Threat Modeling

Formally, threat modeling, outlined by OWASP, is a process by which potential threats are identified and rated for severity and possible mitigations are discussed. Less formally, threat modeling happens when you think about each decision that you make in the system you’re creating and extrapolate how these may affect its security either immediately or in the future.

It is important to stress that threat modeling is a process, not a tool. While tools can help the process be more efficient (e.g., by providing visualization, tracking changes over time, or identifying changes to software that would more likely affect its threat model), tools by themselves cannot currently take the place of humans reasoning about how other humans would attack a system.

Threat modeling is most effective when multiple stakeholders come together to look at a system from different angles: developers, architects, Offering engineers, designers, and end-users, along with security specialists. The discussion can be as simple as walking through how the system is used, how it is supposed to work, and how it actually works. Security specialists ask questions to get a better understanding of the security controls in place, and everyone leaves with a better understanding of the risks that affect the system.

While several approaches can be used to perform the assessment, We would recommend a design-centric threat modeling approach that focuses on areas where data passes over trust boundaries or virtual boundaries that separate groups of components with higher, lower, or different trust.

Why threat modeling?

The express aim of threat modeling is to identify design issues, potential security weaknesses or arrive at a set of security needs that must be built. These are sometimes referred to as “non-functional requirements.” Once identified, the security requirements when implemented will bring a system or set of systems to the intended security posture. Identifying likely threats and the probable consequences of successful attacks is the method of investigation to identify an appropriate set of defenses. It is an industry best practice to validate the defenses that were derived from the threat model and this validation can be achieved with the likes of Penetration Testing, Security Testing etc.

While some threat modeling methods focus on identifying threats and security issues, other methods also perform an assessment of the resulting risks by rating the consequences (impacts) and the likelihood of threats. Such methods are also called Threat and Risk Analysis or Assessment (see, for example, ISO 27005, NIST SP 800-30). Such a rating can be used to prioritize defenses.


More secure code

Threat modeling done properly and early establishes a foundation for building a secure code base on a secure design. Designing a project with security in mind throughout the process reduces the chances of finding vulnerabilities and gives teams more confidence to concentrate on the features being delivered.

Reduced cost by finding design flaws early and before release

Threat modeling normally occurs during the project design phase and allows for early identification of security risks. If vulnerabilities are found, early detection saves valuable time and monetary resources when mitigations are required. The cost of closing a security risk increases dramatically as a project nears release, and exponentially once it has been released to the public.

Reduced exposure to weakness, other methods may not uncover

Design and development teams use many different methods to develop projects. Code and test plan reviews help engineers evaluate an Offerings’s effectiveness, but may not divulge such security concerns as the need for input validation or cryptography. Threat modeling examines the relationships that exist between a component’s atomic elements, analyzes how data flows between them, and exposes potentially exploitable weak points.


When to do threat modeling

Ideally, threat modeling is performed as soon as possible. There is a timing element to threat modeling that we highly recommend understanding. No matter how late in the development process threat modeling is performed, it is always critical to understand weaknesses in a design’s defences. The cost of addressing issues will generally increase when we uncover design misses and missed security requirements later, or worse, at the end of the development process. It is much more useful to begin the process of identifying potential attacks and their treatments while identifying other system requirements.

How to do threat modeling

The process of threat modeling usually involves some of these distinct but closely related sub-activities:

What a threat model will not provide

Defining scope

Scope: One Threat Model or Many?

Depending on the size of a particular project, one threat model can be completed or a number of threat models per project, whereby the project is broken down by features, components or Engineering teams. Threat modeling by individual feature or component instead of creating a single threat model for the entire workload has a number of benefits:

Myths of threat modeling:

Threat modeling is a human activity best practiced with a range of expertise. Major pitfalls can occur when stakeholders with key knowledge are not included in the process, or when the team fails to agree on an up-to-date view of the system, its “moving parts” and communication mechanisms. Many examples of threats that failed to be identified at threat modeling time are in the categories of “things that fell between the cracks during design” and failures to communicate. Failures of communication are responsible for “Eureka moments:” one designer explains how a certain part of the system works, and is interrupted by an implementer who clarifies that that is not exactly how it is working; the team collectively experiences a sudden understanding that previous assumptions were perhaps erroneous. This demonstrates the importance of including key stakeholders and making sure the formats adopted allow for clear and precise communication of details.

Expected output

A documented Threat Model should include:

The end document can be used to feed into the application security life cycle e.g. It can be used to feed into security-focused test plans like Code-Based testing and Penetration Testing.

Closing words

The intention of this document is to very briefly convey important information about threat modeling and how it can help with secure development lifecycle. There are several detailed references and books available which can go into much detail about processes and methodologies to be used.

Lastly, secure development does not and should not stop at threat modeling, try several processes like fuzzing, code audit, code scanning. Each can be used to detect and prevent flaws and these detection capabilities are often mutually exclusive.