Penetration Testing Vs. Red Teaming: What’s the Difference?

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Penetration Testing and Red Teaming. We often hear the two service terms used interchangeably, but they are two different things with distinct differences. So what exactly is the difference between the terms pen test vs. red team? This article will help you learn which one of these offensive security solutions is the best fit for your organization. 

What is the Difference between Penetration Testing and Red Teaming? 

Penetration testing seeks to find as many vulnerabilities and configuration issues as possible, exploit them, and determine risk levels. One entertaining way to look at it is that the pen testers are pirates — ready to rampage and pillage wherever and whenever possible. In this analogy, red teamers would be more like ninjas, stealthily planning multi-faceted, controlled, focused attacks. 

Understanding Penetration Testing 

Penetration testing involves viewing your network, applications, devices, and physical security through the eyes of a bad actor. A penetration test aims to discover an organization’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities.  

An experienced penetration tester can identify the following:  

  • Where a hacker might target you
  • How would they attack
  • How would your defenses fare
  • The possible magnitude of the breach

Penetration testing seeks to identify application layer flaws, network and system-level flaws, and opportunities to compromise physical security barriers. While automated testing can identify some cybersecurity issues, true penetration testing demands deep-dive manual testing to consider the business’s vulnerability to attack fully. 

In the complex cybersecurity landscape, penetration testing has become essential for most industries; in many, it’s required by law. For instance: 

HIPAA Security Compliance 
Health organizations ensure healthcare data security under HIPAA compliance. 

FDIC Security Compliance 
Financial institutions perform penetration testing for FDIC compliance

PCI-DSS Security Compliance 
Businesses accepting or processing payment cards must comply with Payment Card Industry standards

Critical infrastructure entities must follow guidelines outlined by NERC

Even businesses that think they don’t have any valuable information to protect could be at risk of someone trying to take over the network, install malware, disrupt services, and more. With so many bad actors, penetration testing keeps up with evolving technology. 

After all, your IT team develops, maintains, and monitors your security program daily (or they should!). However, no matter how well they do the job, they could benefit from an outsider’s perspective via third-party testing.

Understanding Red Teaming as a Service 

Red team operations have narrowed objectives and a simultaneous approach. As a result, they often involve more people, resources, and time as they dig deep to fully understand the realistic level of risk and vulnerabilities against an organization’s technology, human, and physical assets. 

Lock picking

Red teaming is typically employed by organizations with more mature or sophisticated security postures (but that is only sometimes the case). Having already done penetration testing and patched most vulnerabilities, they’re now looking for someone to come in and try again to access sensitive information or breach the defenses — in any way they can, from many different angles. 

This opens the door to a team of security experts focused on a particular target, preying on internal vulnerabilities by using physical and electronic social engineering approaches on the organization’s people and exploiting physical weaknesses to gain access to the premises. 

Red teamers take their time, wanting to avoid detection (just as the cybercriminal would). Our own Full Force Red Team assessment is a comprehensive attack simulation carried out by our highly trained security consultants to: 

  • Identify physical, hardware, software, and human vulnerabilities. 
  • Obtain a more realistic understanding of risk for your organization. 
  • Help address and fix all identified security weaknesses. 

What Happens During a Red Teaming Engagement? 

Red team assessments begin with reconnaissance to collect as much information as possible about the target to learn about the people, technology, and environment to build and acquire the right tools for the engagement. Using Open-Source Intelligence Gathering, Red teamers can better understand infrastructure, facilities, and employees to understand the target and its operations. This further enables weaponization, such as crafting custom malicious file payloads, prepping RFID cloners, configuring hardware Trojans, or creating falsified personas/companies. 

As part of the execution, Red teamers will carry out actions on the target, such as face-to-face social engineering or planting hardware Trojans, while noting any opportunities for exploitation. The next stage is exploiting those weaknesses and compromising servers/apps/networks or bypassing physical controls to prepare for escalation. 

In the installation phase, Red teamers establish a beachhead by taking advantage of the exploitation step. Perhaps with compromised servers or malicious file payload installation or using physical key impressions and lock-picked doors, the operation seeks to gain command and control. Once remote access to exploited systems is stable and reliable, the stage is set for the actual actions on the objective, such as the exfiltration of critically sensitive data, information, or physical assets. 

The good thing is that when this happens as part of a Red Team assessment, your organization also gains the necessary insight from the accompanying report and the support of security experts to fix, patch, remediate, train, and whatever else you might need to do to ensure the same opportunities don’t exist again. 

Get a customized, no-obligation offensive security quote by clicking the button below. We look forward to speaking with you! 

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