Think Like An Attacker?

One of the problems with being quoted in the press is that even your mom writes to you with questions like “And what’s wrong with “think like an attacker?” I think it’s good advice!”

Thanks for the confidence, mom!

Here’s what’s wrong with think like an attacker: most people have no clue how to do it. They don’t know what matters to an attacker. They don’t know how an attacker spends their day. They don’t know how an attacker approaches a problem. Telling people to think like an attacker isn’t prescriptive or clear. Some smart folks like Yoshi Kohno are trying to teach it. (I haven’t seen a report on how it’s gone.)

Even if Yoshi is succeeding, it’s hard to teach a way of thinking. It takes a quarter or more at a university. I’m not claiming that ‘think like an attacker’ isn’t teachable, but I will claim that most people don’t know how. What’s worse, the way we say it, we sometimes imply that you should be embarrassed if you can’t think like an attacker.

Lately, I’ve been challenging people to think like a professional chef. Most people have no idea how a chef spends their days, or how they approach a problem. They have no idea how to plan a menu, or how to cook a hundred or more dinners in an hour.

We need to give advice that can be followed. We need to teach people how to think about security. Repeating the “think like an attacker” mantra may be useful to a small class of well-oriented experts. For everyone else, it’s like saying “just ride the bike!” rather than teaching them step-by-step. We can and should do better at understanding people’s capabilities, giving them advice to match, and training and education to improve.

Understanding people’s capabilities, giving them advice to match and helping them improve might not be a bad description of all the announcements we made yesterday.

In particular, the new threat modeling process is built on something we expect an engineer will know: their software design. It’s a better starting point than “think like a civil engineer.”

[Update: See also my follow-up post, “The Discipline of ‘think like an attacker’.”]