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What is the difference between Red Teaming and a Pentest?


When an organization is faced with the task of selecting the most appropriate security assessment for their business, the options can seem intimidating. That being said, the concern is justified by the consistent rise in security breaches around the globe. In a necessary parallel, worldwide cybersecurity budgets are increasing too and expected to surpass $130 billion by 2022. To sustain the fight against threat actors, it is essential to employ only the best security assessment procedures.

As the cybersecurity landscape expands, the number of such methods is also on the rise. At some point in time, every organization will face the following consideration; penetration testing or red teaming? Quite often, organizations consider penetration testing and red teaming as the same thing, and while they have similarities, they are quite different in methodology and intent. This article will review some of the key differences between penetration testing and red teaming.

Penetration Testing

Standard penetration testing focuses on assessing networks, systems, web apps, mobile devices etc. in an effort to identify as many vulnerabilities as possible. Penetration testers, colloquially known as ethical hackers, approach every assessment with the same lens as would-be threat actors. As part of the procedure, they will seek to exploit and validate these vulnerabilities to assess the level of risk attached to them. (Low to Critical) Penetration tests look to identify issues such as:

  • Potential targets for threat actors in a given security system

  • How to exploit current security vulnerabilities

  • Business impacts of a given vulnerability

Pen testers typically set out to find and exploit known security issues. Beyond automated testing, pen testers will also validate identified vulnerabilities to ensure they are not merely false positives. With respect testing methodology, penetration testing firms vary quite significantly, this is why it’s critical to verify credentials and methodology prior to selecting a penetration testing firm. At Packetlabs, we value thoroughness; our pen testers take a comprehensive approach utilizing both automated and manual penetration testing to identify as many potential threats as possible, focusing on value.

When compared to red teaming, it is important to highlight that pen tests do not often focus on stealth or evasion, instead the organization and security team is typically aware of testing. The main benefit of this being, pen testers can put all of their focus on identifying as many vulnerabilities as possible, as little time would be spent in reconnaissance. This often results in much greater bang for the buck. At the conclusion of testing, pen-testers generate a report which identifies vulnerabilities, highlighting the level of severity and business impacts. As well, the penetration test report should demonstrate each successful attack, complete with examples, screenshots, methodology and remediation recommendations.

Red Teaming

Red Teaming, in contrast to penetration testing, is focused on target objectives. Rather than putting a priority on finding as many vulnerabilities as possible, a red team attempts to test how an organization’s security team responds to various threats. The Red Team will always focus on the objectives, seeking to gain access to sensitive information in stealth, avoiding detection.

Typically, a Red Team assessment will layout specific objectives and the process will involve a lot more people than a standard penetration test. In spending more time in reconnaissance and requiring more resources, Red Team assessments may result in more thorough comprehension of the level of risk that identified security vulnerabilities might pose to the organization.

Red Team Assessments look to:

  • Zero in on errors across people, places and technologies

  • Provide a more true-to-life overview of an organization, from an attacker’s perspective.

A main contrast to penetration testing is that Red Teaming places substantially more focus on remaining undiscovered by existing defense strategies. That said, an organization’s security team will often be unaware of the assessment, allowing the Red Team to assess their ability to react to various threats.

Red Teaming typically involves social engineering attacks, device planting, card cloning, tailgating etc. in an attempt to circumvent existing security measures, looking for ways to exploit each vulnerability along the way. Ideally, after a Red Teaming exercise, your organization should have gained sufficient insight as to their existing vulnerabilities, allowing them to prioritize future security improvements.

Compare and Contrast

Organizations across the world have relied on penetration testing as a primary security measure. However, as a result of time constraints, sometimes an approach with a more targeted perspective is appropriate. Red Teaming overcomes some of these limitations of penetration testing allowing a more realistic recreation of actual threat scenarios.

In some instances, the more realistic threat scenario of Red Teaming is a superior testing modality. Red Teaming places your organization’s security team as close to a real security incident as possible, accurately testing incident response. Penetration testers, on the other hand, are more geared towards identifying existing vulnerabilities, applying a more general or holistic approach to testing. This has the advantage of providing more bang for the buck, especially for an organization with less security maturity. Identification and validation of vulnerabilities provides a clear snapshot of the existing threats, identifying potential business impacts that may result from successful exploitation.


At the end of the day, neither penetration testing nor Red Teaming is superior. The choice, therefore, should be made specific to the information you wish to collect. Situationally, if it comes down to in-depth and detailed exploration, penetration testing may be the best option. However, if the incident response, across any vector, is the goal, Red Teaming takes the prize, without question.

If you would like to discuss whether Penetration Testing or Objective-based Penetration Testing is the best choice for your organization, or simply wish to learn more, please contact us!