What is the difference between a penetration test and a red team exercise? The common understanding is that a red team exercise is a pen-test on steroids, but what does that mean?
While both programs are performed by ethical hackers, whether they are in-house residents or contracted externally, the difference runs deeper.
In a nutshell, a pen-test is performed to discover exploitable vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that would potentially serve unethical hackers. They primarily test the effectiveness of security controls and employee security awareness.
The purpose of a red team exercise, in addition to discovering exploitable vulnerabilities, is to exercise the operational effectiveness of the security team, the blue team. A red team exercise challenges the blue team’s capabilities and supporting technology to detect, respond, and recover from a breach. The objective is to improve their incident management and response procedures.
The challenge with pen-testing and red team exercises is that they are relatively high-resource intensive. A pen test can run for 1 to 3 weeks and a red team exercise for 4 to 8 weeks and are typically performed annually, if at all.