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Red Team Engagement vs Penetration Test vs Vulnerability Assessment


A threat-based approach to security testing may use several names; Red Teaming, Threat Operations, Threat Assessment, Purple Teaming, Adversarial Assessment, Penetration Testing, Vulnerability Testing. These are not all the same, and it is important that the security industry defines terms to establish a common understanding. To help with this, all threat-based security testing in this post will be referred to as Red Teaming.

Definition: Red Teaming is the process of using tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to emulate a real-world threat with the goals of training and measuring the effectiveness of people, processes, and technology used to defend an environment.

In other words, red teaming is the process of emulating a threat using realistic techniques with the goal of training blue teams and/or measuring security operations as a whole.

Red teaming can provide a deep understand of the negative impacts an intelligent threat-actor can have against a target.

Red Teaming in Perspective to Organizational Risk

Security testing of any sort is ultimately about managing organization risk to threats.

Using an inverse pyramid, we can illustrate the relationships between Red Teaming, Penetration Testing, and Vulnerability Assessments. This will help further define what Red Teaming IS and IS NOT.

  • Vulnerability assessments tend to be wide in coverage but narrow in scope. Consider a vulnerability assessment of all enterprise workstations. The scope is very wide, but not very deep in context of organizational risks. What can be said about risk when flaws are found? Organizational risk can only be understood at the workstation level? Overall risk to an organization may be extrapolated to a small degree, but generally stays at that workstation level. Vulnerability assessments are good at reducing the attack surface but do not provide direct information in terms of organizational risk.
  • Penetrations tests take vulnerability assessments to the next level by exploiting and proving out attack paths. Penetration tests can often look and feel like a red team engagement and even use some of the same tools or techniques. The key difference lies in the goals and intent. The goal of a penetration test is to execute an attack against a target system to identify and measure risks associated with the exploitation of a target’s attack surface. Organizational risks can be indirectly measured and are typically extrapolated from some technical attack. What about the people and processes? This is where red teaming fits.
  • Red Team Engagements are scenario based engagements driven by specific threat goals. Red teaming focuses on security operations as a whole and includes people, processes, and technology. Red teaming specifically focuses on goals related to training blue teams or measuring how security operations can impact a threat’s ability to operate. Technical flaws are secondary to understanding how the threat was able to impact an organization’s operations or how security operations was able to impact a threat’s ability to operate.

Bottom Line

Vulnerability assessment and Penetration tests are a means to identify technical flaws with the ultimate goal of reducing a targets attack surface.

Red teaming is a goal driven scenario used to train or measure blue. Red teaming goals lie in understanding security operations as a whole. people, processes, and technology.


Threat Gets a Vote - Applying a threat-based approach to security testing