Threat Modeling and Risk Assessment

Yesterday, I got into a bit of a back and forth with Wendy Nather on threat modeling and the role of risk management, and I wanted to respond more fully.

So first, what was said:

(Wendy) As much as I love Elevation of Privilege, I don’t think any threat modeling is complete without considering probability too.
(me) Thanks! I’m not advocating against risk, but asking when. Do you evaluate bugs 2x? Once in threat model & once in bug triage?
(Wendy) Yes, because I see TM as being important in design, when the bugs haven’t been written in yet. 🙂

I think Wendy and I are in agreement that threat modeling should happen early, and that probability is important. My issue is that I think issues discovered by threat modeling are, in reality, dealt with by only a few of Gunnar’s top 5 influencers.

I think there are two good reasons to consider threat modeling as an activity that produces a bug list, rather than a prioritized list. First is that bugs are a great exit point for the activity, and second, bugs are going to get triaged again anyway.

First, bugs are a great end point. An important part of my perspective on threat modeling is that it works best when there’s a clear entry and exit point, that is, when developers know when the threat modeling activity is done. (Window Snyder, who knows a thing or two about threat modeling, raised this as the first thing that needed fixing when I took my job at Microsoft to improve threat modeling.) Developers are familiar with bugs. If you end a strange activity, such as threat modeling, with a familiar one, such as filing bugs, developers feel empowered to take a next step. They know what they need to do next.

And that’s my second point: developers and development organizations triage bugs. Any good development organization has a way to deal with bugs. The only two real outputs I’ve ever seen from threat modeling are bugs and threat model documents. I’ve seen bugs work far better than documents in almost every case.

So if you expect that bugs will work better then you’re left with the important question that Wendy is raising: when do you consider probability? That’s going to happen in bug triage anyway, so why bother including it in threat modeling? You might prune the list and avoid entering silly bugs. That’s a win. But if you capture your risk assessment process and expertise within threat modeling, then what happens in bug triage? Will the security expert be in the room? Do you have a process for comparing security priority to other priorities? (At Microsoft, we use security bug bars for this, and a sample is here.)

My concern, and the reason I got into a back and forth, is I suspect that putting risk assessment into threat modeling keeps organizations from ensuring that expertise is in bug triage, and that’s risky.

(As usual, these opinions are mine, and may differ from those of my employer.)

[Updated to correct editing issues.]