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STRIDEing for Security

One thing that can go a long way to help you secure your application is to sit back and take a good hard look at it and evaluate where the possible problem areas are. This is known as "threat modeling". It's more than just "oh, I think we need to add some more validation here" or "maybe this should be more well protected". It digs a bit deeper than that, using some of the more common types of attacks (or maybe ones more specific to you and your industry) and evaluating the strength of your application base on how it can prevent them.

Threat Modeling

As every experienced software developer knows, even if there's a good security-centric architecture in place, there's still going to be things that come up that weren't thought about when the original vision was conceived. There'll be things in the application, sore spots, that you know, if you'd "just had more time" could have turned out much better. Sadly, this kind of thing is all too common in the typical software development lifecycle (SDLC) and can - if not kept in check - leave some pretty wide security holes.

Enter threat modeling. There's two ways to go about using them during the development of your applications - pre-assessment and post-assessment. In the pre-assessment phase, you can look at the planned features for your application and try to evaluate what the largest risks are that those features bring with them. Obviously, this will be completely different for every system out there. There are some similarities between the threats associated with certain kinds of network and system setups, but because environments can vary so widely (as can applications), there's no "One Way" to assess the threat of your setup.

Microsoft and STRIDE

Microsoft, arguably one of the largest companies that knows a thing or two about software development (I'll leave it up to you if you think this is positive or not), shared what they saw as a set of common threats - a sort of checklist - that you can run through when doing your modeling to be sure you're hitting some of the main paint points.

As a part of the process, you pick apart your application and figure out its various major parts and ask several questions about them to find where the problems lie. Ideally, this also includes any kind of data modeling, system architecture and what external services/sources it users in documentation that can be referred to through out the modeling process.

STRIDE is an acronym for the six kinds of threats that MS saw most commonly in their development and resulting applications. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory, but I'm going to give a brief overview of each to help explain more of what they're about:

  • Spoofing identity

    Anyone that's ever created any kind of user authentication/login system for an application know how important this kind of threat is. Even if you haven't made a system like this before, you - as a user of just about any system out there - know how much trouble it would cause if someone was able to access your account by mimicking you. This isn't just about user authentication either - spoofing can happen on a layer lower than the code would know about (like network address spoofing, falsifying email headers, etc).

    When you're evaluating your application's parts, start to think about how it validates that the user is who they say they are. Is there a way for someone to bypass part of the authorization to get to things they shouldn't just by falsifying a bit of information? By doing what you can to reduce the dependency of your application on external pieces of data for it's security, you can help to minimize the number of possible exploits that could be performed on that part of your code.

    Remember, threats can be human too - if there's a human involved in the process somewhere, there's nothing saying that whatever tool they use to interact with your application and there level could be exploited and their user spoofed. Simple social engineering shows that a lot can happen if people aren't on their toes.

  • Tampering with data

    This sort of threat has more to do with the data that's powering the application than it does the sort of input that your users are providing. This sort of threat isn't for things like XSS or CSRF problems, it's more about the sort of holes that might allow someone to modify the data of your application maliciously. This could be anything, depending on how your application is written - database records (via a SQL injection vulnerability), text files, binary files, etc.

    These sorts of threats should include good looks at whatever external data sources your application uses and evaluations as to the overall safety and reliability of those sources. Obviously, if you have things locked down tight and firewalled off correctly, you'll help to mitigate some of the problems.

    As a developer, one of the best things you can do is to filter the data coming in to your application, no matter the source. Some sources can be trusted more than others - determining that is one of the points of this section - but you still cannot trust anything outside of what you've already proven as valid.

    Man-in-the-Middle attacks also have to be considered here. Thankfully, HTTPS/SSL provide a relatively simple and effective aid at preventing those sort of issues.

  • Repudiation

    While it might sound a bit more complicated than some of the other things on this list, mitigating repudiation is a pretty simple task if the application does its logging and tracking correctly. The threat of repudiation is basically that, with all of the possible actions that a user could take in your application, that you would not be able to provide enough proof that it was actually done (and by them).

    If a malicious user was to enter your system and start to poke around and find an issue where he could make himself an administrator for the remainder of his session, he could cause some pretty good damage if he wanted to. If you're not tracking things like what user is doing what, their level of user and information about their connection, you would have #1 no way of knowing that they did something wrong and #2 not have a way to prove that they even did it.

    Simple logging is good to help prevent this kind of threat, but a more complete, robust logging scheme is required to effectively track and monitor user access to the system. It's a fine balance between what data is useful and information overload, though. Be sure when you're evaluating this threat you think about the amount of data being logged, what kind of data it is and if there's certain parts of the application that are more important (and should therefore be tracked in more detail).

  • Information Disclosure

    This is another in the list that's fairly obvious, but it can be one of the most damaging if the attacker is able to exploit it. This kind of data could come from any number of data source types including database records (via a SQL injection), local file information (though Local File Includes) or even the stream of data flowing between two machines (back to the Man-in-the-Middle).

    When this threat is evaluated, you also have to consider what sort of information they might be able to access were they able to bypass parts of the system and reach into your data and pull out what they'd like.

    You can also apply this threat category in a slightly different way - but using it as justification to instruct and educate users about your system and what's happening with their data when they give it to you.

    There's a human element to this one too - certain people will have access to certain things and it's human nature to try to make things easier and help others out with favors. Unfortunately this can also leave some doors wide open to people that shouldn't have that access. You have to educate not only your users on the correct ways of controlling access to their accounts (don't share passwords, lock terminals, etc).

  • Denial of service

    This threat has become so common that quite a few people, even those way outside of any kind of security knowledge know what a Denial of Service attack is and what it can do to a service/company. What you, as a developer, have to do is ensure that the services and features you're providing aren't open to this sort of attack.

    This is particularly important when providing things like APIs and web services to your users. You have to make doubly sure, since the input really could be anything, that your application can handle it and fail accordingly. Be sure that invalid user input is evaluated quickly and correctly - and dismissed - so it's not causing processing issues on the backed.

    When most people thing of a DoS attack, they think if overloading the servers with a large number of requests so it can't service real customers/users. This is a common case, but if the attacker is clever enough, they could find a spot in your app that breaks or times out if bad data is given to it. This can cause the process to hang, making it unusable by anyone and effectively denying service.

    Also consider things like memory and disk usage as well, being sure that you're not overloading the system with too much data in memory at the same time or writing out too many logs (where it could fill the drive).

  • Elevation of privilege

    This type of threat category could almost be seen as a super-set of several of the other items in this list. Things like information disclosure or data tampering could all come as a result of an attacker that has figured out how to go above their permissions level and gain access to resources they shouldn't. This can happen either on a per-session basis or as a result of the user somehow updating their permissions in the system to escalate their status in the system every time they access it.

    When thinking about this threat, take a good long look at how you authorize users and what they can access. You cannot trust that a user won't discover another part of the application just because they can't see it when they're using the service. When developing applications, all user actions should be run through a system that checks their access levels and evaluates to ensure their allow/deny status right then. Assumptions should never be made that a user is coming from a certain place and immediately allow them access.

    Remember, user authentication and authorization are not the same thing so have strategies in place for both sides of the equation.

A handy thing about a lot of this work is that, since threats are directly linked to the targeted part of an application and the features it provides, they can be "reused" across a system that uses similar features in many different places.

Additionally, not all of the STRIDE threats will apply to every part of the application, making it easy to cross a few off the list for discussion immediately.

Next Steps with DREAD

If you'd like to take your modeling a step further, you can look into the DREAD rating system that helps you to judge which of the threats you uncovered during the STRIDE exploration are the most severe and should be tackled first. It relies on a rating system for a few different categories (that make up the acronym): damage potential, reproducibility, exploitability, affected users and how easy it is to discover.

Most developers are doing evaluations like this all the time in their heads as they write their code and discover bugs, but DREAD gives you a solid set of numbers you can look at and see which makes the most sense to get fixed.


by Chris Cornutt

With over 12 years of experience in development and a focus on application security Chris is on a quest to bring his knowledge to the masses, making application security accessible to everyone. He also is an avodcate for security in the PHP community and provides application security training and consulting services.

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