The output of a threat modeling session, or the creature from the bug lagoon

Wendy Nather has continued the twitter conversation which is now a set of blog posts. (My comments are threat modeling and risk assessment, and hers: “That’s not a bug, it’s a creature. “)

I think we agree on most things, but I sense a little semantic disconnect in some things that he says:

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.

I consider the word “bug” to refer to an error or unintended functionality in the existing code, not a potential vulnerability in what is (hopefully) still a theoretical design. So if you’re doing whiteboard threat modeling, the output should be “things not to do going forward.”

As a result, you’re stuck with something to mitigate, probably by putting in extra security controls that you otherwise wouldn’t have needed. I consider this a to-do list, not a bug list.
(“That’s not a bug, it’s a creature. “, Wendy Nather)

I don’t disagree here, but want to take it one step further. I see a list of “things not to do going forward” and a “todo list” as an excellent start for a set of tests to confirm that those things happen or don’t. So you file bugs, and those bugs get tracked and triaged and ideally closed as resolved or fixed when you have a test that confirms that they ain’t happening. If you want to call this something else, that’s fine–tracking and managing bugs can be too much work. The key to me is that the “things not to do” sink in, and to to-do list gets managed in some good way.

And again, I agree with her points about probability, and her point that it’s lurking in people’s minds is an excellent one, worth repeating:

the conversation with the project manager, business executives, and developers is always, always going to be about probability, even as a subtext. Even if they don’t come out and say, “But who would want to do that?” or “Come on, we’re not a bank or anything,” they’ll be thinking it when they estimate the cost of fixing the bug or putting in the mitigations.

I simply think the more you focus threat modeling on the “what will go wrong” question, the better. Of course, there’s an element of balance: you don’t usually want to be movie plotting or worrying about Chinese spies replacing the hard drive before you worry about the lack of authentication in your network connections.

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.]

Elevation of Privilege (Web Edition) Question

Someone wrote to me to ask:

A few cards are not straightforward to apply to a webapp situation (some seem assume a proprietary client) – do you recommend discarding them or perhaps you thought of a way to rephrase them somehow?

For example:

“An attacker can make a client unavailable or unusable but the problem goes away when the attacker stops”

I don’t have a great answer, but I’m thinking someone else might have taken it on.

For Denial of Service attacks in the Microsoft SDL bug bar, we roughly to break things down to a matrix of (server, client, persistent/temporary). That doesn’t seem right for web apps. Is there a better approach, and perhaps even one that can translate into some good threat cards?

The 1st Software And Usable Security Aligned for Good Engineering (SAUSAGE) Workshop

National Institute of Standards and Technology
Gaithersburg, MD USA
April 5-6, 2011

Call for Participation

The field of usable security has gained significant traction in recent years, evidenced by the annual presentation of usability papers at the top security conferences, and security papers at the top human-computer interaction (HCI) conferences. Evidence is growing that significant security vulnerabilities are often caused by security designers’ failure to account for human factors. Despite growing attention to the issue, these problems are likely to continue until the underlying development processes address usable security.

See http://www.thei3p.org/events/sausage2011.html for more details.

6502 Visual Simulator

In 6502 visual simulator, Bunnie Huang writes:

It makes my head spin to think that the CPU from the first real computer I used, the Apple II, is now simulateable at the mask level as a browser plug-in. Nothing to install, and it’s Open-licensed. How far we have come…a little more than a decade ago, completing a project like this would have resulted in a couple PhDs being awarded, or regarded as trade secret by some big EDA vendor. This is just unreal…but very cool!’

Visual6502.org, via Justin Mason

Use crypto. Not too confusing. Mostly asymmetric.

A little ways back, Gunnar Peterson said “passwords are like hamburgers, taste great but kill us in long run wean off password now or colonoscopy later.” I responded: “Use crypto. Not too confusing. Mostly asymmetric.” I’d like to expand on that a little. Not quite so much as Michael Pollan, but a little.

The first sentence, “use crypto” is a simple one. It means more security requires getting away from sending strings as a way to authenticate people at a distance. This applies (obviously) to passwords, but also to SSNs, mother’s “maiden” names, your first car, and will apply to biometrics. Sending a string which represents an image of a fingerprint is no harder to fake than sending a password. Stronger authenticators will need to involve an algorithm and a key.

The second, “not too confusing” is a little more subtle, because there are layers of confusing. There’s developer confusion as the system is implemented, adding pieces, like captchas, without a threat model. There’s user confusion as to what program popped that demand for credentials, what site they’re connecting to, or what password they’re supposed to use. There’s also confusion about what makes a good password when one site demands no fewer than 10 characters and another insists on no more. But regardless, it’s essential that a a strong authentication system be understood by at least 99% of its users, and that the authentication is either mutual or resistant to replay, reflection and man-in-the-middle attacks. In this, “TOFU” is better than PKI. I prefer to call TOFO “persistence” or “key persistence” This is in keeping with Pollan’s belief that things with names are better than things with acronyms.

Finally, “mostly asymmetric.” There are three main building blocks in crypto. They are one way functions, symmetric and asymmetric ciphers. Asymmetric systems are those with two mathematically related keys, only one of which is kept secret. These are better because forgery attacks are harder; because only one party holds a given key. (Systems that use one way functions can also deliver this property.) There are a few reasons to avoid asymmetric ciphers, mostly having to do with the compute capabilities of really small devices like a smartcard or very power limited devices like pacemakers.

So there you have it: Use crypto. Not too confusing. Mostly asymmetric.

Hacker Hide and Seek

Core Security Ariel Waissbein has been building security games for a while now. He was They were kind enough to send a copy of his their “Exploit” game after I released Elevation of Privilege. [Update: I had confused Ariel Futoransky and Ariel Waissbein, because Waissbein wrote the blog post. Sorry!] At Defcon, he and his colleagues will be running a more capture-the-flag sort of game, titled “Hide and seek the backdoor:”

For starters, a backdoor is said to be a piece of code intentionally added to a program to grant remote control of the program — or the host that runs it – to its author, that at the same time remains difficult to detect by anybody else.

But this last aspect of the definition actually limits its usefulness, as it implies that the validity of the backdoor’s existence is contingent upon the victim’s failure to detect it. It does not provide any clue at all into how to create or detect a backdoor successfully.

A few years ago, the CoreTex team did an internal experiment at Core and designed the Backdoor Hiding Game, which mimics the old game Dictionary. In this new game, the game master provides a description of the functionalities of a program, together with the setting where it runs, and the players must then develop programs that fulfill these functionalities and have a backdoor. The game master then mixes all these programs with one that he developed and has no backdoors, and gives these to the players. Then, the players must audit all the programs and pick the benign one.

First, I think this is great, and I look forward to seeing it. I do have some questions. What elements of the game can we evaluate and how? A general question we can ask is “Is the game for fun or to advance the state of the art?” (Both are ok and sometimes it’s unclear until knowledge emerges from the chaos of experimentation.) His blog states “We discovered many new hiding techniques,” which is awesome. Games that are fun and advance the state of the art are very hard to create. It’s a seriously cool achievement.

My next question is, how close is the game to the reality of secure software development? How can we transfer knowledge from one to the other? The rules seem to drive backdoors into most code (assuming they all work, (n-1)/n). That’s unlike reality, with a much higher incidence of backdoors than exist in the wild. I’m assuming that the code will all be custom, and thus short enough to create and audit in a game, which also leads to a higher concentration of backdoors per line of code. That different concentration will reward different techniques from those that could scale to a million lines of code.

More generally, do we know how to evaluate hiding techniques? Do hackers playing a game create the same sort of backdoors as disgruntled employees or industrial spies? Because of this contest and the Underhanded C Contests, we have two corpuses of backdoored code. However, I’m not aware of any corpus of deployed backdoor code which we could compare.

So anyway, I look forward to seeing this game at Defcon, and in the future, more serious games for information security.

Previously, I’ve blogged about the Underhanded C contest here and here

SOUPS Keynote & Slides

This week, the annual Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS) is being held on the Microsoft campus. I delivered a keynote, entitled “Engineers Are People Too:”

In “Engineers Are People, Too” Adam Shostack will address an often invisible link in the chain between research on usable security and privacy and delivering that usability: the engineer. All too often, engineers are assumed to have infinite time and skills for usability testing and iteration. They have time to read papers, adapt research ideas to the specifics of their product, and still ship cool new features. This talk will bring together lessons from enabling Microsoft’s thousands of engineers to threat modeling effectively, share some new approaches to engineering security usability, and propose new directions for research.

A fair number of people have asked for the slides, and they’re here: Engineers Are People Too.

Lady Ada books opening May 11

Ada’s Technical Books is Seattle’s only technical book store located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Ada’s specifically carries new, used, & rare books on Computers, Electronics, Physics, Math, and Science as well as hand-picked inspirational and leisure reading, puzzles, brain teasers, and gadgets geared toward the technically minded customer.

From the store’s blog, “Grand Opening: June 11th

I’ve been helping David and Danielle a little with book selection because they’re good folks and I love great bookstores. I encourage Seattle readers to stop by.