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  • Writer's pictureBennett Warner

Penetration Testing vs. Red Teaming: Understanding the Differences

Information security has become a critical concern for businesses in today's digital world. Two commonly used methods to assess an organization's security posture are penetration testing and red teaming. At RISCPoint, we often get asked about the differences between these two approaches and their significance in maintaining a robust cybersecurity strategy. In this blog post, we will dive into the nuances of these two methodologies.


What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, or "pentesting", is a systematic process of probing an organization's IT infrastructure or applications for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by potential attackers. This process typically involves identifying the weak points in an organization's systems, attempting to exploit these vulnerabilities, and then reporting the findings back to the organization. The goal of penetration testing is to uncover any gaps in security before they can be exploited by malicious actors.


Some key characteristics of penetration testing:

  • Focuses on finding technical vulnerabilities like software bugs, system misconfigurations, etc.

  • Usually limited in scope and time.

  • Tests known assets and systems.


What is Red Teaming?

On the other hand, red teaming is a more comprehensive and realistic approach to assessing an organization's overall security. Red team exercises aim to simulate real-world attacks on an organization's mission and business functions. Unlike penetration testing, which is primarily lab-based and focuses on technology-based vulnerabilities, red teaming employs both technology-based and social engineering-based attacks.


Technology-based attacks include interactions with hardware, software, or firmware components. Social engineering-based attacks may involve interactions via email, telephone, shoulder surfing, or personal conversations. The objective of red teaming is to provide a comprehensive assessment of an organization's security and privacy posture under conditions that reflect real-world threats.


Some key characteristics of red teaming:

  • Focuses on emulating the tactics and techniques of real-world attackers.

  • Ongoing activity to test defenses over time.

  • Aims to compromise systems through any means, known and unknown.

  • May involve social engineering and physical intrusions beyond just digital attacks.


Penetration Testing vs. Red Teaming: Key Differences

While both penetration testing and red teaming aim to assess an organization's security, there are key differences in the scope, approach, and objectives of these methodologies.


Penetration testing typically has a narrower focus and is aimed at finding technical vulnerabilities in an organization's systems. It is often performed in a controlled environment and may not fully account for the diverse range of attacks that a real-world adversary could employ.


Conversely, red teaming takes a broader, more holistic approach. It not only tests an organization's technical defenses but also probes its human and procedural elements, simulating the diverse tactics that real-world adversaries might use. Red team exercises, therefore, provide a more comprehensive assessment of an organization's ability to withstand an actual attack.


To illustrate the difference, let's consider an example of a financial services company, “Example Company”, that wishes to evaluate its security posture.


Penetration Testing:

Example Company hires a team of security consultants to perform a penetration test. The team's mission is to identify and exploit technical vulnerabilities in the company's web applications, networks, and systems.


The penetration testers start by scanning Example Company's network for vulnerabilities. They discover a server that is running outdated software and exploit this vulnerability to gain unauthorized access. They then attempt to escalate their privileges and access sensitive data.


At the end of the test, the pen testers prepare a detailed report outlining the vulnerabilities they identified, the steps they took to exploit them, and recommendations for how to address these vulnerabilities. The primary focus of this exercise was to discover and exploit technical vulnerabilities in a controlled environment.


Red Teaming:

Now, let's consider the same company, Example Company, but this time they employ a red team to evaluate their security posture.


The red team starts by gathering information about the company and its employees. They use this information to launch a spear-phishing campaign, sending emails to the employees that appear to come from a trusted source. A few employees fall for the scam and unwittingly provide their login credentials.

Meanwhile, another member of the red team is testing the physical security of the company. One team member tailgates an employee into the building and gains access to an unattended workstation.


The red team exercises also include technology-based attacks similar to those conducted during the penetration test, but the scope is broader, looking more to replicate threat actors, rather than solely focusing on vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. The red team is assessing the company's overall security posture, including both its technical defenses and its human and procedural elements.


At the end of the exercise, the red team provides a detailed report on all the vulnerabilities they exploited, including both the technical and social engineering aspects. The report also includes recommendations for improving security awareness among employees, enhancing physical security, and addressing the technical vulnerabilities discovered.


In conclusion, while penetration testing is primarily focused on identifying and exploiting technical vulnerabilities, red teaming provides a comprehensive evaluation of an organization's overall security posture, simulating the diverse tactics that real-world adversaries might use.


FedRAMP Revision 5: New Requirements for Red Teaming

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) recently released its Revision 5, which includes new requirements for red teaming in addition to the already present penetration testing requirement. According to the revised guidelines, organizations are now required to employ red team exercises that simulate attempts by adversaries to compromise the security and privacy posture of organizational systems.


These exercises should be conducted in accordance with applicable rules of engagement and are expected to provide a comprehensive assessment of an organization's security and privacy posture. The results from these exercises should be used to improve security and privacy awareness, training, and control effectiveness.


This new mandate highlights the importance of red teaming as a critical component of an organization's cybersecurity strategy and underscores the need for organizations to have a more realistic, comprehensive understanding of their security posture.


Stay tuned for a future blog post, where we dive into what these new FedRAMP Revision 5 Red Team requirements mean for your organization.


Conclusion

Both penetration testing and red teaming play crucial roles in maintaining a robust cybersecurity posture. While penetration testing helps identify technical vulnerabilities, red teaming provides a comprehensive assessment of an organization's security and privacy posture, reflecting real-world conditions. With the new FedRAMP requirements mandating red team exercises, it's clear that a comprehensive, realistic approach to security assessment is becoming more important than ever.


About RISCPoint

If you are looking to bolster your organization’s security or achieve compliance, RISCPoint has advanced services tailored to your needs. Our certified cyber security professionals have successfully supported companies across a wide range of industries and sizes, from Fortune 10 to pre-Series A startups. To learn more, visit riscpoint.com/contact or call 1-888-320-1327.

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