Security Research & Web Development

CyberForce 2022 Red Teaming Retrospective

Published on

Last fall I participated in the Department of Energy's CyberForce 2022 Competition as a red team volunteer. Right off the bat it was an excellent experience, and one I intend to repeat next year, armed with more knowledge to contribute to the competition prep process.

When I signed up for this competition as a volunteer I had just barely two months worth of heavy studying in cybersecurity. Fortunately the start of my studies happened to coincide with TryHackMe releasing a Red Teaming path, which I jumped on—partly for the giveaway competition that THM released alongside of it, but also because I felt like that was a good fit for the direction I wanted to move in, long-term, in cybersecurity. Admittedly jumping straight from refreshing IT fundamentals into red teaming material was a challenge, but considering this Cyberforce competition coming up, it was helpful to get my bearings and stress test my Linux knowledge with all the red team labs before game day.

I didn’t know what to expect from the competition when I signed up either. I had some minor exposure to traditional CTF competitions through a local BSides CTF one the month prior to this competition, plus solving a few of the easier challenges from the Hack the Boo event that Hack the Box was running last October. But Cyberforce turned out to be a drastically different type of competition.

Unlike a typical CTF, this competition where there are a set of challenges across a handful of categories, this part of Cyberforce has a more linear structure, aiming to simulate a series of scenarios that the competitors have to work their way through. I’m not at all familiar with the collegiate cyber competition scene, but if you are: Cyberforce is similar to how the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) is structured). But as this is sponsored by the Department of Energy they added an additional element: Industrial Control Systems (ICS) attack & defense.

What I liked about the competition

I don’t want to spend too much time describing the structure of the event, if you’re curious the about it the DoE maintains a page that’ll fill in the gaps (it’s also where sign-ups should go live later this year for the 2023 event in November). What I do want to mention are the areas I thought were unique and/or valuable, both as a red team volunteer and I hope also for the competing blue teams.

First, this competition evolves each year. The 2022 event I took part in was setup with each blue team having their own cloud infrastructure, and the rules included that several of the machines were to be designated “assumed breach” and couldn’t be hardened, only enumerated. Why does that matter? The scoring system rated each team based on their ability to find specific artifacts in the logs from the intrusion, and to cohesively report their findings based on those indicators. That meant as a red teamer here my goal wasn’t to find a way in, but instead to successfully execute a specific attack chain that the blue team was to be scored on, receive their report, and assign them a score based on its quality.

The other aspect of this scoring was that after each scenario the blue team received a guided walkthrough of the scenario execution, aimed specifically at helping them find the gaps where they may have missed something. I hope that helping the blue team out in this way facilitated deeper learning, I know on my end it was valuable. I had to figure out what/where they missed artifact(s) and translate what I did as an attacker into a suggestion for where or how to find the necessary evidence. I was certainly grateful for having studied some incident response fundamentals before the event, as it would have been much more difficult to facilitate the blue team’s learning without understanding the basics of logging, EDR, IDS/IPS systems, etc.

Takeaways from the red teaming volunteer experience

As for the red teaming itself, well, I can’t get into details of what was done all that much here, but I enjoyed all the practice in the days leading up to the event, and the event itself. I think the red team leaders found the sweet spot between accessibility to diverse skill levels for the volunteers and giving the blue teams a realistic simulation of actual attacks.

While I wouldn’t consider this an experience that gave me a full sense of how a red team engagement works in practice—there was no way to have enough time in a single day to do proper recon and enumeration and try to find a foothold for one team, let alone dozens—it did give me a better hands-on feel for the tactics that differentiate red teaming from pen testing: lateral movement, pivoting, persistence, and post-exploitation (among others). As the ICS aspect was designed to be central all our attacks targeted those systems and/or their interfaces in some way, which put a fine point on why those critical systems should be air gapped. Also we got to rick roll both the blue and green teams. 😈

I would say that much of what I learned was in the smaller details of how to conduct red team exercises and improvements to how I used and managed the process within the Linux VM. There are two things I’d like to highlight from what I learned:

  1. pushd and popd are useful Linux utilities I hadn’t heard of before, and proved useful in running operations in specific directories without having to bounce around directories with cd at all.
  2. Autovnet: was the star tool that I have to mention. It was fantastic for the realistic simulation aspect of the competition, allowing the dozens of red teamers, all handling different blue teams, to work without collision and use independent C2 infrastructure and IPs.

Wrapping up

CyberForce was a great experience and I'm looking forward to doing it again in 2023. Hopefully I’ll be able to contribute earlier in the process to refine the attack chains and test my knowledge of building them, even if just a little bit.

If you're curious about red teaming it's a good place to get some rare exposure to the process, even if in a very condensed format, making it an easy yes to give it a shot for newbies. For experienced red teamers: if you have the time to help in the R&D phase of building attacks it can be particularly worthwhile if you have some ideas to test out. If Windows and Active Directory are your jam, definitely consider contributing for 2023, there’s an active call for more of those methods to be used in the coming competitions.

Worst case if you’re a bit short on time and can’t commit to extended contribution the Saturday of the competition was fun, if at times chaotic, on its own.