The information security market around the world is expected to reach $175 billion by 2024. This is due in large part to companies evolving their defenses against cyber attacks. Of course, this rise in defense is a direct reaction to increased threats. In 2019, 90% of organizations were targeted by phishing attempts.

Additionally, 68% of business leaders feel that breaches of security are happening more often. They wouldn’t be wrong – 19.81 billion records were compromised due to data breaches in 2021. With more and more organizations using technology platforms to stay competitive and drive growth, it’s easy to see why more companies are taking cyber security seriously in today’s landscape.

If you own a small or mid-sized business, it is critical that you have a cyber security strategy in place. In 2021, small to medium size businesses were more frequently targeted. For most savvy business owners, the first step in resolving network vulnerabilities starts with testing and ends with an ethical cyber attack.

When protecting your business from cyber threats, the most common solutions include:

  • Vulnerability Scans
  • Penetration Testing
  • Red Teaming

While there are similarities involved with each strategy, these terms are often used interchangeably. The reality is that each test has different methodologies, and each has a slightly different role in your overall cyber IT security plan. In this blog, we’ll explore the differences between these three security tactics and explain which strategy is the right choice for your company or organization.

Vulnerability Scans – Your Starting Point for Cyber Security

Vulnerability scans are perhaps the most well-known security assessment. These scans assess a company’s networks, applications, and computers for weaknesses. These weaknesses, which hackers can use to infiltrate your networks, are usually patched by system admins to prevent breaches. However, sometimes admins make mistakes or fail to patch weaknesses correctly. A vulnerability scan will catch these missed patches.

They can also spot misconfigurations, which give hackers easy entry into your network. Common misconfigurations include admin credentials that are still set as default and permissions that give users access that they should not have. If you own a small business, a vulnerability scan is a necessary entry point that will expose common, surface-level issues that hackers look for first.

The value of vulnerability scanning isn’t limited to internet-facing systems.  They’re also helpful for your internal systems.  Running a vulnerability scan internally improves the security of your network and can prevent an attacker from escalating damage if they already have a foothold in your system.

Quick Facts:

  • Automated, high-level test
  • Catch surface-level vulnerabilities and identify holes in your security
  • Great first step for smaller businesses and low-maturity companies
  • You should start vulnerability scanning once a year and gradually step up to once a quarter
  • You should always perform a vulnerability scan if you’re making changes to your network

Tandem Cyber Solutions Pro Tip: Try working with a reputable cyber security consultant who can interpret your results and provide actionable ways to remediate weaknesses. Working with a cyber security firm will also benefit your IT department’s productivity since they won’t have to perform the scan themselves.

Penetration Testing – Diving Under the Surface

A penetration test is a hands-on, detailed examination conducted by a cyber security expert who discovers and exploits your system’s weaknesses. Unlike a vulnerability scan, a penetration test simulates a hacker trying to break into your network. Using methods like buffer overflow, SQL injection, and password cracking, ethical hackers will try to compromise and extract data from a network.

To help you understand the difference between a vulnerability scan and a penetration test, consider this analogy. In the medical world, when something goes wrong inside your body, you can get an X-Ray to diagnose your problem. While X-Rays can show injuries like an obvious bone break, the image is fuzzy. It’s not good for seeing damage to soft tissue. To find out in detail what’s going on inside your body, you need an MRI. These results come in a detailed, 3D model that illustrates both bones and soft tissue.

In this example, the vulnerability scan is the fuzzy X-Ray, and the penetration test is the detailed MRI.

Quick Facts:

  • Penetration tests are live, manual tests that offer your company thorough and accurate results.
  • Pentests dive under the surface of your network environment and provide a deep look into the data security of your organization or application.
  • Pentesting is a common requirement for organizations that must meet security standards like HIPAA and PCI compliance.
  • Unlike vulnerability scans, penetration tests are not automated.
  • These tests are conducted by highly experienced penetration testers.

Tandem Cyber Solutions Pro Tip: After your pentest, the cyber security firm you hired should offer remediation recommendations for your IT Team. After your IT team fixes these vulnerabilities, it’s wise to re-test your environment. That way, you can be sure that your fixes will stick.

Red Teaming – A Targeted Attack on Your Company

If penetration testing were the equivalent of a group of pirates, intent on looting and pillaging whatever they can, red teaming can be likened to a team of stealthy ninjas planning focused, multi-faceted attacks.

Red teaming is typically used by mature organizations that are already conducting vulnerability scans and penetration tests. These companies are at the stage where they need a targeted attack to access sensitive information or breach defenses. These attacks are highly sophisticated and happen from many different angles.  

The goal of red teaming is to mimic an actual cyber attack. This typically happens in three phases:

  1. Reconnaissance: Using open-source intelligence gathering techniques, red teamers gain a deep understanding of a company’s facilities, infrastructure, and employees so that they understand the target and its operations.
  2. Exploitation: Red teamers will use techniques like planting hardware trojans and face-to-face social engineering to find weaknesses. They then exploit those weaknesses and intentionally compromise servers, networks, and apps.
  3. Installation: Red teamers will look to gain control and command of their target’s environment using tactics like file payload installation. Once they have control of the exploited systems, the stage is set for actions on their objective. Common actions include data extrusion of extremely sensitive information, physical assets, or data.

Quick Facts:

  • Red teaming involves a team of certified ethical hackers performing scenario-based engagements driven by specific threat goals.
  • A thorough red team attack will include penetration testing (networks, apps, etc.), social engineering (staff members, onsite equipment, etc.), and physical intrusion (camera evasion, alarm bypass, etc.).
  • Red teaming is often used by large organizations, but smaller to mid-sized businesses are finding these attacks helpful.
  • Red teaming is customized to your organization’s specific needs. As such, red team attacks can be scaled up or down accordingly.

The Bottom Line – Which is Best for You?

Vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are meant to identify flaws in your environment. The end goal is to reduce a target’s attack surface by having an IT team fix the vulnerabilities discovered in the aforementioned tests.  Red teaming is a goal-driven attack. The purpose of red teaming is to test your organization’s incident response – right down to its processes, people, and technology.

If you’re trying to determine which cyber security tactic to use for your business, understand that it all comes down to what you need. If you own a small business and are in the early stages of protecting your company, get started with a vulnerability scan. If your mid-sized organization requires a form of compliance (like under South Carolina’s Insurance Data Security Act, HIPAA, etc) or you’re looking for a test that goes beyond surface-level threats, choose a penetration test. If your organization or company is mature and you’re already conducting vulnerability scans and penetration tests, it’s probably time to step up to a red team attack. Before you make a quick decision, take some time to analyze the best option for your company. At the end of the day, you’ll need to work with certified, passionate cyber security consultants in Charleston. When you have a goal in mind and the best company for cyber security by your side, you’ll be well on your way to safeguarding your business.


Keith Small is a retired professional law enforcement officer. Having sharpened an inquisitive mindset over almost three decades in criminal investigations and police work, he is now focused on applying his craft to protecting businesses from cyber criminals. Focusing on analysis and forensics, he relentlessly pursues knowledge in current tactics and cyber-criminal behaviors.


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