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Penetration Testing Vs. Red Teaming: What to Choose in 2021?

In the recent past, there has been an exponential rise in security breaches all over the globe. In 2020, cyber-attacks affected millions, and this digital pandemic turned out to be a major challenge for organizations. The sophisticated nature of security threats, highly motivated cybercriminals and rising frequency of such cases indicate that the security incident trends will continue in 2021. 

As cybersecurity landscape evolves, organizations have the opportunity to use the latest security strategies and methodologies to prevent or respond to a breach successfully. Defense against such security offense is now possible through the right technology. Therefore, depending on the organization’s information security program and security objectives, different security testing types can be utilised to fight against the threat actors.

In case your organization is aiming to level up cybersecurity to protect data, you would have come across the terms Penetration Testing and Red Teaming. Periodic testing using best security assessment techniques like Penetration Testing and Red Teaming can help you develop a robust information security program for your organization. These techniques are capable of turning your security posture from reactive to proactive. 

In the cybersecurity industry, both terms are used interchangeably, and therefore the differences aren’t quite obvious. But in reality, they are different in approach and intent. This leads to many questions like – Which assessment technique is better? What are the advantages and disadvantages? And which is most suited for my organization? 

Therefore, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of both the techniques so that you can decide which is best for your organization and its security needs in 2021. 

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is aimed at finding configuration issues and vulnerabilities by assessing network, system, infrastructure, web application, device or any other source. The testers look through the eyes of threat actors and find out the risk level of the organization. It helps in determining the level of access an attacker might gain. 

A penetration tester further identifies important security characteristics like where can the hacker target you easily, how they would execute the cyberattack and the extent of the breach and its consequences. More importantly, it will expose the strength of your defence strategy and preparedness. 

In penetration testing, more focus is given on technical vulnerabilities. The testers often discover already known but unpatched security issues rather than new vulnerabilities. Another aspect of penetration testing is that the defence team or IT experts of the organization are normally aware that testing is taking place. 

It is important to know that traditional penetration testing is done manually by professionals, and it has time and scope constraints. But it is preferred over automated testing as it covers a wide range of potential threats. 

In the end, an assessment report is shared with the organization. It consists of all the details about risk levels, threats, loopholes in the security system and vulnerabilities and how it was exploited by experts. 

Who should choose Penetration Testing?

Every business should choose penetration testing as it is critical to protect your data from cyber attacks. It is a fundamental security necessity for small and medium businesses as well. Healthcare sector, financial institutions, payment industry and critical infrastructure businesses are at a greater risk of the security breach and data loss. Penetration testing is a must for these industries. 

Also, to meet regulatory standards and compliance in different countries, periodic testing and vulnerability scans have become imperative. Moreover, whenever your environment changes, you must conduct a penetration test. IT team of any industry vary of unknown security threats should partner with penetration testers.

Red Teaming

Red teaming in recent times is seen as an advanced form of penetration testing. The main goal of red teaming is to test how the existing IT or security team of an organization would respond when they try to breach. 

Also, it is a broader assessment technique where more time and resources are utilized. It is done to analyse the security vulnerabilities of an organization. Specific objectives like extracting financial information from systems are set just like a threat actor would do. 

The important characteristic of red teaming is discovering errors pertaining to hardware, software, and human resource. Moreover, a more realistic overview of the existing security measure is possible. It involves identifying security vulnerabilities and fixing them as well.

One of the key features of red teaming is that these projects are executed in stealth mode without keeping the security team in the loop. Additionally, red teaming goes a step further and exploit the vulnerabilities and configuration issues and determine risk levels deeply. 

This technique involves reconnaissance taking all kind of information related to people, the technology used, security environment and select commercial tools to conduct the cyber attack. It includes customized malicious programs, RFID cloners, Trojan files for the hardware and fraudulent personas and businesses. 

It helps in exposing weak defensive strategies and methodologies of an organization. Furthermore, a detailed report containing important insights, remedies, patches are shared with the organization to fix the issues. 

Who should choose Red Teaming?

Large organizations with sophisticated security controls in place and good security posture can choose red teaming. However, you must consider if you have already undertaken multiple penetration tests and have done proper assessment. Also, if you want to analyse how good is your defence strategy in case of a real-world attack, go for red-teaming.

Penetration Testing Vs. Red Teaming: Few Differences

  • Penetration Testing takes an average of 3-4 weeks of engagement whereas Red Teaming needs more than 3 months.
  • Reporting timelines can extend up to 1 week for penetration testing, and it takes 1 month for red teaming.
  • The penetration testing report would contain technical aspects and software vulnerabilities. In the case of red teaming, the report would consist of specific software vulnerabilities, tactical and strategic report about business processes as well. 
  • After breach succeeds, testing stops on compromise while conducting penetration testing whereas further attacks are launched with red teaming.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to declare which test is better as they are useful for organizations in different ways and specific scenarios. Depending on your business needs and security level, you can make the best choice. 

Again, if you want to test network systems and infrastructure for existing or known vulnerabilities, penetration testing will help in understanding if those can be exploited by hackers. Otherwise, if your business aims to test the security posture, how susceptible is the human resource to phishing or want to examine physical security controls, opt for red teaming. 

 You can always partner with cybersecurity experts who can guide you and assist you in choosing the best assessment technique in 2021. 


This article is republished with permission from Cyber Arch. Cyber Arch are security experts with diverse and updated knowledge on Information Security. The original article can be found here:

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