Thought Leadership

Feb 19, 2021

What is Breach and Attack Simulation? The Power of Automated Security Control Validation

What is breach and attack simulation? At a high level, security teams employ this approach to execute simulated attacks against their environment in order to uncover vulnerabilities, so they can be addressed—before a cyber attacker successfully exploits them. In this blog post, we offer an introduction to breach and attack simulation, including why it’s needed, how it’s used, and the benefits it can provide.

Introduction: The Security Control Validation Imperative

For leaders in enterprises and government agencies, cybersecurity represents a key priority and a never-ending concern. To combat the threats posed by cyber attackers, security teams in these organizations have continued to implement and enhance a range of controls. However, even after massive investments have been made and tools have been deployed, the job’s not done. It’s vital that teams continuously validate their security controls to ensure they’re providing the defenses required.

Alternatives for Security Control Validation

Over the years, teams have pursued a number of approaches for security control validation. However, by and large, these approaches came with limitations, requiring significant time and expense, while offering limited coverage. Following is an overview of some of these alternatives and their limitations:

Penetration Testing

  • Description. Penetration testing, also known as pentesting, is the process of evaluating the security of an environment by attempting to exploit weaknesses that may exist. Ultimately, the outputs of pentesting are reports that offer details on tests run, vulnerabilities discovered, and risks posed by the vulnerabilities. Based on the intelligence gathered, internal teams can prioritize the fixes needed, and start to take on remediation efforts.
  • Limitations. Pentesting is reliant upon the relative skills and expertise of the people who conduct these efforts. This means that the scope, quality, efficacy, and results of pentesting can vary substantially. This can make it difficult to compare the results of different tests and track progress. Further, the manual nature of these tests means they can be costly, time-consuming, and error-prone. Finally, these assessments are typically conducted intermittently, often annually, or semi-annually, which means teams only gain point-in-time insights. Learn more about pen testing here.

Red Teams

  • Description. Some organizations employ red-team approaches. This approach requires the establishment of internal teams, referred to as “red teams,” who work together to simulate a team of cyber attackers. These teams take an offensive approach, seeking to pursue vulnerabilities and conduct attacks.
  • Limitations. Typically, the types of experts that are needed to staff effective red teams are in short supply and demand high salaries. In fact, according to one report, four million cybersecurity jobs are expected to go unfilled this year. These realities make the prospect of building a new red team a costly and daunting one. Consequently, red teams are typically only found in the largest, most well-funded, and mature enterprises.

Vulnerability Scanning

  • Description. Vulnerability scanners inspect existing systems in order to uncover potential vectors of attack. These systems scan devices and apply intelligence on known vulnerabilities in order to uncover gaps that may exist. Once scans have been completed, these systems can create an inventory of elements scanned and vulnerabilities detected.
  • Limitations. Vulnerability management systems typically don’t incorporate much in the way of context, such as the likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited or the risks associated with an identified exposure. Consequently, the output of these systems can be a lot of “noise,” uncovering a lot of issues that may, or may not, actually represent real security risks. By surfacing a high volume of issues, these systems can create a huge backlog of tasks for overworked security teams, while offering minimal insight to guide prioritization.

White Hat or Ethical Hacking

  • Description. The phrase “white hat” is used to distinguish between those who are seeking to help find security weaknesses and mitigate them and the black hat hackers who are actively looking to wage attacks for their own nefarious purposes. White hat hackers use their skills to help protect against attacks. White hat hackers work to proactively find security weaknesses in order to fix them before they can be exploited by attacks.
  • Limitations. Similar to red team approaches, white hat hacking is fundamentally reliant upon the skills, focus, dedication, and approaches of the individual white hat hacker assigned to do the work. The manual, individual nature of white hat hacking can leave businesses exposed to inconsistency and unpredictability at best, and errors, oversights, and omissions at worst. Learn more about white hat hackers here.

How Validating Security Controls with Breach and Attack Simulation Can Help

Breach and attack simulation offers a programmatic way to achieve security control validation, enabling teams to bypass the limitations of the types of approaches outlined above.
Breach and attack simulation technologies build upon the talent and expertise of white hat hackers, security analysts, and other experts. These systems automate cyber attack simulation and cyber threat analysis techniques. Rather than relying on an individual or small team to do cyber threat analysis on an annual basis, these hacking simulators execute thousands of proven attack techniques at scale, continuously and automatically.
In this way, enterprises can now be as relentless as real attackers, to truly find the “unknown unknowns” in their security architecture.
Unlike traditional attack techniques, breach and attack simulation can also be 100% safe for production environments. The best solutions only run attack simulations on and between simulators, and never put sensitive data at risk. This way, even the most sensitive production networks can have security validated continuously to stay ahead of real attackers.

Breach and Attack Simulation: Solutions

Breach and attack simulation can assist with a range of efforts in an enterprise. Here are just a few of the ways organizations are using breach and attack simulation today:

  • Security Control Validation. On a recurring basis, new vulnerabilities and breaches occur and make big headlines. During those times, executives and security teams want to be able to ascertain whether their organization is vulnerable to the types of attacks that have been discovered. Recent cyber attacks associated with the SolarWinds exploit are a relatively recent example of this. Via breach and attack simulation, teams can assess the effectiveness of their existing controls and determine whether they’re exposed.

  • Threat Assessment. Cyber attackers’ tools, strategies, and techniques are constantly evolving. So too are the technology ecosystems that have to be secured. With breach and attack simulation, teams can proactively, continuously wage attacks that simulate the latest attacker techniques. As a result, teams can objectively and thoroughly assess their posture, identify threats, and establish a plan to address those gaps.

  • Mock Scenario Training. Today, it’s critical to train internal security teams so they’re prepared to identify gaps and respond effectively when threats arise. Historically, teams had to rely on verbal, so-called “table top” exercises where staff would work through hypothetical scenarios and how they’d respond. With breach and attack simulation, teams can run simulated attacks that effectively mirror the tactics of cyber attackers, giving staff a much more realistic experience to guide training.

  • Mergers and Acquisitions Due Diligence. Before, during, and after two companies go through a process of merging, it’s vital to gain an understanding of the threats in play. With breach and attack simulation, teams can exhaustively assess a new organization’s security posture, even in the case of large enterprises with thousands of systems. In this way, teams can make more informed decisions and plans, and better mitigate risks throughout the merger process.


To keep pace with rapidly evolving threats and IT ecosystems, security teams can’t continue to rely solely on manual, costly, labor-intensive efforts like pentesting, vulnerability scanning, and the like. Fundamentally, these types of manual, one-and-done techniques will not enable teams to validate their controls and gain the insights needed to establish continuous security. It is for these reasons that the use of an advanced breach and attack simulation platform is emerging as such a vital mandate.

Additional reading:

Top Five Critical Capabilities of a Breach and Attack Simulation Platform

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