The story has been told time and time again. A super-secret spy infiltrates a classified location with ultra-modern security to collect valuable information that will put him one step ahead of his enemy. Now imagine that instead of a man dressed in a black suit, the spy is a digital methodology for system security. That’s threat modeling.
Threat modeling gives organizations a reliable way to inspect their systems, identify possible risks or threats, and stay ahead of cybercriminals — and their competitors. It allows companies to view an application and its environment through the lens of security so that they can make informed decisions about the application’s inherent security risks. In simple terms, it’s a proactive approach to security that helps organizations fend off potential attackers by safeguarding their assets.
Security has become increasingly important as the digital landscape continues to evolve because as technology changes for the better, it also changes for the worse. While cyber threats are becoming more sophisticated, threat modeling equips companies with an effective risk management strategy, so they can protect the systems and data that are most valuable to them.
What is Threat Modeling?
A threat model is used to profile probable attackers and identify the most likely avenues of attack. Identifying system weaknesses allows businesses to stay ahead of malicious incidents. Instead of waiting around for cybercriminals to reveal system flaws, companies can do it themselves with a four-step process:
- Identify the assets that need protection and the scope of their threat modeling exercise. This provides an understanding of all the critical components of the system, sensitive data, and entry points for attackers.
- Establish an architectural overview of the system to visualize how different elements interact and identify potential weaknesses. At the same time, identify trust boundaries, data flows, and external dependencies.
- Identify and categorize the potential threats so that they can gain an understanding of how attackers will exploit their vulnerabilities. Using this information, assess and prioritize the risks to know where to allocate the most resources.
- Design and implement appropriate countermeasures to mitigate potential threats. All countermeasures should be validated to ensure their efficacy in mitigating risks.
The Benefits of Threat Modeling
Threat modeling is a powerful strategy for system protection. For starters, it equips organizations with an improved security posture with its proactive approach to security early in the development or design process. Addressing risks upfront allows organizations to build more secure systems, applications, and procedures, reducing the likelihood of successful attacks.
Threat modeling also aids in the early identification of vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them. A thorough analysis of a system’s architecture, data flows, and potential attack vectors enables organizations to identify potential weak spots and design appropriate countermeasures.
Companies that use threat modeling will also demonstrate more effective risk management. Threat modeling prioritizes risks based on severity and potential impact, enabling companies to allocate their resources to the most needed areas and reduce attacks’ potential impact.
Threat modeling helps reduce company costs by avoiding costly recovery efforts needed if attackers were to discover vulnerabilities. Furthermore, costs are cut by streamlining the development and testing processes through clear security requirements and guidelines.
Finally, threat modeling enables continuous improvement because it can be integrated into the software development life cycle or operational processes. Organizations can adapt to evolving threats by regularly reviewing and updating their threat models, thus ensuring that security measures remain up-to-date and effective.
Threat Modeling Methods
When choosing a threat modeling methodology, companies should first consider the threats and risks commonly faced in their industry, the size and competence of their staff, their available resources, and their overall risk tolerance.
Here are a few of the most common threat modeling methodologies:
Developed by Microsoft, STRIDE systematically identifies various potential threats to Microsoft products. The acronym stands for the six potential threats:
Spoofing Identity - An attacker gains access to a system by pretending to be an authorized user.
Tampering With Data - An attacker modifies data in the system without authorization.
Repudiation - An attacker claims no responsibility for the action, which may be true or false.
Information Disclosure - An attacker provides information to someone who’s not authorized to access it.
Denial of Service - Attacks deny service to valid users, making services temporarily unavailable.
Elevation of Privilege - An attacker does something they are not authorized to do.
PASTA (Process for Attack Simulation and Threat Analysis), views an application with the eyes of an attacker. It follows seven steps:
- Define the business objectives, system security requirements, and the impact threats will have on the business
- Define the technical scope of the environment and the dependencies between the infrastructure and the software
- Diagram the application’s data flow
- Run attack simulations on the system
- Determine threats to existing vulnerabilities
- Create attack trees
- Analyze the resulting risks and develop countermeasures
With Trike, companies use threat models to manage risks instead of eliminating them. By defining acceptable levels of risks for different types of assets, Trike identifies every user’s level of access and how often the user is permitted to take each action.
Standing for Visual, Agile, and Simple Threat, VAST is an automated threat modeling process focusing on application or operational threats. For application threats, VAST diagrams threats to the architecture system. For operational threats, VAST diagrams the threat from the attacker’s perspective.
Attack trees use classic decision tree diagrams. The tree's base is the attacker’s goal, and the branches are the various ways the attacker tries to reach that goal. Attack trees visually represent all the creative methods attackers may use to achieve the same result.
CVSS stands for Common Vulnerability Scoring System. It assigns a severity score to every vulnerability and combines it with its intrinsic vulnerability, the evolution of vulnerability over time, and the organization’s security level.