AppSec Blog

Ask the Expert - James Jardine

James Jardine is a senior security consultant at Secure Ideas and the founder of Jardine Software. James has spent over twelve years working in software development with over seven years focusing on application security. His experience includes penetration testing, secure development lifecycle creation, vulnerability management, code review, and training. He has worked with mobile, web, and Windows development with the Microsoft .NET framework. James is a mentor for the Air Force Association's Cyber Patriot competition. He currently holds the GSSP-NET, CSSLP, MCAD, and MCSD certifications and is located in Jacksonville, Florida.
This is the second in a series of interviews with appsec experts about threat modeling.
1. Threat Modeling is supposed to be one of the most effective and fundamental practices in secure software development. But a lot of teams that are trying to do secure development find threat modeling too difficult and too expensive. Why is threat modeling so hard - or do people just think it is hard because they don't understand it?
I believe there is a lack of understanding when it comes to threat modeling. Developers hear the term thrown around, but it can be difficult reading in a book or an online article how to actually create a threat model. Without a good understanding of the process, people get frustrated and tend to stay away from it. In addition to the lack of understanding of threat modeling, I believe that sometimes it is a lack of understanding of the application. If the person/team working on the threat model doesn't understand the application and the components it talks to, it can severely impact the threat model.

Threat modeling is time-consuming, especially the first iteration of a threat model, tied into the first time the team has created a threat model. In the development world that time equates to costs in which there is no direct return on investment. Developers are under tight timelines to get software out the door and many teams are not given the time to include threat modeling. The time factor all depends on your experience, size of the application, development process and it will get quicker as you start doing the threat modeling on a regular basis. The cost of doing the threat modeling, and adhering to the mitigations during development, will be less than the time spent going back and fixing the vulnerabilities later.

2. What are the keys to building a good threat model? What tools should you use, what practices should you follow? How do you know when you have built a good threat model - when are you done?

Motivation is the biggest key to building a good threat model. If you are forced into threat modeling you are not going to take the time to do a good job. In addition, an understanding of what you want to accomplish with your threat model. Some threat models use data flow diagrams, while others do not. You need to identify what works for your situation. As long as the threat model is helping identify the potential risk areas, threats, and mitigations then it is doing its job. It is important to set aside some time for threat modeling to focus on it. Many times, I see it is something that is a task that is buried with other tasks handed off to one developer. This should be a collaborative effort with a specific focus.

There are many different tools available to help with threat modeling. Microsoft has the SDL Threat Modeling Tool which is a great tool to use if you don't have any threat modeling experience. Microsoft also has the Escalation of Privileges card game which is meant to help developers become familiar with threat modeling in a fun way. You could just use Microsoft Excel, or some other spreadsheet software. It is all up to what works for you to get the results that you need.

Threat models are living documents. They should not really ever be finished because each update to the application could affect the threat model. You can usually tell if you are done with the current threat model when you are out of threats and mitigations. Think of making popcorn, when the time between pops gets longer, the popcorn is probably done. The same thing with threat modeling, when you haven't identified a threat or mitigation in a while, it is probably finished.

3. Where should you start with threat modeling? Where's your best pay-back, are there any quick wins?

In theory, threat modeling should be done before you start actually writing code for an application. However, in most cases, threat modeling is implemented either after the code is started, or after the application is already in production. It is never too late to do threat modeling for your applications. If you are still in the design phase, then you are at an advantage for starting a threat model following best practices. If you are further along in the development lifecycle, the start high level and then work your way down as you can. Often times, the threat model will go a few levels deep getting more details. Each level may add more actors and more time. You can start with just the top level identifying inputs/outputs and trust boundaries which will be a big security gain. Then as time progresses, you can add a level or additional detail to the current level.

If your company has a bunch of applications that are somewhat similar, you can create a template for your company threat models that can help fill in some generic stuff. For example, protecting data between the client-server, or server-server. This should be in all of your apps, so you can have a base template where you don't need to do all the legwork, but just verify it is correct for the current application. This can help increase the speed of threat modeling going forward.

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