What is Red Teaming?

Red teaming is a full-scope multi-layered process of simulating real-world cyberattacks to assess an organization’s cybersecurity posture. This occurs when a red team, sometimes called a red cell, emulates real-world cyberattackers' tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) against their systems to test the effectiveness of their cyber security.

Simply put, red teaming is a security risk assessment that organizations leverage to proactively identify, strategize, and remediate cybersecurity risks and weaknesses. A red team uses sophisticated goal-oriented attacks with specific objectives to evaluate and improve upon your organization’s procedures, people, and technologies.

It collects data from different metrics, such as incident response time, thoroughness of attack investigations, accuracy, and time taken to identify the source of a hack, to assess the effectiveness of an organization’s security operations center (SOC).

How red teaming helps identify security flaws

Not all potential threats and vulnerabilities can be easily observed, especially in complex and high-value systems. This can result in severe consequences. Red teams help companies uncover security vulnerabilities before they become a problem.

As they are not directly involved in a system’s functionality and business value, a red team is more likely to identify vulnerabilities and flaws that may have been overlooked by direct teams who are simply too involved in the product. In this way, a red team provides objective and unbiased feedback.

A red team uses various techniques and tools commonly used by real hackers to expose itself to various scenarios and viewpoints. This enables organizations to be more prepared for unexpected challenges and events, making them more resilient. For example, how efficiently can an organization detect website defacement hacks? Red teaming also helps organizations avoid security breaches by keeping them alert to any vulnerabilities hackers may leverage.

Who should implement red teaming?

Red teaming brings advantages to any organization. For smaller companies, it is more complex and costly, as red teaming requires significant resources and time. Still, there are basic forms of red teaming that can be easier to implement and are beneficial. Red teaming becomes particularly important for bigger companies with sensitive data and complex networks.

There are certain prerequisites for an IT team before forming a red team:

  • Must already be involved in vulnerability management, hack monitoring, and asset management to identify, prioritize, and address security flaws
  • Must be resource-ready to implement a robust cybersecurity framework that combines human intelligence with automated technology
  • Has already conducted several cycles of rigorous penetration testing
  • Utilizes data via pen testing or other testing strategies adopted by your organization to correctly analyze insights from red teaming

Bringing red teaming into your organization before establishing a consistent and solid cybersecurity baseline will produce results with little value.

How does a red team work?

Red teams may follow different development procedures. However, in general, most of the red teams go through five phases as described below.

Phase 1: Set goals

In this phase, organizations generally set a goal for red teams based on which vulnerabilities are targeted and strategies and attacks are planned. For example, an organization may want to obtain a specific piece of sensitive data from its servers.

Phase 2: Perform reconnaissance

This phase aims to clearly define the systems that will be targeted and to collect as much information as possible from them. To make the scenario realistic, the red team must not possess any insider information about these systems that would not likely be available to a real hacker.

However, the red team should use every resource at their (and actual hackers’) disposal, such as web crawling, news articles, social media posts, or satellite images. The more knowledge you have, the better you can simulate real-world attacks.

Phase 3: Attack

The red team now performs the action of exploiting vulnerabilities and executing the attack plan using various tactics such as phishing.

Depending on the techniques used and attack vectors, this activity could last for hours to days or sometimes even weeks. Note that security teams should be unaware of the timeline of the attack to get realistic results.

Phase 4: Escalate and probe

After exploiting the known or found vulnerabilities, the red team attempts to infiltrate the system to achieve the primary goal. Typically, they continue escalating until they reach the target or are detected and stopped by the security team.

At this point, the red team usually reveals themselves and presents a letter of authority to identify themselves as unharmful. Sometimes, they may allow security responses to continue to obtain deeper insights about the organization’s procedures and tactics.

Phase 5: Report and analyze

Once the attack is complete, the red team prepares a report with their analysis and feedback. This should include how the hack was engineered, tactics used, how far they were able to get past security, where they failed, and other vulnerabilities discovered (aside from the primary target).

Organizations can then analyze how their blue team performed and which key vulnerabilities were exploited that need to be addressed.

Penetration testing vs. red teaming

Companies use penetration testing to discover as many vulnerabilities and security flaws as possible in a system. The red team, on the other hand, is not concerned about the number of security flaws but the extent of harm they can cause—along with the evaluation of the SOC’s operation procedures.

The red team wants to know how fast SOC identifies a network perimeter breach, how long it takes the security team to react, what systems and data attackers are able to access, and how they were able to bypass security measures.

The following table discusses the other major differences between penetration testing and red teaming.

Penetration testing Red teaming
Objective Identify as many vulnerabilities as possible Access a specific system or data to emulate real-world attacks
Timeframe Usually lasts 2-3 weeks Typically a few weeks to a month; planning phase takes a lot of time
Toolset Widely used commercial penetration testing tools and technologies Wide variety, from custom tools to commercially available solutions and attack technologies
Security team awareness Aware of testing taking place Normal operations, unaware of testing as it happens
Scope Narrow and pre-defined, e.g., whether a firewall is effective or not Can span multiple domains; guided by goals rather than a system, e.g., accessing and modifying sensitive data
Testing strategy Systems tested separately Multiple systems may be simultaneously attacked based on the goal
Goal Compromise an organization’s environment Simulate real-world attacks to know the effectiveness of SOC
Results Identify existing vulnerabilities and provide recommendations for correcting Evaluate overall posture and effectiveness of cybersecurity; provide a detailed report including cause, method, and improvements

Continuous automated red teaming (CART)

Red teams consume a great amount of time, resources, and money to recreate real-world attack scenarios manually; because of this, it is performed only periodically, e.g., bi-annually or quarterly. The problem with this is that the system might be fully secured at the time of testing but will not remain the same thereafter.

Organizations are thus advised to conduct continuous automated red teaming (CART) exercises in real time to identify security vulnerabilities throughout the year.

CART leverages threat intelligence and automated tools to simulate cybersecurity attack scenarios that provide insights into an organization's current security posture. CART automates various tests, including penetration testing and network scanning, as well as the analysis of these tests for remediation planning.

Unlike traditional red teaming where you replicate manual testing procedures, CART uses automated security measures to identify vulnerabilities and address them.

Challenges in red teaming

Red teaming is efficient and delivers significant insights into an organization's cybersecurity system. However, it also comes up with some major challenges.


As already mentioned, the red teaming procedure is cost-intensive, demanding a significant amount of both human and financial resources. It is thus a less accessible solution for smaller organizations.


Creating real-world cyber-attack scenarios demands highly experienced cybersecurity professionals. It can, however, be challenging for an organization to form such a team.

External focus

There's a great possibility that red teaming focuses solely on external threats, therefore missing an organization's internal security vulnerabilities.

Missed vulnerabilities

Real-world attackers focus on hacking the organization’s sensitive information by any means available. To emulate a similar attack, red teams may not need to exploit all vulnerabilities; they will only uncover and leverage those that help them reach their defined goal, thus completely neglecting other important external, wireless, network, and physical security threats.

Due to this, it is important to perform traditional penetration testing prior to conducting red teaming procedures.


Another major drawback of red teaming is that due to improper coverage, it will probably not meet compliance requirements. Because a red team might not identify and stipulate all targets, it won't be able to conduct a full security vulnerability scan of every weakness by addressing each of the targets.

The red team will thus miss many potential flaws that would be addressed during a traditional penetration test.

Differences between red teams, blue teams, and purple teams

Red team Blue team Purple team
Nature Offensive in nature, rigorously tests an organization's security posture via tools and techniques actual hackers would use Defensive in nature, protects an organization from real-world attackers and also from the red team Acts as an intermediary encouraging communication and collaboration between the red and blue teams
Functionality Emulates real-world threats and stress-test defense mechanisms built by the blue team in a continuous search for security vulnerabilities Continuously scans systems for any sign of intrusion, investigates threat alerts, and responds to threat incidents; employs defensive strategies to block access to critical infrastructure like firewalls and antiviruses Creates a feedback loop between red and blue teams; blue installs defenses in the system, red attacks and reports any vulnerabilities found, purple analyzes the report and defines a remediation strategy
Objective Detect and evaluate vulnerabilities to examine the security posture of an organization and how it will hold up against real-time attackers Be consistently vigilant against attackers, including the red team; quickly locate compromised areas and halt the attack as soon as possible Act as a permanent dynamic between the other teams to establish a stronger and more secure environment


Red teaming is the most realistic and valuable approach for organizations to boost their cybersecurity defenses. Organizations can leverage red teaming to strengthen their security posture by remediating simulated real-world attacks before they actually occur.

However, companies must ensure they have the financial and human resources required to conduct red teaming procedures effectively. It should be a regular activity, with all findings addressed and patched per the given schedule.

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