the blue team has identified a TTP or behavior that gives them reliable detection of the red team's C2 agents. If the blue team feels that their goal is to “catch the red team” they may not want to disclose that known TTP with the red team. Sometimes the win-win mentality is broken unintentionally by artificial incentives. One such example is tying the blue team's financial bonus to detection of red team activities… don’t do that as it puts blue teamers in a position where they may have to sacrifice a financial reward in order to work collaboratively with the red team. I don’t know many people who would do a better job if it meant they lost money.

In summary, the focus of Habit 4 is to create a structure where each blue team and red team member has a shared incentive to see the other team succeed.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand the methods of the other team

In Habit 5 we are seeking to understand the pain points of the red team and blue team. We do this at Code42 by rotating team members into offensive and defensive roles on a regular cadence. When you are truly in someone else's shoes you can understand the challenges that they deal with on a daily basis. Adversaries often have to deal with collecting credentials, privilege escalation, and lateral movement. Waiting for callbacks and losing C2 can slow, or even eliminate their offensive capabilities. Defenders on the other hand have to deal with alert fatigue, looking through too much data, and the dread of “missing” some kind of adversary activity via a visibility gap. When each side understands the other’s pain points they can be much more effective at disrupting the attacker lifecycle, or the incident response lifecycle.

Habit 6: Together is better

Here is where the Purple team shines: each person has a unique background and perspective. If we are able to work together and approach defending our networks with a humble mentality we can learn from each other faster. Personally, I find it very rewarding when individuals have shared with me that they feel safe to ask questions about a technique, or technology. I’ve personally worked in places where that safety net isn’t there, and progress is slower. The key difference is a team that feels safe, is a team that can progress quite rapidly by learning from each other's strengths. Create an environment where it is safe to say, “I don't know”, and you will create an environment that frees itself to tap the knowledge of every individual on the team.

Habit 7: Renewal and Growth

I know after log4j we could all definitely use some renewal and restoration. Cybersecurity incidents can be a lot of work and they can be quite draining sometimes. Habit 7 is a challenge for me, I’m naturally driven and want to learn new things all the time. This is lucky because the cybersecurity landscape is ever-changing. Attacks and security implications of new technology are always evolving. One approach that is supportive to Habit 7 might be something like 20% time where anyone can choose a new and interesting topic that they want to research. That method can support each individual's need for growth. Having initiatives that support each individual’s well-being is an important component of a healthy team. At Code42 we did have in-person yoga classes (now remote), this can be challenging but don't forget to remind your team to take breaks during incidents, stretch, give their family or pets a hug, and be open to comping your team additional PTO if they work long days and weekends during an incident.

In closing, there are lots of ways where a Purple team model for cybersecurity operations supports the growth and development of a healthy and exceptional team. I hope some of these habits have sparked a desire to try a Purple team exercise in your organization.

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Chris Hernandez

Red Teamer — Security Researcher — Breaking things is fun, except when its not