Penetration tests and red team exercises are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. Both have similar objectives, and both share some commonalities in terms of how those objectives are achieved.
However, they are not interchangeable — and organizations may find one approach better suits their needs, depending on a few variables.
To illuminate the differences between the two, let’s define how each one works.
Penetration Tests vs. Red Team Security Testing
Conventional white hat pen testing is a tried-and-true cybersecurity practice that aims to assess the vulnerability of computer networks, systems, apps etc. Testers mimic the mindset of attackers to find and exploit these vulnerabilities and establish the level of risk that exists to critical assets. A good pen test can help establish why and where you are vulnerable, how you might be exploited and the potential damage that could ensue.
Red team pen testing takes a more tailored approach to the same model. Red teams, comprised of security experts from inside the target organization or from a third-party security vendor, test how defenders respond to their attacks. Rather than employing a scattershot strategy aimed at uncovering maximum vulnerabilities, a red team often seeks a specific objective, moves quietly and tries to escape detection — much like a sophisticated Advanced Persistent Threat, in some cases.
Red team exercises are usually staged by larger companies with more mature security operations and they often require substantial investments in time, people and resources to complete. Many of these organizations choose to begin with conventional pen testing, eliminate found problems, then proceed to have an expert red team seek to breach the newly fortified defenses.
Red team attack scenarios may include remote phishing campaigns or onsite information gathering, such as collecting trash tossed away by the target company. Red teams can take their time, attack from a variety of angles and mimic the behavior of real adversaries to a high degree.
Both models have their place, and both work well together. Penetration tests cast a wide net and can be done reasonably efficiently, and red teaming can be very tactical in nature, allowing organizations to gain deep visibility into the true strength of their security postures.
However, there is one attribute both share that can be viewed as a drawback: Their highly manual nature.
The Benefits of an Automated Approach
Manual penetration testing is resource intensive. That goes double for red teaming, which can also be quite disruptive to business operations. Staging these exercises can take weeks and require substantial expenditures. Additionally, experts who do testing at a high level are always in demand.
Because of the cost and disruption of manual testing, organizations sometimes choose to work with a remote penetration tester or automated pen testing service. These options have another important benefit aside from cost-savings and minimal disruption: They can be run continuously.
Manual pen testing and red teaming are typically only staged every six or 12 months. Reports from these exercises often take weeks to land on the desks of the organizations that pay for the tests. This means that there is significant downtime between tests where it’s impossible to have full visibility into evolving vulnerabilities.
Automated penetration testing — such as that offered by XM Cyber’s Breach and Attack Simulation software — solves this problem. It provides the benefits of a red team that works continuously, vigilantly probing for vulnerabilities on a 24/7 basis. This means much deeper visibility at a lower cost, and ultimately, a stronger security posture.
Pen testing and red teaming are both highly effective tools when executed effectively. Yet both are inherently limited by their manual nature. By integrating XM Cyber’s BAS technology into your testing model, you can reduce your dependence on expensive manual testing — and take advantage of continuous threat protection.
Tamir Shriki is Customer Operations Manager at XM Cyber