Penetration testing and red teaming are two approaches to evaluating the security of an organization's systems, networks, and defenses. While both techniques can provide valuable insights into the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of a company's defenses, there are some key differences between the two approaches.
The term “red team assessment” originated in the military. It described the concept of acting as an adversary to test force-readiness. In terms of cybersecurity, a red team assessment does the same; it tests an organization’s readiness to defend against a cyber-attack. A red team assessment is a stealthy and strategic act to gain access to a targeted system in the most efficient way possible. It is conducted by a team of skilled professionals working together to exploit a vulnerability in the specifically target area and to test your organization’s readiness and response to the simulated attack.
Conversely, a penetration test is looking to exploit as many vulnerabilities as possible. A pen test results is a full report of the vulnerabilities and the risks associated with those vulnerabilities. The report will detail how the systems were exploited, or penetrated, and provide reproduction steps for the attack.
One key difference between penetration testing and red teaming is the scope of the evaluation. Penetration testing typically focuses on specific systems or networks, while red teaming takes a more comprehensive view, looking at all aspects of an organization's defenses. This broader scope allows red teaming to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may not be apparent through a narrow focus on technical defenses and while they will both find ways to breach your cybersecurity, only a red team assessment will test your organization’s defense and readiness to remedy the simulated cyber-attack.
To determine which test is right for your company, you will need to understand what you want to accomplish and why you are running the test in the first place.
The goal of a penetration test is to find as many vulnerabilities in your already establishing cybersecurity protocols and exploit them. You will get a detailed report, outlining the vulnerabilities and how the breaches occurred. It will not test your organization’s response.
The goal of a red team assessment is more targeted. They are used to not only look for and exploit vulnerabilities but to determine your team’s response to security issues as well as their ability to anticipate cyber threats and potential attack points.
Penetration tests are typically quicker while red team assessments are more thought out and strategic. A pen test is usually set up for a certain period of time and may take a week or two while a red team assessment is open ended and will last until the objective is obtained, which can take a month or more.
A penetration test is broader in a sense that it will not stop at one vulnerability but will continue to find and exploit all system vulnerabilities. It results in a detailed report on how the vulnerabilities were found and ways to fix them. Penetration testing is typically focused on identifying vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the organization's technical defenses. Red teaming, on the other hand, takes a more comprehensive view, looking at all aspects of the organization's defenses, including technical, physical, and human. This allows red teaming to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may not be apparent through a narrow focus on technical defenses.
A red team assessment is more calculated. The team works together to attempt to breach a specific target while also assessing how the organization responds. Tactics will be modified as the internal organization team defends against the attack. It is a thorough and lengthy assessment.
In summary, penetration testing and red teaming are two approaches to evaluating the security of an organization's systems, networks, and defenses. Penetration testing focuses on identifying vulnerabilities and weaknesses in specific systems or networks, while red teaming takes a more comprehensive view, looking at all aspects of an organization's defenses. Both techniques can provide valuable insights into the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of a company's defenses, but the scope, level of realism, and focus of the evaluations differ. The right approach for your organization will depend on your specific needs and goals.
It all depends on your organization’s goals. Do you want to find as many vulnerabilities in your current cybersecurity program? Then you will want to run a penetration test. If you want to find the weaknesses in your IT team’s response to a cyber-attack, then a red team assessment will help you figure that out.
It is also important to note that penetration tests are required to maintain compliance in some industries. HIPAA and PCI require yearly penetration tests, but red team assessments are not required.
Red team assessments are also typically more time intensive, and therefore, more expensive. As such, they are not suitable for every organization. However, you should consider conducting red team assessments if your existing security program is mature, if you have an established penetration testing program that typically yields positive outcomes, and/or if you have an effective and well-organized vulnerability management program.