Penetration Testing RedTeaming

5 Aspects to differentiate between Penetration Testing & Red Teaming 

In the evolving realm of cybersecurity, organizations have developed various techniques to evaluate and fortify their digital defenses. Among these techniques, Penetration Testing and red teaming are two commonly employed approaches. While both serve the overarching goal of enhancing security, they differ significantly in methodology, scope, and objectives. This article explores the distinctions between the two covering 5 different aspects. 

Definition and Core Objectives

Let’s have a look at the differences between both techniques:  

Penetration Testing, often referred to as a “pen test”, is a systematic process where a security expert intentionally probes an organization’s IT infrastructure to find vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious actors. The core objective is to identify vulnerabilities, understand their implications, and provide actionable recommendations for remediation. A pen test is usually announced, so that no defensive resources are used extensively, and ordered via a system owner, IT department lead or CIO in smaller organizations.  

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In contrary, Red Teaming is a more comprehensive and adversarial approach, simulating real-world cyberattacks on an organization to test its overall defense capability. Thus, it is usually ordered by the C-level and not announced to any parts of the organization, not even IT. It is usually conducted by a group of ethical hackers, the so-called red team, who are trying to exploit any means necessary – physical, digital, or social – to breach a company’s defenses, usually referred to as the blue team. The primary goal is not just to find vulnerabilities but to understand how real-world threats would affect an organization and thus test that organization’s readiness.  

Scope and Depth

A pen test is typically narrower in scope, focusing on specific targets such as web applications, networks, or physical security. The scope is predefined, and the tester or team follows a structured approach, often using a checklist of known vulnerabilities. Being narrower, the focus is usually to identify whether an organization is protected against certain vulnerabilities. 

Red team exercises are broader in scope and less predictable. The general purpose is to test the detection and response capabilities of an organization, which is where the Blue Team of the organization comes into play. The red team mimics real-world attackers, meaning they decide on the fly what tactics, techniques, and procedures to employ to reach pre-defined objectives. The latter have a looser definition compared to pen tests and are often objectives like “infiltrate the backup system and place a code snippet” or “infiltrate the ERP system and exfiltrate data”. In general, the holistic approach can encompass everything from phishing attempts on employees to gather credentials as basis for lateral movement to physically sneaking into buildings. 

Duration and Frequency

Pen tests are generally shorter in duration, often taking a few days to several weeks. Organizations might conduct them periodically, often annually, or after significant changes in their IT infrastructure or systems. Some industries may even require regular pen tests to adhere to certain laws or regulations.  

Due to its comprehensive nature, red teaming can last up to several months. It’s less frequent than penetration testing, given its extensive and often resource-intensive nature. The longer duration has two reasons: First, the red team wants to stay unnoticed, if possible, which gets harder the faster they have to move within the infrastructure and carry out attacks. A good rule of thumb is to calculate the duration with 1.5x or 2x the planned person days of the red team. Second, in order to simulate a real-world attack as good as possible, it is beneficial to cover a broader reach of objectives and attacks. This means that the red team might have to start with acquiring credentials via social engineering or physical breach in order to infiltrate an employee’s notebook, so that hey can then attack the backup system based on these credentials.  

Reporting and Outcomes

The outcome of a pen test is a detailed report outlining the vulnerabilities discovered, their severity, potential implications, and recommendations for patching them. 

The red team provides a more narrative-driven report, describing the attack journey (also called kill-chain) – how they entered, what tactics they used, and the sequence of their actions (so-called attack path). This report offers insights into potential threat actor behaviors and organizational responses. Additionally, it should include a mapping to a common language framework like MITRE and recommendations how to defend against such attacks in future. These recommendations cover technical, organizational, physical and processual measures. 

Mindset and Approach

Pen testers adopt a problem-solving mindset. They seek out weaknesses using a set of predefined tools and methodologies and work within the established parameters. 

Red teamers assume an adversarial mindset. They think and act like genuine attackers, exploring every potential avenue of attack, no matter how unconventional. 

Conclusion

While both penetration testing and red teaming play pivotal roles in an organization’s cybersecurity strategy, they serve different purposes and offer varied insights. Penetration testing provides a focused, in-depth analysis of specific vulnerabilities, while red teaming offers a holistic view of an organization’s defense and response capabilities against real-world threats. 

For organizations, the choice between the two (or the decision to employ both) hinges on their unique security needs, risk profile, and the maturity of their security posture. By understanding the intricacies of each approach, organizations can better tailor their cybersecurity efforts to their specific requirements and ensure a robust defensive stance in today’s digital age. 

Bosch CyberCompare can support you in evaluating the right approach for your organization. This might be supported by our diagnostics service, which helps to define the cybersecurity maturity grade of your organization. In addition, CyberCompare can conduct a tender to find the right provider for your needs. If you want to get further information, compare providers or discuss both techniques, please contact us at cybercompare@de.bosch.com.  

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