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

Penetration testing versus red teaming. We often hear them used interchangeably, but in fact they're two distinct things. So what exactly is the difference between the terms pen test vs. red team? In this article we'll explain, with the goal to help you learn more about which one might be the best fit for your organization.

In This Corner…Penetration Testing

Viewing your network, application, device, and/or physical security through the eyes of a bad actor, penetration testing discovers an organization's cybersecurity vulnerabilities. An experienced penetration tester can identify:

  • Where a hacker might target you
  • How they would attack
  • How your defenses would 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 too. While automated testing can identify some cybersecurity issues, true penetration testing manually considers the business's vulnerability to attack, as well.

In the complex cybersecurity landscape, penetration testing has become a must for most industries. In many, in fact, it's required by law. For instance:

Even businesses that might 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 out there, penetration testing keeps up with evolving technology.

After all, your IT team develops, maintains, and monitors your security program on a daily basis (or they should be!). No matter how well they do the job, though, they could benefit from an outsider's perspective via third-party testing.

Now let's turn our attention now to the other corner in the pen test versus red teaming match up…

The Reigning Champ, Red Teaming


Penetration testing sets out to find as many vulnerabilities and configuration issues as it can, 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 they can. In this analogy, red teamers would be more like ninjas, stealthily planning multi-faceted, controlled, focused attacks.

Red team operations have narrowed objectives and a simultaneous approach. 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.

Red teaming is typically employed by organizations with more mature or sophisticated security postures (but that isn't necessarily always 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

A Red Teamer's Workout

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 gain a deeper understanding of infrastructure, facilities, and employees to better 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 to actually exploit those weaknesses and compromise servers/apps/networks or bypass 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 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 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.

Let RedTeam Security put the gloves on to take on any challengers in your cybersecurity ring. Get an offensive security quote in minutes by clicking the button below. We look forward to speaking with you.

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If you're interested in application penetration testing, you may find this article helpful when formulating your responses: Understanding Application Complexity For Penetration Testing.

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