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DREADing Your Security

It seems like every time you turn around, someone in the information security industry is trying to figure out the types and amount of risks that are involved in the software their company provides, be it a service or an actual product. There's lots of different methods out there to try to gauge the amount of things you might have to worry about. One of the simpler ones (and a good starter) is the DREAD methodology. DREAD is an acronym for a set of principles that you can use to estimate the overall risk of your applications:

  • Damage
  • Reproducibility
  • Exploitability
  • Affected Users
  • Discoverability

These five points, together with some simple ratings - high, medium and low - can give you a more clear, overall picture of where the risks lie in your applications. It lets you spot the trouble points early and work more on mitigating those problems.

The rating system was created by a group over at Microsoft to help model the threats they were finding in their own applications. DREAD is just one method for assessing the risks, both technological and human-oriented around your application. The concept of threat modeling is a powerful tool for any security professional, regardless of their role in the project or company, to have as a part of their skill set. It helps put things in perspective for a wide range of positions - developers learn more about the overall security of the application, architects know what parts to focus on that are higher risk and project managers know where the weak points of their applications are.

DREAD Defined

So, lets take a look at each of these points and explain them a bit more. A single word (or two) carries a lot of meaning, but as with any other security concept, there's a lot involved in it.


"Damage" is probably one of the easier ones to start with, as it's what most people think of when they hear those fateful words, "we've been hacked". They immediately wonder what kinds of things the attacker was able to do and what they might have done to the internal systems. Obviously, this is going to be different from application to application and maybe even parts of the app.

This covers everything involved with the application - data sources, the actual code base, any interfaces the system might have with other applications as well as the server/VM the site runs on. Any or all of the above could be compromised and it's the job of an effective DREAD model to think about these things before hand and lower the amount of risk involved in each.


Some attacks may cause a lot of damage, but they lack one thing - staying power. In the world of the attacker, the only really valuable vulnerabilities they find in your application are the ones that they can abuse over and over again. Usually, they find these kinds of issues because they've found one they can reproduce. Think about it - if they stumble across something once, they might get at some good knowledge by accident, but they're looking for more than just that. They want a a way to milk your system into giving them as much data or exploitability as possible.

If an attack is not consistently reproducible - say it's time based so it can only happen once every year - then the risk rating of it goes way down. Obviously, it'll never go down to the zero level if the attack possibility still exists, but the lower the number the better.


The ease of exploitability is another big factor to consider. The more difficult you can make it for an attacker to get at parts of your system, the better off you'll be in the long run. Attackers have lots of tools at their disposal including scanners that come preconfigured with tests for lots of common exploits. All they need to do is point this scanner at your application and sit back to wait for the results. If they happen to pick up something good, they can dig a bit deeper into it, sometimes finding other vulnerabilities in the process.

Another thing to take into consideration when thinking about the exploitability of various parts of your application is the knowledge needed for the exploit. Is this something that an attacker could just start guessing at and find the problem or would they need some piece of insider knowledge that only someone in the company might know (domain knowledge)? They might also need to know some about the structure and technologies used in the applications. If you're masking what software you're using (like using mod_rewrite routing instead of .php file extensions) it can make it more difficult for the attacker.

Affected Users

Another factor in determining the overall risks involved in the application is the number of users that would be effected should something happen. For some systems, this is going to be a larger cross-section than others. Sometimes the feature that was exploited will only effect a certain group of the users too.

The larger the group of users that could be effected, the larger the risk. Additionally, the larger the amount of data about those users that could be exposed, the even greater the risk (access to your entire user database? double whammy). Something else to consider here - people that might not be direct users of your site but could be effected. This is just a pie-in-the-sky kind of guess, but if there's something that lets an attacker inject some kind of abusive script or malicious payload into your site, that opens it up to a whole other world of "users" to think about.


There's going to be risks in any application, that goes without saying. Sometimes they're unknown ones, lying in wait for some attacker to pick them out or, hopefully, someone on your team to come across and correct. Fortunately, there's a lot of things that can be done to prevent some of the more common vulnerabilities. This leaves the less common, more difficult to find issues.

The scanners I mentioned previously can also be used by those trying to secure their applications, giving them a "leg up" on the tactics an attacker might use. Be sure to shop around for a good scanner that will fit your needs. There's some that are a bit more well established while others are relatively new to the scene.

DREAD Ratings

The second part of the DREAD threat modeling process involves the ratings. Where the five points above give you more general questions to ask, the rating "points" give you a finer level of granularity about how much risk is involved in each of the points.

Inside of each of the five sections, there's three rating points - High (3 points), Medium (2) and Low (1) and, of course None (0). Keep in mind that everything in this rating system is relative. This can make it a bit more difficult to get a handle on it at first as you have to compare your threats against each other to get more accurate numbers. There's not really any "DREAD standards" that you can look at and say "oh, I see - if they can bypass my authentication through a SQL injection, that's a 3." It's usually recommended that you come up with a table of examples that testers and developers can look to as a guide for the rating levels.

Lets follow this same theme and set up a scenario for the user authentication part of an application. This tends to be one of the more sensitive areas of a site, so the ratings might skew a bit higher than others.

So, for example, let's look at the "user can bypass completely" kind of situation. This is a bit more extreme as it's a complete bypass, but it gives you a place to start. Since it could potentially effect pretty much the entire user handling system, all of the ratings are going to end up as "High".

D:3, R:3, E:3, A:3, D:3

On to the next threat that's been located: an attacker can get a listing of all admin usernames from an API endpoint, but that endpoint is not documented as a part of the API structure. Since this requires some discovery and trial and error to even find the endpoint, the exploitability level gets downgraded. The data that's presented there is potentially damaging, but just having the usernames is only one piece of the data he'd need to perform an attack. He could brute force, but that's generally a last resort if you're trying to get through an authentication layer. Discoverability goes down too since it would require either a lot of time spent trying to find the endpoint or some inside knowledge of the code to even know its there.

D:3, R:3, E:2, A:3, D:1

These numbers are then added up and the ones with the highest totals are the most "at risk" places the development group needs to worry about.

A Word About Risk

Risk is a tricky subject to think about as you're developing an application. There's constantly choices that you, as a developer, will be faced with that could effect the risks involved for the users of your application. Every time you include a third-party tool, you're increasing the risk. Each time you make a decision about security default settings or what level of access to "fail" a user down to, you're modifying the app's total risks. A lot of developers I know don't think in these terms, though. They just want to get the work done, have things functioning correctly and well-tested. There's not an emphasis on risks associated with their actions.

One way to help this (it won't solve it, but it will help) is to "push left" the secure development process and get devs thinking about these things as they're writing the code and not after the fact. Good security testing practices can help here too. Remember, don't make assumptions about the security of your application. Model it out and really think about how it could change things overall...and when in doubt, ask the person requesting the feature (or Product Owner if you're agile) for a business decision.


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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