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Penetration testing vs. red team: What's the difference?

Is penetration testing the same as red team engagement? There are similarities, but they're not the same. Understand the differences to improve your organization's cyberdefenses.

When it comes to running security assessments, organizations often treat penetration testing and red teaming as if they are the same thing -- but they're not. The first step to choosing the correct security assessment for your organization begins with understanding the differences of penetration testing vs. red team engagement.

What is penetration testing?

Pen testing is a process for testing a system, network, web application, facility or some other resource in order to find as many vulnerabilities and configuration issues as possible within the time allotted. Pen testers then exploit those vulnerabilities to determine the risk of the vulnerabilities.

Pen testers aren't seeking to discover new vulnerabilities -- zero days. They aim to find already known but unpatched system vulnerabilities.

During a typical pen test, pen testers aim to find a version of installed software that is known to be vulnerable and then exploit that vulnerability. This process continues: find other vulnerabilities and exploit them, combining the attacks in order to reach the end goal.

What is red teaming?

Red teaming shares many similarities with pen testing; however, the goals are different. Red teaming is more scenario-driven than pen testing. The goal of red team engagements is not just to test the environment and the systems within the environment, but to test the people and processes of the organization as well.

Typical red team scenarios include exploiting lost laptops, unauthorized devices connected to the internal network and compromised DMZ hosts, as well as testing how the security operations center (SOC) or blue team react to an advanced persistent threat. Will the SOC or blue team defenders notice when an employee is exfiltrating data from the network?

Red teams may also use scenario-driven testing for detection and response, like testing a business's ability to detect and manage external threats, like phishing campaigns, social engineering attempts, attempts to gain physical access to the site, website compromise assessments, protection software evasion, lateral movement across networks and many other attacks, depending on the complexity of an organization's systems.

Penetration testing vs. red team: Which do I need?

Choosing between pen testing and red team engagement all depends on what your organization's goals are. Is the goal to test systems and networks for known vulnerabilities, especially to determine if those vulnerabilities can be exploited? In that case, a pen test would be the best way to go. Is the goal to learn more about the security posture of your organization? Then, a red team engagement would be the way to go.

This was last published in September 2019

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