Embroker Team April 17, 2023 8 min read

Understanding How Cyber Threat Modeling Methods Work

Open laptop next to bags of money indicating the cost of failing to enforce proper cyber threat modeling techniques "$10.5 billion by 2025"

Cybercrime is evolving at a rapid pace. It’s becoming more and more profitable for hackers to carry out cyber attacks and their methods and attack patterns are becoming increasingly sophisticated and dangerous. By 2025, losses caused by cybercrime are expected to rise to $10.5 trillion annually.

That’s a lot of money, and cybersecurity professionals are already finding themselves facing highly motivated criminals with resources and equipment that are no less advanced than their own.

And if a company does suffer a data breach or a hack, it becomes even harder to improve its cyber defenses. Since the affected company will be focused on recovery from the event, its cybersecurity team will be too busy patching up the existing holes to be able to prioritize countering future threats.

This means that the companies reacting to cyber attacks are often fighting a losing battle and taking a more proactive approach would almost certainly yield better results.

In order to stay a step ahead of hackers and criminals and predict potential exposures, cybersecurity experts have been increasingly turning to cyber threat modeling. In fact, the process has become an integral part of the cybersecurity process. The term itself is used to encompass the global process of mapping and predicting potential cyber-related vulnerabilities and exposures that could threaten the company in the future.

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The goal of threat modeling is to minimize the damage cyber attacks can cause to an application or computer system. The process itself often starts during the app design process, long before a line of code is ever written.

The basic idea is to identify vulnerabilities as early as possible in the software development life cycle and then have the cybersecurity team offer an exhaustive list of security improvements and suggestions. Once applied, these solutions should keep a company’s data and operating systems safer from cyber attacks.

Does it work? And if so, how? Let’s take a deeper look at what security threat modeling methods entail.

How Cyber Threat Modeling Works

First, cybersecurity experts create a structured representation of a company’s information system. Then they administer security tests across the application or computer system. The goal is to identify vulnerabilities. Security experts go on to create detailed profiles of potential cyber attackers. The profiles include methods criminals might use to conduct cyber attacks and more. They pinpoint potential security threats to create a catalog of potential threats.

Finally, the developers quantify the threat volume, depending on the frequency of attacks and the severity of the damage.

The end product is a threat model that enables companies to make informed decisions regarding application and network security risks. One other potential use of a threat model is to provide a list of potential security improvements to be implemented. These could be any suggestions for changes in the app design, concept, requirements, or implementation.

Fixing Bugs vs. Identifying Design Flaws

There are various philosophies on what the best methods are for identifying and eliminating threats.
Some believe that penetration testing and code reviews are enough to cover security issues and consider the lengthy and exhaustive process of cyber threat modeling redundant. Checking the software’s code for mistakes, however, only helps fix bugs.

Threat modeling, on the other hand, helps spot fundamental design flaws and exposes the cracks and issues code reviews could overlook.

Programmers conduct peer reviews and help streamline the software development process. Cybersecurity experts connect the dots in terms of the way the entire system comes together. This combination of attention to detail and a bird’s-eye view of the issues is unique to threat modeling.
It prevents system components from developing exploitable vulnerabilities. The process of generating a threat model, therefore, is only part of the cybersecurity protocol; one that focuses on the big picture, identifies security requirements, and offers solutions.

The Four Methods of Threat Modeling

The cyber threat modeling process is dynamic and continues across the entire software development lifecycle. The findings of every phase inform the subsequent steps of app development. As the software becomes more complex, the threat model grows with it, exposing new threats.

The following 4 steps, or levels of abstraction, represent the path most threat model developers choose to follow today.

Model the System and Decide On the Assessment Scope

The first step is to create a model of what you are researching. Draw a diagram of increasingly detailed system components and the way they interact. In apps, this would be the application server, as well as sensitive data. Remember to include particular technologies you use to develop parts of the software, such as Java.

Each choice comes with its own set of potential new threats. A comprehensive diagram of every software asset should branch out into the software operating system as a whole. The systemic control flow diagram should display all potential execution paths.

With this information, a team of security experts can decide on the security assessment scope. First, they break down the software components into workable chunks. The chunks are then distributed across development teams for analysis. The last thing to do is settle on the depth of threat assessment analysis for each team.

Identify Potential Threats and Attacks

Once you have a clear picture of the major system components and the ways they interact, you can identify potential threats. A cybersecurity team tries to picture the type of attacker that might try and damage the application.

They try and imagine the way a cybercriminal would conduct cyber attacks. The attacks could be anything from breaching confidential data to carrying out a phishing or DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack.

Other than cybercriminals, security protocols also intercept unauthorized access. A quality threat modeling system should protect the software from both cyber attacks and inadvertent mistakes.

For maximum security, no external or internal users, developers, even system admins should be able to access certain data. Every software asset needs security controls. This is the most efficient way to avoid granting unauthorized access to confidential data.

Conducting Threat Analysis

Once you have identified potential vulnerabilities within your software, you can test them. Make connections between threat agents and negative consequences. During threat analysis, a security team plays the part of an attacker or an inside/outside user.

They follow in the footsteps of the supposed threat agents, trying to reach a software asset. If the supposed threat agents reach a software asset, that’s a potential attack. Every software asset needs appropriate safety protocols that attackers cannot bypass.

Conducting threat analysis is a long, and taxing process so cybersecurity experts tend to use checklists. A checklist or a template aims to achieve uniformity during every security test. It helps developers check every path for various malicious threats such as spoofing, denial of service, and escalation of privilege.

This approach ensures no data flow ends up violating a trust boundary featured in the checklist. While the checklist-based threat analysis is necessary, it only covers the core issues. For a more nuanced view, most threat models include creative, non-standard tests.

These non-standard tests try to come up with imaginative ways of bypassing security protocols. They rely on brainstorming or even guesswork to predict divergent threat sources. Threat analysis helps document as many security threats to the system as possible.

Prioritizing Potential Threats

Once all potential threats have been identified and documented, it’s time to prioritize. Not every threat is equally likely to result in serious damage, such as a data breach. This is where knowledge of cyber attack statistics comes into play.

According to CSO Online, 94% of malware is delivered by email, particularly ransomware. In addition to that, phishing attacks and social engineering are behind as many as 80% of reported cybersecurity incidents. There has also been a steady rise in IoT attacks in recent years. When prioritizing threats, cybersecurity experts need to estimate the likelihood and the impact of every type of attack.

This system of prioritization relies on two main sources to carry out the risk assessment. One includes more general cyber attack facts and statistics. The other one rests on test-based vulnerabilities unique to the software at hand. Security risk and the severity of impact determine the threat’s ranking in the list of priorities.

Threat Modeling Remediation Methods

The final stage of cyber threat modeling is identifying and suggesting countermeasures. Cybersecurity experts use all the collected data to reduce security risks to acceptable levels. A wide variety of remediation methods can help mitigate documented threats. Experts usually write up a report featuring actionable steps for software protection.

Depending on the identified threat, and its ranking on the list of priorities, remediation may include the following:

  • Changes in the source code: During the target testing and code review phase of threat modeling, many developers annotate the source code. Annotations and comments in the source code offer the security context to the code they review. Based on the security comments and annotations, programmers can implement changes during each code review.
  • Making changes in the configuration: For maximum security, it is a good idea to set up a protocol for changing the configuration. One example is forcing users to frequently review and change passwords.
  • Making changes in the business process: This could include any alterations to the business process, such as introducing multi-step authentication. It could also include recording and examining key data points at certain time intervals. Overall, it includes adding or changing any steps in the business processes and procedures.
  • Employee training: Given how effective phishing attacks and social engineering can be, employee training is vital to reduce the impact of cyber attacks, especially with so many employees now working remotely.

The Takeaway

Threat modeling is vital to building authority post-deployment. It helps software development and SaaS companies especially save time and money by detecting problems early in the software development life cycle.

A well-constructed threat model minimizes costly post-deployment recording. It identifies the maximum amount of design flaws a regular code review would have missed. Most of all, cyber threat modeling helps technology companies create security protocols tailored to the needs of their application or computer systems.

It pinpoints and prevents both regular and more creative, non-standard cyber attacks. Threat modeling also reduces the risk of insider threats by recognizing accidental mistakes and authorization mishaps.

While threat modeling can help shore up your cyber defenses and make your company more resilient when hacks and cyber attacks happen, no method is truly foolproof. Companies need to assume they will be hacked and make preparations for all such eventualities.

This is why it’s a good idea to consider managing the risk of cyber threats through a cyber insurance policy. The right policy will help pay for all expenses that crop up after a cyber attack, including any lost data or funds.

Additionally, the policy will respond to liability lawsuits from third parties that allege your company’s data breach caused them damages. Having the right cyber insurance policy will create an essential layer of protection if all other measures fail and ensure that your company will thrive despite expensive cyber threats.

Furthermore, the cost of a cyber liability policy has proven to cost a small fraction of what a company would need to pay to recover from a cyber attack, as the cost of recovery from a single event continues to rise.

According to the 2020 Cost of a Data Breach Report, data breaches cost businesses an average of $3.86 million per incident. To learn more about your cyber insurance needs or to speak to an expert broker from our technology practice, feel free to reach out to us at any time.

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