Threat Modeling

Threat modeling is a process to find threats (vulnerabilities) early on in order to rank and mitigate them. It is a proactive approach to security and gives team members a better understanding and knowledge of the application. The process should fit into the organization, and not the other way around. In other words, the who and when depends on the organization.

4 W’s of threat modeling:

  • What is Threat Modeling
  • Why you should Threat Model
  • Who should Threat Model
  • When to Treat Model

What is Threat Modeling?

Threat modeling needs two important components:

  • Systematic Approach: using a model to have a repeatable process. Threat modeling is a process to tackle security in a repeatable and consistent fashion during the development life cycle. See Threat Model Approach
  • Looking at Attacks: actively looking at what and how something can be abused. You are looking for abuse cases in order to find vulnerabilities.

One can see threat modeling as probable threat scenarios to which one produce a list of potential threats for a specific application.

Threat modeling is a holistic approach to reduce risk and to secure an application: you are looking at the environment as a whole and not just an isolated software.

See also Threat Modeling Vocabulary for an overview of often used vocabulary.

Why Threat Modeling?

The goal of threat modeling is risk reduction. However there are myriad of other ways to achieve this goal, so why use threat modeling?

Reasons to use threat modeling include:

  • Pro-active approach: you want to to be pro-active instead of reactive afterwards, when threats are discovered during later stages. Security up-front.
  • Efficient: the sooner a vulnerability is detected, the cheaper it is to fix it. It has a good ROI (business value).
  • Prioritize bugs: to know where to focus energy first.
  • Better understanding: of the whole application. It may help everyone have a better insight into potential security issues for the application.

Threat modeling is collaborative, repeatable process. Not a one-time exercise.

The output of threat modeling is diagrams, security requirements, non-requirements, list of threats/vulnerabilities.

Who should Threat Model?

We need people who are involved with the application we want to secure. That means:

  • Application Architect
  • Developer
  • Tester
  • Security Professional

When to Treat Model?

As said above, the earlier, the cheaper. Therefore the correct answer is as early as possible. For an application, it is probably during the requirements or design phase.

In an agile environment, the threat modeling should ideally be done during each sprint.

Examples of Threat Models that Go Wrong

In practice a big one is the human factor: assuming that the user will use a strong password and not click on random link are not good assumptions.

Another good think to remember is that threat model changes over time and keep up with the technological advancement (like crypotographic key size).


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