Offensive vs Defensive Cybersecurity

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have been forced to rapidly adapt in order to maintain operations. For many, this has meant adopting a much more powerful IT infrastructure that enables efficient connectivity that also supports remote workforces. While this allows businesses to stay afloat, it also significantly impacts their overall security posture, creating a bigger opportunity for cyber criminals.

These malicious actors are now targeting organizations that are not adequately prepared for cyberattacks that seek to exploit the weaknesses in their systems. This is disturbing especially now that studies have shown that criminals could be developing to the tune of about 300,000 attack programs per day.

To counter such cyber threats, most businesses tend to prioritize defensive security strategies and often forget about offensive cybersecurity. Others actually confuse the two, and what this means is that their cybersecurity posture is vulnerable.

Understanding the distinct differences between offensive and defensive cybersecurity is essential for security professionals tasked with safeguarding their organizations.

At IT Companies Network, we recommend employing a combination of offensive and defensive tactics for optimal protection.

Also Read: The Latest Statistics on Cyber Crime and Cybersecurity

What is defensive cybersecurity?

Defensive cybersecurity is crucial in strengthening an organization's security posture by preventing cyberattacks. It's akin to surrounding your home with a high wall that thieves will find hard to go over. So you do all that is possible within your means, including training employees and upgrading the systems constantly. You then sit back and hope that any form of attack will be blocked.

This approach focuses on actively guarding your systems against any attack. It's more or less a «blind» strategy where you do everything you can to constantly safeguard the network. You don't know the enemy's plans, not even whether the enemy is within or without. Common defensive security measures include firewalls, antivirus programs, VPNs, intrusion detection systems, encryption, strong passwords and multi-factor authentication. To further enhance your defensive cybersecurity strategy, understanding and implementing Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) is crucial. Explore our article «What is SIEM» for a comprehensive overview. Additionally, considering the best tools for this purpose is essential — our «Top SIEM Tools» article provides valuable insights into the leading solutions in the market.

Benefits of defensive cybersecurity

  • Improves business continuity and resilience: Defensive security measures can help organizations to continue operating after a security breach or attack, minimizing the cost of downtime and disruptions.
  • Reduces regulatory and compliance risks: Organizations can mitigate the risks of regulatory penalties and fines by implementing effective defensive cyber security measures that align with regulatory requirements.
  • Enhances brand protection and reputation: A robust cybersecurity defense can help to protect the organization's brand and reputation by mitigating the risks of data breaches and negative publicity.
  • Increases employee productivity: Defensive cybersecurity measures contribute to employee productivity by reducing the risk of employee exposure to cyber threats.
  • Decreases insurance costs: Many insurers offer discounts to organizations that have implemented plausible defensive cyber security measures. As a result, implementing such measures can lead to significant savings on cybersecurity insurance premiums.

What is offensive cybersecurity?

Offensive cybersecurity complements the defensive approach by proactively enhancing the organization's security posture. Offensive security focuses on proactively attacking networks to exploit vulnerabilities and gather intelligence. The offensive security approach seeks to identify vulnerabilities or cyberattack vectors that attackers can potentially use. The security team will test the network and generate insights that give the true picture of the organization's security status against cyberattacks. The most common offensive security technique that companies use within their internal networks is penetration testing.

Explore more on penetration testing:

In enhancing offensive cybersecurity, consider the role of Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR). For an overview of SOAR's impact and to explore top tools in this area, read our articles «What is SOAR» and «Top SOAR Tools».

There is also another emerging angle of offensive cybersecurity that entails seeking out the enemy and disabling their plans before they accomplish their attack mission.  

This latter technique of offensive approach where you go after the attacker is commonly referred to as attacking the attacker. Here, cybersecurity services companies or the internal security teams begin by using tricks like deception and subversion to gather information about identified or potential attackers. Once the security teams have sufficient information, they advance to the next levels that could entail methods like denial of service and fake exploits. This method is worth implementing albeit gradually as it’s become increasingly important as a tool for both nation states and organizations to gain an edge over attackers. Imagine if you were able to discover the plans of cyber criminals and disable them before they harm your organization. Remember, this is not about seeking to harm the would-be attacker, which is actually illegal. It’s simply an attempt to collapse the attackers’ plans or trick them into revealing their identities. Always consult your legal teams when deploying this method.

Benefits of offensive cybersecurity

  • Attackers get the message: Offensive cybersecurity strategies make it clear that you are prepared and willing to fight back. The attackers get the message that you will deal ruthlessly with any planned attacks on your systems.
  • Intelligence gathering: Gathering intelligence about your adversary and their methods is a step closer to stopping them. You're in a much better position to understand an attacker's tools, techniques, and procedures. You can see things from their perspective and learn how they operate.
  • Discourages future attacks: You're essentially showing your attacker that you're not an easy target. You're not just sitting back and waiting for them to harm your organization.
  • Information sharing with authorities: Your organization can share information with law enforcement and the intelligence community in a way that is mutually beneficial. When these entities have access to this kind of intel, they can better protect against attacks on the larger ecosystem that includes your business partners and customers.

Also Read: What is Red Teaming in Cybersecurity?

The clear difference between offensive and defensive cybersecurity

To best understand the difference between offensive and defensive cybersecurity, we simply focus on the meaning of the words offend and defense. To offend means attack, while defend means guard. So then, offensive strategies are purely about attacking your systems as well as those of the enemies where you can. By «attacking» your systems, you can discover hidden loopholes that the enemy can exploit. By attacking the enemy's systems, you «bring them down» and disorient their plans. Governments around the world use immense resources to track down and thwart planned attacks both online and offline. When they do this to target cyber criminals, then this is part of offensive cybersecurity.

Offensive vs defensive cybersecurity: Which approach companies deploy?

Companies should deploy both defensive and offensive cybersecurity strategies. Defensive strategies will protect the company’s networks against the most common risks. Offensive strategies will scatter advanced attacks that can easily bypass even your strongest defenses. 

From a big picture perspective, offensive outcomes can be used to strengthen the defensive strategy. Let's say you perform an attack on the company's systems and unearth alarming vulnerabilities that criminals can easily exploit. The insights from this offense can be used to expand your defenses so that they cover the newly exposed weaknesses. 

Think about it this way: if you only have a defensive strategy, you're always going to be playing catch-up. You're always going to be reacting to the latest threat. This will give the cyber criminals the opportunity to move miles ahead of you, so much so that soon your defenses will not block the latest and most advanced attacks. But if you have an offensive cybersecurity strategy too, you can be proactive in anticipating threats and taking steps to mitigate them before they cause damage.

Recommended reading: How to assess your company’s cybersecurity posture

Conclusion

You probably know that cybersecurity threats are becoming more and more sophisticated. What was once considered a problem for large businesses is now a concern for businesses of all sizes including new ones. Unfortunately, the defensive security approach that previously enjoyed «monopoly» status is no longer sufficient. It’s now a question of deploying both defensive and offensive strategies, with penetration testing being a key component of the latter, to optimize the overall security posture, rather than choosing one over the other. Regular penetration testing ensures that both strategies are continuously informed and updated to counter emerging cyber threats.

Offensive vs Defensive Cyber Security FAQ

What is defensive cybersecurity?

Defensive cybersecurity refers to practices implemented to protect systems and networks against cyber threats. It aims to prevent cyber attacks by fortifying digital infrastructure with measures like firewalls, antivirus programs, encryption, VPNs, and strong passwords. Its goal is to protect sensitive data and maintain business operations.

How does defensive cybersecurity benefit organizations?

Defensive cybersecurity enhances business continuity and resilience, reduces regulatory and compliance risks, safeguards brand reputation, boosts employee productivity, and decreases insurance costs. It helps organizations mitigate the impacts of cyber attacks, ensuring operations remain unhampered even when a threat is detected.

What is offensive cybersecurity?

Offensive cybersecurity involves proactive measures to identify potential vulnerabilities in an organization's network. Techniques like penetration testing are used to examine the system for weak spots that could be exploited by cybercriminals. It also involves tracking and undermining potential attackers before they can strike, providing valuable intelligence on their techniques.

What are the advantages of offensive cybersecurity?

Offensive cybersecurity provides intelligence on potential threats, shows attackers the organization is not an easy target, discourages future attacks, and fosters information sharing with law enforcement agencies. It enables an organization to be proactive, anticipating and mitigating threats before they cause damage.

How are defensive and offensive cybersecurity different?

While defensive cybersecurity is about protecting systems from incoming attacks, offensive cybersecurity is about actively seeking out potential threats and vulnerabilities. The former is a reactive strategy aimed at guarding the network, while the latter is a proactive approach focused on attack simulation and threat anticipation.

Should companies implement both defensive and offensive cybersecurity strategies?

Yes, it's advisable for organizations to utilize both defensive and offensive strategies for a comprehensive cybersecurity posture. The defensive approach guards against common threats while the offensive strategy uncovers potential vulnerabilities and anticipates advanced threats. Combined, they provide a robust cybersecurity framework that proactively mitigates risks and protects valuable assets.

How can offensive cybersecurity reinforce defensive strategies?

Insights from offensive cybersecurity, such as identifying vulnerabilities during penetration testing, can be used to strengthen defensive strategies. By uncovering these weak spots, defensive measures can be updated and fortified, covering potential areas of exploit and ensuring the system is protected against future advanced attacks.

 
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