July 9, 2024

Redefining cyber security: Evolving from penetration testing to Red Team

In the ever-evolving cyber security landscape, staying ahead of cyber threats is paramount for many organisations of all sizes.

Traditional methods like Vulnerability Assessments and penetration testing have long been the cornerstone of security assessment, but as cyber threats become more sophisticated, a more dynamic approach is necessary. Enter Red Teaming - a strategy beyond traditional testing that simulates real-world attacks and evaluates an organisation's full defensive capabilities.

Seamus O’Reilly, CCL’s Technical Director, cyber services, explores the evolution from penetration testing to Red Teaming, demonstrating how adopting these advanced techniques can enhance your cyber security defences and ensure a robust, proactive security posture.

Understanding penetration testing

Penetration testing, often called "pen testing," is a proactive cyber security assessment where skilled testers use the same tools and techniques as malicious hackers to perform measured attacks on a system, network, or application to identify vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. Here’s a closer look at its core components:

  • Objective: The primary goal of penetration testing is to identify security weaknesses in an organisation’s infrastructure. However, this is a point-in-time assessment. New updates and system patches can introduce new vulnerabilities, making a penetration test reflective of the network state only at the time of testing.
  • Scope: Penetration tests are typically scoped to focus on network security, web applications, or internal systems. Proper scoping is foundational to ensure the process is structured and aligned with the organisation’s security objectives, setting boundaries and objectives for the engagement.
  • Techniques: Penetration testing employs a wide array of techniques to simulate real-world attacks. These techniques assist in detecting vulnerabilities and identifying security misconfigurations within the scope of the pen test.
  • Report | Outcome: The result is a detailed report with an executive summary for senior management and a detailed findings section. It provides an in-depth analysis of each vulnerability, its potential impact, and recommended remediation steps. This report is crucial for improving security defences and planning effective remediation strategies.

The Evolution to Red Teaming

While penetration testing is invaluable for compliance and assurance, its value can diminish after multiple cycles as findings become repetitive. Red Teaming offers a more comprehensive and realistic assessment of an organisation’s security posture by simulating sophisticated adversary tactics. To explain, a penetration test typically identifies known vulnerabilities and weaknesses in specific systems or applications. However, it may not fully address the evolving tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) sophisticated adversaries use. Red Teaming offers significant value by providing a more comprehensive and realistic assessment of an organisation’s security posture and, importantly, measuring the readiness and preparedness of the organisation.

  • Realistic Threat Simulation: Red Teaming simulates advanced persistent threats (APTs) and other complex attack scenarios, conducting prolonged, covert operations to evade standard security measures.  These simulations provide a more accurate depiction of the challenges posed by modern-day threat actors, helping organisations to better prepare for and respond to real-world threats.
  • Broader Scope: Red Team exercises cover a wide range of attack vectors, including physical breaches, social engineering, and digital exploits, providing a comprehensive evaluation of an organisation's overall security posture.
  • Dynamic and Adaptive Tactics: Red Teams employ evolving tactics that adjust in real time to counter defensive measures, revealing vulnerabilities that static testing methods may overlook.
  • Comprehensive Assessment: Red Teaming thoroughly assesses an organisation's ability to detect and respond to threats, scrutinising incident response procedures and overall resilience against attacks. This in-depth evaluation offers valuable insights into the organisation, highlighting strengths and the areas needing improvement.

Enhancing cyber security with Red Teaming

For organisations with mature cyber security practices, Red Teaming offers a dynamic and thorough approach to identifying and addressing sophisticated threats. It provides deeper insights and significant benefits compared to traditional methods.

  • Uncovering Hidden Weaknesses: Even well-fortified systems can have hidden weaknesses that conventional tests may overlook. Red Teaming exposes these subtle flaws through sophisticated attack techniques, ensuring a more comprehensive security evaluation.
  • Testing Incident Response: Beyond identifying vulnerabilities, Red Teaming rigorously tests an organisation’s ability to detect, respond to, and recover from attacks, improving incident response strategies.
  • Identifying Process and Policy Gaps: Red Teaming evaluates technical vulnerabilities and uncovers weaknesses in security policies, procedures, and employee awareness, leading to more effective and robust defences.

Case Studies

Health Provider

After multiple penetration testing cycles and significant investments in email infrastructure security following its annual penetration test. It was determined that its systems were secure with no critical vulnerabilities. However, our Red Team exercise revealed otherwise.

Employing a multi-staged exploit, users were directed to a malicious web page to capture credentials, bypassing advanced email filters. Chaining sophisticated attacks, the Red Team deceived several employees into divulging their login credentials,allowing access to an internal network previously deemed secure. This access enabled them to escalate privileges and extract sensitive data, demonstrating a vulnerability not detected in earlier tests.

This exercise highlighted how advanced, chained attacks can uncover hidden weaknesses that standard penetration tests might miss, particularly leveraging human factors often overlooked in traditional assessments. The phishing attack exposed gaps in employee awareness and incident response, prompting the health trust to enhance its security training programs and improve monitoring and response strategies.

The insights gained from this Red Team operation significantly bolstered the trust’s overall security posture, ensuring better protection against potential malware and ransomware threats.

Financial Services Firm

Despite its significant investments in advanced security systems and incident response protocols, a financial services firm engaged with our Red Team to assess its readiness against modern cyber threats.

The Red Team initiated a stealthy simulated attack that bypassed traditional defences and infiltrated the network. As the attack progressed, the security operations centre (SOC) detected unusual activity but struggled to trace its origin and scope due to the Red Team's advanced evasion techniques. The SOC activated its incident response plan, but the Red Team continued to adapt, using deceptive methods to mislead investigators and prolong detection, even leaving intentional beacons to divert attention from the main attack.

This exercise exposed gaps in the firm's incident response capabilities, such as difficulties in tracking advanced threats and communication breakdowns during the crisis. By simulating the tactics, techniques, and procedures of APT34 (MuddyWater APT Group), known for sophisticated cyber-espionage campaigns, the Red Team highlighted the need for improved threat-hunting practices, robust logging and monitoring, and better coordination among response teams. The insights gained from this exercise led the firm to refine its incident response strategies, implement advanced detection tools, conduct additional SOC team training, and enhance its incident response playbooks.

This real-time testing ensured that their strategies were practical and effective in managing complex, evolving cyber threats.

Global Manufacturing Company

Despite having strong technical defences in the UK, Europe, and the USA, a global manufacturing company had not rigorously tested its policies and procedures across its entire estate. During our Red Team engagement, the team simulated a phishing attack targeting several employees. Despite robust technical controls, a few employees fell victim, granting the Red Team access to internal systems.

Once a foothold was established, the Red Team discovered that the company's incident response plan was outdated and poorly communicated. To exploit this, they launched multiple simultaneous simulated attacks, causing confusion and highlighting unclear roles and responsibilities within the incident response team.

Additionally, the Red Team found that access control policies were not enforced uniformly across the organisation. Some users had excessive permissions, allowing the team to move laterally and escalate privileges. The investigation revealed that while Active Directory was implemented correctly, policies were not consistently enforced across the network estate. This inconsistency particularly exposed the parent company in the USA, which had relaxed its security measures to onboard subsidiaries from the UK and Europe, leaving it most at risk.

This exercise underscored the need for the company to update and communicate its incident response plan, enforce uniform access control policies, and ensure consistent security practices across all regions to fortify its overall security posture.


Maintaining a robust security posture requires advanced strategies like Red Teaming and pushing conventional defence boundaries. By simulating realistic attack scenarios and employing adaptive tactics, Red Teaming provides deeper insights and more significant benefits than traditional methods. Red teaming is an invaluable tool for uncovering hidden weaknesses, testing incident response, and identifying process and policy gaps, ultimately strengthening overall security posture.

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