Kirk Hayes

Penetration Test vs. Red Team Assessment: The Age Old Debate of Pirates vs. Ninjas Continues

Blog Post created by Kirk Hayes Employee on Jun 16, 2016

In a fight between pirates and ninjas, who would win? I know what you are thinking. “What in the world does this have to do with security?” Read on to find out but first, make a choice: Pirates or Ninjas?


Before making that choice, we must know what the strengths and weaknesses are for each:








Brute-Force Attack

Drunk (Some say this could be a strength too)

Great at Plundering

Can be Careless

Long-Range Combat







No Armor



Dedicated to Training


Hand-to-Hand/Sword Combat





It comes down to which is more useful in different situations. If you are looking for treasure that is buried on an island and may run into the Queen's Navy, you probably do not want ninjas. If you are trying to assassinate someone, then pirates are probably not the right choice.


The same is true when it comes to Penetration Testing and Red Team Assessments. Both have strengths and weaknesses and are more suited to specific circumstances. To get the most value, first determine what your goals are, then decide which best corresponds with those goals.


Penetration Testing


Penetration testing is usually rolled into one big umbrella with all security assessments. A lot of people do not understand the differences between a Penetration Test, a Vulnerability Assessment, and a Red Team Assessment, so they call them all Penetration Testing. However, this is a misconception. While they may have similar components, each one is different and should be used in different contexts.


At its core, real Penetration Testing is testing to find as many vulnerabilities and configuration issues as possible in the time allotted, and exploiting those vulnerabilities to determine the risk of the vulnerability. This does not necessarily mean uncovering new vulnerabilities (zero days), it's more often looking for known, unpatched vulnerabilities. Just like Vulnerability Assessments, Penetration Testing is designed to find vulnerabilities and assess to ensure they are not false positives. However, Penetration Testing goes further, as the tester attempts to exploit a vulnerability. This can be done numerous ways and, once a vulnerability is exploited, a good tester will not stop. They will continue to find and exploit other vulnerabilities, chaining attacks together, to reach their goal. Each organization is different, so this goal may change, but usually includes access to Personally Identifiable Information (PII), Protected Health Information (PHI), and trade secrets. Sometimes this requires Domain Administrator access; often it does not or Domain Administrator is not enough.


Who needs a penetration test? Some governing authorities require it, such as SOX and HIPAA, but organizations already performing regular security audits internally, and implementing security training and monitoring, are likely ready for a penetration test.


Red Team Assessment


A Red Team Assessment is similar to a penetration test in many ways but is more targeted. The goal of the Red Team Assessment is NOT to find as many vulnerabilities as possible. The goal is to test the organization’s detection and response capabilities. The red team will try to get in and access sensitive information in any way possible, as quietly as possible. The Red Team Assessment emulates a malicious actor targeting attacks and looking to avoid detection, similar to an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT). (Ugh! I said it…) Red Team Assessments are also normally longer in duration than Penetration Tests. A Penetration Test often takes place over 1-2 weeks, whereas a Red Team Assessment could be over 3-4 weeks or longer, and often consists of multiple people.


A Red Team Assessment does not look for multiple vulnerabilities but for those vulnerabilities that will achieve their goals. The goals are often the same as the Penetration Test. Methods used during a Red Team Assessment include Social Engineering (Physical and Electronic), Wireless, External, and more. A Red Team Assessment is NOT for everyone though and should be performed by organizations with mature security programs. These are organizations that often have penetration tests done, have patched most vulnerabilities, and have generally positive penetration test results.


The Red Team Assessment might consist of the following:


A member of the Red Team poses as a Fed-Ex delivery driver and accesses the building. Once inside, the Team member plants a device on the network for easy remote access. This device tunnels out using a common port allowed outbound, such as port 80, 443, or 53 (HTTP, HTTPS, or DNS), and establishes a command and control (C2) channel to the Red Team’s servers. Another Team member picks up the C2 channel and pivots around the network, possibly using insecure printers or other devices that will take the sights off the device placed. The Team members then pivot around the network until they reach their goal, taking their time to avoid detection.


This is just one of innumerable methods a Red Team may operate but is a good example of some tests we have performed.




So... Pirates or Ninjas?


Back to pirates vs. ninjas. If you guessed that Penetration Testers are pirates and Red Teams are ninjas, you are correct. Is one better than the other? Often Penetration Testers and Red Teams are the same people, using different methods and techniques for different assessments. The true answer in Penetration Test vs. Red Team is just like pirates vs. ninjas; one is not necessarily better than the other. Each is useful in certain situations. You would not want to use pirates to perform stealth operations and you would not want to use ninjas to sail the seas looking for treasure. Similarly, you would not want to use a Penetration Test to judge how well your incident response is and you would not want to perform a Red Team assessment to discover vulnerabilities.