What is Red Team Assessment? How is it different from Penetration Testing?

Today, organizations are more prone to Cyber security threats than ever before. With an increasing number of data theft and breach, organizations are required to build a stronger security system around their critical assets to protect against the growing cyber-attacks. In-spite of organizations investing millions of dollars in advanced security and monitoring systems, they are still not enough to combat the evolving threat landscape.

Moreover, most organizations simply plug in security monitoring systems believing it helps detect and prevent advance attackers. However, it is important to note that there is a need for effective detection solutions and alerting mechanisms combined with skilled security professionals to prevent an advanced level attack. 

Traditional Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing are limited by the scope and timeline. For a more holistic approach to gauge the real threat and tackle the traditional testing limitation, organizations need a comprehensive assessment like the Red Team Assessment. Depending on the information security requirement, an organization may need a different type of security testing to satisfy different objectives. Having said that, in today’s article we have discussed Red Team Assessment and highlighted the difference between the traditional Penetration Testing and Red Team Assessment. 

What is Red Team Assessment? 

Red Team Assessment is a process of conducting a multi-layered cyber-attack simulation on an organization to determine the effectiveness of their security program. The term “Red Team Assessment” is actually a technique by the armed forces where a designated team of their soldiers try and attack their own defenses such as a “basecamp”.

The success of the test is evaluated based on how much the attack team could penetrate, intelligence that it could gather and damage it could inflict before it is neutralized by the basecamp defenses. It is a test performed by a highly experienced security professional who execute cyber-attacks in an attempt to breach the organization’s cyber defense.

The scenario built is to simulate a real-attack and simply identify gaps and vulnerabilities in systems, networks, and their security processes. This helps to gauge whether or not the people, networks, applications, and physical security controls of an organization can detect, alert and respond to a genuine attack. It is a way to measure how well the organization can withstand an attack and recoup from the unexpected attack.

What does a Red Team Assessment include?

The Red Team Assessment involves leveraging a full range of automated tools and manual hack techniques to persistently simulate attacks on the organization. This is done through various attack surfaces including social engineering, physical attack vectors, phishing emails, and executing attempts of breach onsite on physical security controls to gain access to server rooms. The Red Team Assessment involves targeting three critical areas when running the test- 

Technology Defences :

The Assessment involves evaluating the technological defense established in the organization.  This will reveal the potential vulnerabilities and risks within hardware and software-based systems like networks, applications, routers, switches, and machines.

Physical Security :

Physical security of an organization is equally important for evaluation. So, security controls in the office premises, warehouses, datacentres, and buildings are tested against a genuine attack. This would include physical access to the security control, rooms, premises, and storage facilities where sensitive data is stored by an unauthorized person. 

Human Defence –

Humans have always been a soft target in most cybercrimes. Unfortunately, they are the weakest line of defense in any organization’s Cyber security strategy. The assessment involves targeting the employees or staff of the organization when simulating a real attack. This is to evaluate their awareness, preparedness, and response to situations when it occurs. Depending on the objective of the Red Team Assessment, independent contractors, third-party, and business partners may also be targeted to ensure there is no gap in the security. 

Red Team testing helps identify any loopholes or vulnerabilities in systems that provide an opportunity for attackers to gain unauthorized access and result in a data breach. More importantly, the test highlights the gap in the systems and processes pertaining to the detecting of vulnerabilities, responding capabilities of the staff, and the overall resilience of the organization to recoup from the incident. 

How is Red Team Assessment different from Penetration Test?

Penetration Test Red Team Assessment
Objective  Penetration Testing is more about identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities for achieving the predetermined goals  Red team assessment is more about testing the defense mechanism which includes testing security measures, detecting vulnerabilities, evaluating the response and resilience of the organization. 
Targets  The test targets Networks, Systems, and Web Applications.  The test targets 

Technology Defense which includes 

  • network, 
  • system, 
  • web applications

Physical Security Controls  which includes 

  • office premises,
  • warehouses
  • datacentres, 
  • buildings

Human Defense which includes- 

    • Employees
    • Temporary Staff
    • Contractual workers
    • Third-party vendors
  • Business Partners & Stakeholders 
Duration of Test  Penetration Tests take one to two weeks for assessing.  Red Team Assessment takes few weeks to even months depending on the assessment objective.  
Nature of Test  It is not a stealth operation.  It is more like a stealth operation. 
Assessment Technique  Penetration Test is a combination of Automated and Manual Testing.  Red Team Assessment is a human-driven, team of hackers testing systems, networks, and physical security controls. They may in certain instances use automated tools. 
Skills required  Trained Professionals  Highly Experienced and Advanced degree Professionals 
Reporting  Computer-generated reports verified by penetration testers  Detailed report with actionable remediation steps and verified intelligence analyzing business impact of all the findings. 

Red Team Assessment or Penetration Test- Which is an Ideal Security Test against Cyber Threats? 

Penetration testing is a traditional and most trusted security testing process adopted by most organizations. However, organizations looking for a comprehensive security test may require a Red Team Assessment for a more detailed security testing procedure. Red Team Assessments overcomes the limitations of traditional penetration testing, which is limited by its scope and time.

Red Team Assessment is an objective-oriented security test with a more specific perspective. They are a full-proof security testing process that simulates real-world threat scenarios by exposing serious attack surfaces. 

So, while the Penetration test is more inclined towards finding and exploiting known vulnerabilities, the Red Team Assessment is more focused on achieving specific security goals before the attacks are neutralised by the organization’s defenses.

It does not just highlight critical vulnerabilities, but also helps identify how effective their security defenses are and how much data will be lost / systems breached before the attack is neutralised. So, clearly in the battle between Penetration Tests and Red Team Assessments, it is the security testing objective that becomes the deciding factor for which is an ideal security test for your organization. 

You simply need to understand the nature of your business and its risk exposure, to decide which test best suits your business requirement. We would personally suggest you approach an experienced cyber-security consultant to help you decide on what is suitable for your business.

VISTA InfoSec is an international Cyber Security Consulting firm having the experience and expertise of performing Cyber Security tests. Our security professionals will guide you through the process and help you in performing the test and implementing best security practices. For more details, you can visit our website www.vistainfosec.com.

Narendra Sahoo
Narendra Sahoo

Narendra Sahoo (PCI QSA, PCI QPA, CISSP, CISA, and CRISC) is the Founder and Director of VISTA InfoSec, a global Information Security Consulting firm, based in the US, Singapore & India. Mr. Sahoo holds more than 25 years of experience in the IT Industry, with expertise in Information Risk Consulting, Assessment, & Compliance services. VISTA InfoSec specializes in Information Security audit, consulting and certification services which include GDPR, HIPAA, CCPA, NESA, MAS-TRM, PCI DSS Compliance & Audit, PCI PIN, SOC2 Compliance & Audit, PDPA, PDPB to name a few. The company has for years (since 2004) worked with organizations across the globe to address the Regulatory and Information Security challenges in their industry. VISTA InfoSec has been instrumental in helping top multinational companies achieve compliance and secure their IT infrastructure.