With the constant expansion of the cybersecurity landscape, cybercrime is on the rise as well. Soon, business owners will not need anyone to remind them how a yearly penetration test must be a compulsory exercise. Whether you have performed one or a few penetration tests before and are now seeking to raise the ante, you may be bewildered by another kind of test you’ve overheard: the red team assessment or simply red teaming. Both techniques assist in keeping your business off the radar of cyber threats and hackers. Penetration testing and red team assessment are sometimes considered as the same thing but are absolutely different. While penetration testing, also referred to as pentest, focuses on checking networks, applications, systems, smart devices et al. in a bid to detect as many flaws as possible, red team assessment focuses on testing how the company’s security team reacts to the flaws. In simple words, the goal of penetration testing is to detect as many vulnerabilities as possible whereas the goal of red team assessment is to determine the ability/power of an organization to detect and respond to vulnerabilities.  

Penetration testing 

Penetration testers, informally referred to as ethical threat actors, seek to exploit the vulnerabilities and determine the extent of risk they pose to the system/network. They address the assessment with similar lenses as would-be hackers. They identify issues like potential targets for hackers in a certain security system and the prospective impacts of these vulnerabilities. Besides, they validate the detected flaws to certify they aren’t false positives. In general, little time is spent executing a standard penetration test.  

Red team assessment 

Rather than prioritizing the detection of vulnerabilities in a security system, red teaming focuses on target objectives or the preparedness of an organization’s infosec team to respond (counter) cyber threats. Typically, a red teaming exercise lays out specific objectives, consumes more time, and more people are involved compared with a standard penetration test. 

So, what are the main differences between penetration testing and red team assessment: 

Difference 1: attack vectors 

Pentests are bucketed into various groups wherein the majority of the organization’s pentests are driven for a single or pair of areas per engagement. For example, the company may decide to conduct a social engineering penetration test and an external penetration test at the same time. Here, there is a specific area of focus, and penetration testers have a slim scope that allows them to focus on particular attack vectors. On the other hand, the red teaming often has absolute freedom over the pathways and techniques they apply to breach your network. They can use whatever methods they can to infiltrate your system: from wireless exploits to physically burgling your premises and making away with your private data. The only way to deny them is to choose your attack vectors to avoid infringement of your privacy. 

Difference 2: resources 

Since red teaming offers infosec pundits more freedom and a broader scope, more resources are required to perform these security tests than are required to perform penetration tests. Typically, more testers, technologies, and time are brought in red team operations. 

Difference 3: time 

There is substantial variation in the time committed to penetration tests vs red team operations. Since pentest are focused on particular kinds of engagements with set scopes, a standard pentest lasts between two to three weeks. Red team operations go much more in-depth, whereas a standard red team project can last between three to six weeks, or longer depending on the size of the organization or the complexity of the system. 

Difference 4: Detection 

Whereas the main objective of a pentest is to detect as many faults as possible in the shortest time possible, sometimes it may tend to be “noisy”. For example, when the security team runs a social engineering pentest and realizes they received malicious email attachments, and reports these to their boss. On the contrary, red teaming operations seek stealthy ways to stay undetected and glean as much information as possible when escalating through the organization’s network. They are focused on private and sensitive information and spend more time acquiring it. This way, why perform their job silently to remain unnoticed.

When to use Penetration testing or Red Team Assessment 

Penetration testers seek to detect application layer faults, network flaws, and system-level defects. Whereas automated pentests can detect some cybersecurity shortcomings, true penetration tests consider manual identification of potential vulnerabilities. In a complex cybersecurity environment, pentests have become compulsory for various industries such as healthcare organizations, financial institutions, and businesses handling, processing payment cards. On the other hand, red teaming is typically used by businesses with mature or complex security postures. These organizations, having completed pentests and patched most of the vulnerabilities, seek for security experts to access sensitive information, gather information, and gain a deeper understanding of the organization’s infrastructure to know the target. Ultimately, the red teaming the experts craft tailored malicious file payloads or any sort of weaponization to secure the organization from attacks.