When discussing cybersecurity, “penetration testing” and “red teaming” are two terms that are often used interchangeably but are two entirely separate concepts. If you are considering implementing additional cybersecurity protocols within your organization, it’s essential to understand the unique role and function of each of these processes and how they can benefit your organization.
In this post, we will discuss the definitions of each term, how they differ, and how to determine which test is best for you.
What is penetration testing?
Penetration testing, also known as “pen-testing,” is a systematic assessment process used to uncover vulnerabilities or threats within a specific network. Penetration testing is very methodical, with a clearly defined scope to focus on a specific, targeted aspect of an organization’s IT system.
Different types of penetration testing
Because penetration testing targets a single aspect of an IT system, there are several types of penetration tests that an organization can choose to run. These tests can be used to examine potential vulnerabilities or risks in new systems or software before deployment or assess systems that are already in place and operational.
Different types of penetration tests include:
Internal network test
This test type is designed to expose potential risks that would be present once a threat actor has gained access to an organization’s internal systems. In most cases, a tester performing an internal network test would be given some level of authorized access to begin the test. Internal network tests are useful for detecting insider threats from partners, contractors, or employees.
External network tests
Conversely, an external network test is designed to detect internet-facing vulnerabilities within a business by examining risks related to servers, firewalls, hosts, and other network-connected devices. External network tests do not require the tester to have authorized access to the system and are ideal for assessing threats posed by individuals from outside of the organization.
Wireless network tests
Wireless network tests evaluate the potential vulnerabilities of an organization’s Wi-Fi network. This may include attempting to evade WLAN protocols, discovering encryption weaknesses, or uncovering authorized users’ identities and credentials to access secured networks.
Web application tests
When performing web application tests, penetration testers focus on insecure elements in the design, publishing, and coding of a website or software application. These tests will seek to identify flaws in a database’s security, the configuration of web browsers, or the risk of cross-site scripting (XSS), among other things.
Phishing exercises evaluate cybersecurity from an entirely different angle: the risk inherent from authorized users even if they do not have malicious intent. Phishing exercises use social engineering and “lures” the evaluate users’ cybersecurity hygiene and resistance to divulging sensitive information.
What is Red Teaming?
Red Teaming is an exercise which emulates real world tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) employed by threat actors to validate security controls with a focus on people, process, and technology. Red Teaming exercises are utilized by organizations with mature cybersecurity hygiene and advanced security controls.
What’s the difference between penetration testing and red teaming?
While red teaming and penetration testing are similar, they are not identical. To further clarify how penetration testing and red teaming vary, it is helpful to consider penetration testing as a subset of procedures that can be used as part of a comprehensive red team evaluation and is often used when a system-wide assessment is not required. Both types of tests are valuable and have their unique values and benefits.
Intent of test
There are several elements to consider when differentiating between penetration testing and red teaming. Two of the most useful aspects are “reach” and “access”:
- “Reach” refers to the scope of the evaluation. This is one of the primary differences between penetration testing and red teaming. Where red teaming encompasses the entire system as a holistic unit, penetration testing focuses on a specific aspect, isolated at a distinct point in time.
- “Access” refers to the approval required by the tester to conduct the evaluation. For penetration testing, access to the system may or may not be required and is specified in the scope of work prior to an assessment taking place. On the other hand, red teaming generally starts from ground zero with no access to best replicate the experience of a criminal hacker.
Penetration testing vs. red teaming: Which is right for you?
When deciding which assessment type is the best fit for your organization, here are a few things to consider:
Frequency of tests
Penetration testing is often much quicker to complete and can be conducted on a set schedule. In contrast, red teaming varies in time to complete and may be completed over a much longer timeframe.
Time and cost efficiency
Has your organization conducted any other threat assessments? Do you need a comprehensive evaluation or just a test for a new system or software? Red teaming is a better fit when assessing top-to-bottom security systems but would not be time- or cost-effective to vet a single application or element.
Whether you are considering conducting evaluations internally or hiring an external expert, penetration testing and red teaming requires different skill sets, and knowing what outcome is desired should help guide the choice of who conducts the assessment. Red teaming requires deep technical expertise, awareness, and ability to emulate real world threat actor TTPs not only focused on technical security controls but people and processes. Penetration testing requires profound and specific knowledge of one particular area of concern to thoroughly vet that system or aspect for any potential weaknesses.
Cybersecurity testing with SecurityScorecard
Both test types can provide value to an organization. Ideally, both should be used as part of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. For organizations looking to implement their own testing protocols, SecurityScorecard offers active security services, including penetration testing, incident response exercises, tabletop exercises, and red teaming to help simplify and systematize the myriad of cybersecurity testing options available today. Our experts can validate existing security measures and uncover potential threats that place your business at risk to ensure compliance, security, and peace of mind.
Interested in learning more? Contact us today to receive more information on our redacted reports and methodologies to save your business from potential vulnerabilities and future cyber threats.