Everything You Need to Know About Contrasting Red Teaming With Penetration Testing

by Anne B. Robinson

By many accounts, the phrase “red team” dates back to the Cold War, when the color red symbolized the Soviet Union in the West. The military still employs red teams today, with their activities now reaching as far as cyberspace, but the practice has also found widespread usage in private-sector organizations. Businesses in this space provide a variety of red team services that are sometimes analogous to penetration testing and even vulnerability assessments; the services are often categorized in a way that benefits marketing.

The purpose of red teams is to hunt out actual threats, conduct simulated cyberattacks to test the efficacy of an organization’s defenses, and report back to the security team. It’s true that red teaming and penetration testing have many similarities, yet their respective ends are distinct.

PenTesting: What Is It?

With the consent of the company being tested, the penetration testing services company will conduct security testing on the IT Infrastructure (Applications, Networks, Hosts, etc.). Both the Pen Testing Service Provider and the Client agree upon the specifics of the work to be performed during a penetration test.

With an emphasis on exploiting vulnerabilities, Penetration Testing verifies the security measures and flaws in the target infrastructure by using attack methods. The same procedures may be used for penetration testing against any target. At the same time, the security mechanisms may vary (for instance, pen testing a web application will require OWASP security weakness validation).

The goal of a penetration test is to identify security flaws in an organization’s infrastructure, detailing the dangers posed by those flaws, and conclude with sound advice for closing them.

Red teaming vs. penetration testing: what’s the difference?

When a company does a Penetration test, it grants a group of ethical hackers complete access to its information technology infrastructure (hosts, apps, networks, etc.) and gives them the responsibility of evaluating the level of security it offers.

The blue team of an organization is told in advance about the activities of the penetration test, and while the pen testers are working on the assets that are being analyzed, the blue team maintains a tight check on the pen-testers. Due to the fact that the blue team is familiar with the penetration test, they maintain constant vigilance over the pen-testers. Therefore, the blue team is ready to protect themselves.

A red team goes one step further than social engineering by adding an unexpected twist to its scheme. When red teaming, the blue team is kept in the dark about everything that is happening, in contrast to when penetration testing is performed. Conducting a cyberattack without informing the blue team of its existence is primarily done with the intention of testing the organization’s capacity to identify and react appropriately to cyber threats in the real world. The blue squad has no knowledge the red team is approaching. Hence their presence will most likely be seen as an invasion by the blue side.

In summary

A red-team assessment is comparable to a penetration test but is conducted with more narrowly defined objectives in mind. The capabilities of an organization’s threat detection and incident response systems are put to the test during a red team exercise. This is the primary objective of the exercise.

An aggressive red team will utilize all available means to get into the target systems, obtain access to important data, and then hide their tracks before moving on to the next target. This exercise is used to test the effectiveness of the organization’s defenses and report back to the security team, thereby optimizing the security of the company’s network.

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