Module 1

Identifying threats

When beginning development of a new application, there are few factors that should immediately be considered. From the point of view of this course series, we naturally take the stance that security is the biggest one. It is essential to apply some kind of threat modelling in the design phase. If not, the application may have serious flaws or the effort to maintain security is wasted on the wrong part of the application. In the process of threat modelling one examines the application and deconstructs it to smaller parts—features and modules—that do a certain thing. From these parts threats are identified and from these threats the vulnerabilities. This process can continue, with each of part being further deconstructed to even smaller parts.

Threats can be revealed by a variety of actors. For example, an ordinary user may stumble on a flaw in an application; a script kiddie running automated tools may discover a flaw; or a truly motivated attacker may find a flaw in the application through manual analysis. A threat's impact on an application might include unauthorized access being granted due to authorization failure, the browser cache being poisoned with malicious data, or private data being revealed via eavesdropping.

To simplify modelling, multiple ways exist of classifying threats. Two examples are the STRIDE and DREAD checklists. Neither one is exhaustive, but both provide good structures for determining the type of a given threat.

The STRIDE Threat Model

The STRIDE Threat Model is a useful checklist of questions that can help in the threat-modelling of an application. 'STRIDE' is an acronym for the following threat categories: Spoofing, Tampering, Repudiation, Information Disclosure, Denial of Service, and Elevation of Privilege. Spoofing covers cases where someone is illegally accessing a system using another user’s authentication information. Tampering covers cases such as unauthorized changes made to persistent data, whether inside a machine or in the transport. Repudiation specifies that a system should be able to trace user operations to provide evidence of what has happened in case of a breach. Information Disclosure covers the exposure of information to unauthorized individuals. (This category of threat can also occur within a machine or during transport.) Denial of Service refers to cases where the server or service is made temporarily unavailable. Lastly, Elevation of Privilege is a threat type in which an unprivileged user finds a way to gain sufficient privileges to compromise the system.

The DREAD risk assessment model

DREAD is a mnemonic checklist for prioritizing threats based on their severity, and stands for Damage, Reproducibility, Exploitability, Affected Users, and Discoverability, all of which are fairly self-explanatory. (There has been a fair amount of discussion concerning Discoverability, and whether encouraging security professionals to minimize discoverability would in turn favor the deprecated approach of security through obscurity.) A scale from 0-10 is usually used in all categories, save for discoverability which is commonly set to 10 on the grounds that any threat will eventually be discovered.

Cyber security is not only a tech problem

The news of security breaches is full of reports of hackers using their own radio setups to wreak havoc, such as the misdirection of yachts or the reprogramming of the firmware of an USB device to hide malicious code. News reports have a tendency to sound technical when trying to explain the root cause of an exploited vulnerability. Security is multidisciplinary, however, in the sense that effective security comes from understanding the vulnerabilities that may come either from the physical environment, the technology, or from the human element in the mix. Threats from the physical environment may include fires, natural disasters, theft of computing resources, or exposed cables. Technical threats are what this course considers in more detail, but it bears remembering that there is a strong human element in cyber security. The best security safeguards in the world count for very little in the following situations:

  • An bank employee accidentally emails out a file of bank details to a wrong address.
  • A corporate employee copies a set of sensitive documents to a memory stick which is then stolen.
  • A company-supplied portable devices such as a phone, laptop, or tablet has sensitive data on it, and is stolen, or accidentally left behind in a public place by the employee to whom it is assigned. (It is surprisingly common for people to forget laptops on planes, in coffee houses, etc. Encrypting devices and enforcing a policy of hard-to-crack passwords goes a long way towards protecting against data theft in such circumstances, but strong passwords are hard for humans to remember.)
  • Company staff use their private email addresses—which may or may not be protected—for corporate communication.
  • Staff receive attachments that are dubious and open them, or visit a dangerous website and are the target of a drive-by download of a malicious piece of code.
  • Staff discuss a work-related matter in social media, or publish a photo of the workplace, which then leaks to the wrong people due to improper privacy settings.
  • ...all of the above by a very disgruntled employee doing it on purpose.

It is evident, from the list above, that human actions in the office are potential threats, but threats that can be mitigated by educating staff and providing knowledge about correct cyber security procedures. Care must be taken in communicating proper procedures as the audience is broad and may or may not be technically aware.

In short, cyber security is everyone's business. Designers and implementers build systems that have no holes (well, as few as possible), operations staff build and maintain secure networks, administrators keep systems properly updated and configured, users should prefer secure software, and executives should make early investments in security.

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