My current research is a quick clarification paper about penetration testing, which obviously will include a discussion about red teams. I noticed during my research that there are a few general items that are generally used to differentiate between red teams and regular penetration testing. They are:
- Objective: Some will say penetration tests are for finding vulnerabilities, while red team exercises are to test defense and response capabilities. I tend to disagree with this view, as I believe vulnerability assessments should be used if the primary goal is to find vulnerabilities, and I’ve seen (and had been part of) many pentests performed with the intent of testing defenses.
- Scope and restrictions: Others will mention that pentests have well defined scopes, while red teams can “do anything”. I also disagree with this notion, as I’ve seen some quite unrestricted pentests and even red team exercises have some direction on focus and the methods to be used. The red team, on its continuing operation (more on this later, hold on), may have no restrictions or narrow scope, but each exercise is usually defined by a scope and objective.
- Point in time vs. continuing operation: Pentests are just point in time exercises, while red teams are continuous and run different exercises. Ok. Now I think we have something.
From those 3 points, I think only the third, the continuous operation, is a defining factor for a red team. The other two, IMO, can be seen as specific ways to run a pentest, or even just “high quality pentest”.
A red team should be a continuous operation to keep the blue team on its toes. With continuous operations the red team can pick opportunities and scenarios that best fit the threat landscape of the organization at each moment and also work together with the blue team to force it into a continuous improvement mode. This also answers a common question about when to implement a red team: continuous improvement is often a defining factor of the highest maturity level in any maturity scale. So, it makes sense to assemble a red team (a continuous one, not a single “red team exercise”, which is just another pentest) when you already on a reasonably high maturity and wants to move into the continuous improvement territory.
So, anyone out there strongly disagrees with this definition? If so, why?
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