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Published on February 17th, 2023 📆 | 8192 Views ⚑


Penetration testing and red teaming: The differences and reasons why both are important to your busi


Choosing the right method can seem intimidating especially as your attack surface landscape expands. Penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking, white-hat hacking, or pen testing, is one important form of security assessment that tests people, process, and technology to find security vulnerabilities that a potential attacker could exploit. Red teaming is a more targeted approach that provides a “no-holds-barred” approach to testing. Let’s look at both methods and explore why each is important to your business to secure your environments.

Penetration Testing

Standard penetration testing focuses on assessing defined networks, systems, web apps, mobile devices, etc., to identify as many vulnerabilities as possible. Pen testers approach every assessment with the same lens as a threat actor. As part of this process, pen testers will seek to identify and exploit vulnerabilities they discover to assess the level of risk attached to a client environment. Penetration tests look to identify issues such as:

  • Potential attack vectors for threat actors
  • Exploitation and impact of vulnerabilities
  • Overall risk to the client environment(s)

Pen testers should be thorough and take a comprehensive approach utilizing both automated and manual penetration testing to identify as many potential threats as possible and eliminate false positives.

When compared to red teaming, it is important to highlight that pen tests do not often focus on stealth or evasion, and instead the organization and security team is typically aware of testing. The main benefit of this is that pen testers can put all their focus on identifying as many vulnerabilities as possible. At the conclusion of testing, pen testers generate a report that includes an executive summary of the engagement, testing methodologies, attack narratives, identified vulnerabilities, and remediation recommendations.

Red Teaming

Red teaming differs in comparison to penetration testing and is focused on target-based objectives. Rather than placing a priority of finding vulnerabilities, a red team attempts to approach the engagement from a perspective of a real-world attack to evaluate how an organization’s security team would respond to various threats. The red team will always focus on the objectives, seeking to gain access to systems and sensitive information while avoiding detection.

Typically, a red team assessment will lay out specific objectives and the process will involve more people than a standard penetration test. More time is spent on reconnaissance, requiring more resources, and red team assessments may result in a more thorough comprehension of the level of risk that identified security vulnerabilities might pose.

Red team assessments seek to:

  • Identify weaknesses across people, processes, and technologies
  • Provide a real-world perspective of the Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) and other attackers
  • Deliver an “outside” overview of an organization’s environment and actual real weaknesses

Unlike pen testing, red teaming places substantially more focus on remaining undiscovered by existing defense strategies and an organization’s security team is often unaware of the assessment, allowing the red team to assess their response and strength of procedures in place to respond to various threats. Other times an organization may decide to “loop in” their security teams to do a coordinated assessment of attack vs. detect and defend. These kinds of engagements can be relatively useful to mature an organization’s cybersecurity program.

Red teaming can involve a variety of attack vectors, including social engineering attacks, physical device planting, access card cloning, tailgating, spear phishing, and more, in an attempt to circumvent existing security measures to establish a foothold and move laterally across the attack surface to exploit vulnerabilities. After a red team exercise, your organization should gain greater insight into the effectiveness of your security controls and program, allowing security teams to prioritize future security improvements.

Why Pen Testing and Red Teaming?

Organizations across the globe have relied on penetration testing as a primary security measure. Penetration testing typically is timebound and a more targeted approach. Red teaming overcomes some of the limitations of penetration testing to allow for a more comprehensive and realistic overview of actual threat scenarios.

In some instances, the more realistic threat scenario of red teaming may be a superior testing modality as it places your security team closest to a real-world attack and accurately evaluates incident response procedures. Penetration tests, on the other hand, are more focused on identifying existing vulnerabilities, and applying a more general approach to testing. But combining penetration testing and red teaming provides an integrated, more holistic approach, and clearer picture of existing threats to the attack surface and the potential impact from a successful attack.

In Summary

When you compare, both penetration testing and red teaming have their purposes. The choice is based on what information you want to collect and whether in-depth, detailed exploration is needed in which case penetration testing may be the best option. If your organization’s goals are to understand the potential for a real-world attack across any system or environment and to assess if your incident response is sufficient, red teaming certainly is the choice you are seeking. However, both methods should work together to provide greater insight into how to strengthen your organization’s security posture.

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