Penetration Testing Vs Red Teaming: What's the Difference?

Cyber Defence Team
May 11, 2020


In today’s digital age, we all use a vast amount of information to conduct our business activities, sharing, and interacting with data across multiple devices and networks. As such confidentiality, integrity and availability are key. You only have to look at recent news headlines to realise that even organisations with comprehensive security strategies are still vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches. Vulnerabilities can lie within the technology being used, the cyber-awareness of its employees, and the sophistication of attacks.

Not only do organisations need to protect their intellectual property, but they also need to protect their customers and adhere to regulatory standards. Security professionals aim to manage the risk and deliver systems with acceptable assurance by implementing technological and organisational security measures, but they need to regularly verify that it is working. This is where security assurance services come into play. Penetration testing and red teaming assess an organisation’s defences against confidentiality, authentication, and integrity to give businesses confidence that the security measures they’ve put in place are delivering.

Infotrust Security Practice Director, Saaim Khan, outlines the key differences between the two approaches and how a business would decide between penetration testing and red teaming.


There is a lot of confusion between penetration testing and red teaming. At first glance, they can seem extremely similar. Both aim to find vulnerabilities in an organisation’s security systems. Every business is at risk of someone stealing sensitive data, taking over its network, installing malware, or disrupting services. While the security team maintains and monitors the situation, they can always do with an outside perspective. Both forms of security assurance service offer this, aiming to find as many vulnerabilities and configuration issues as they can and then exploiting them to determine risk levels.

However, there are also some key differences between penetration testing and red teaming from the scope to the work that is carried out:

  • Penetration testing – while penetration testing came first and was initially a limitless attempt to breach defences, as it became more mainstream, it became commoditised. Today’s pen tests no longer test the entire system but aim at defined targets such as web applications, networks, or systems. While more than one pen test can be executed, they ultimately test systems independently. As they are aimed at target systems, they don’t test the entire business. Pen tests are more controlled, shorter, use commercial tools, and are carried out with the knowledge of the organisation and its employees.
  • Red teaming – given its name due to its adversarial approach, red teaming focuses on using strategies to encourage an outsider perspective and simulate a real-life situation. Red teaming considers the full ecosystem, meaning that, instead of uncovering vulnerabilities in one system, it aims to find out how a determined cyber attacker would gain access. The approach uses multiple attack vectors simultaneously, is done without the knowledge of the organisation’s employees, and takes longer as testers aim to avoid detection. As red teaming involves more people, resources, and time, it enables testers to dig deeper to fully understand the realistic levels of risk against technology, people, and physical assets.


While penetration testing can take an organisation so far, validating whether controls are protecting key assets, it doesn’t truly simulate a real-world attack. Penetration testing is ideal for spot checks; however, they don’t inform businesses as to whether an attacker could compromise a user’s credentials, escalate network privileges, and gain control.

Red teaming is typically employed by companies with more mature security postures. Penetration testing will have allowed them to find and patch vulnerabilities. However, the next step is discovering if someone can still access sensitive information or breach defences when using multiple simultaneous approaches.

Red teaming helps organisations truly test their defences by:

  • Identifying physical, hardware, software, and human vulnerabilities.
  • Obtaining a more realistic understanding of business risk.
  • Gaining a fresh perspective, overcoming cognitive errors and group thinking to build an objective view of security.
  • Reviewing the organisation’s ability to not only protect its sensitive data but to detect and respond to an advanced attack.
  • Delivering a report on how to fix, patch, remediate, and train to reduce the chance of a successful real-life attack.


Both penetration testing and red teaming play an important role in a business’ overall security testing program. The trick, of course, is knowing when and where to use them.

If your organisation is looking to achieve a holistic understanding of how your people, systems, and protocols would fair under a realistic cyber-attack, then we would advise you to consider Red Teaming.

To find out more about which security assurance service is right for you, get in touch with the Infotrust team today.