Categorizing Threats with STRIDE

The following is an excerpt from the book Designing Secure Software: A Guide for Developers by Loren Kohnfelder, Copyright 2022, No Starch Press

In the late 1990s, Microsoft Windows dominated the personal computing landscape. As PCs became essential tools for both businesses and homes, many believed the company’s sales would grow endlessly. But Microsoft had only begun to figure out how networking should work. The Internet (back then still usually spelled with a capital I) and this new thing called the World Wide Web were rapidly gaining popularity, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser had aggressively gained market share from the pioneering Netscape Navigator. Now the company faced this new problem with security: who knew what can of worms connecting all the world’s computers might open up?

While a team of Microsoft testers worked creatively to find security flaws, the rest of the world appeared to be finding these flaws much faster. After a couple of years of reactive behavior, issuing patches for vulnerabilities that exposed customers over the network, the company formed a task force to get ahead of the curve. As part of this effort, I co-authored a paper with Praerit Garg that described a simple methodology to help developers see security flaws in their own products. Threat modeling based on the STRIDE threat taxonomy drove a massive education effort across all the company’s product groups. More than 20 years later, researchers across the industry continue to use STRIDE, and many independent derivatives, to enumerate threats.

STRIDE focuses the process of identifying threats by giving you a checklist of specific kinds of threats to consider: What can be spoofed (S), tampered (T) with, or repudiated (R)? What information (I) can be disclosed? How could a denial of service (D) or elevation of privilege (E) happen? These categories are specific enough to focus your analysis, yet general enough that you can mentally flesh out details relevant to a particular design and dig in from there.

Though members of the security community often refer to STRIDE as a threat modeling methodology, this is a misuse of the term (to my mind, at least, as the one who concocted the acronym). STRIDE is a simply a taxonomy of threats to software. The acronym provides an easy and memorable mnemonic to ensure that you haven’t overlooked any category of threat. It’s not a complete threat modeling methodology, which would have to include the many other components we’ve already explored in this chapter.

To see how STRIDE works, let’s start with spoofing. Looking through the model, component by component, consider how secure operation depends on the identity of the user (or machine, or digital signature on code, and so on). What advantages might an attacker gain if they could spoof identity here? This thinking should give you lots of possible threads to pull on. By approaching each component in the context of the model from a threat perspective, you can more easily set aside thoughts of how it should work, and instead begin to perceive how it might be abused.

Here’s a great technique I’ve used successfully many times: start your threat modeling session by writing the six threat names on a whiteboard. To get rolling, brainstorm a few of these abstract threats before digging into the details. The term “brainstorm” can mean different things, but the idea here is to move quickly, covering a lot of area, without overthinking it too much or judging ideas yet (you can skip the duds later on). This warm-up routine primes you for what to look out for, and also helps you switch into the necessary mindset. Even if you’re familiar with these categories of threat, it’s worth going through them all, and a couple that are less familiar and more technical bear careful explanation.

The STRIDE threat categories correspond to six security goals seen in Chapter 1 as classic principles. The security goal and threat category are two sides of the same coin, and sometimes it’s easier to work from one or the other—on the defense (the goal) or the offense (the threat).

Here’s how the match up with a few examples for each:

  • Spoofing is Authenticity: Phishing, stolen password, impersonation, message replay, BGP hijacking

  • Tampering is Integrity: Unauthorized data modification and deletion, Superfish ad injection

  • Repudiation is why we Audit: Plausible deniability, insufficient, logging, destruction of logs

  • Information disclosure is Confidentiality: Leaks, side channel, weak encryption, data left behind in a cache, Spectre/Meltdown

  • Denial of Service is Availability: Simultaneous requests swamp a web server, ransomware, MemCrashed

  • Elevation of Privilege is Authorization: SQL injection, xkcd’s “Little Bobby Tables”

Half of the STRIDE menagerie are direct threats to the information security fundamentals you learned about in Chapter 1: information disclosure is the enemy of confidentiality, tampering is the enemy of integrity, and denial of service compromises availability. The other half of STRIDE targets the Gold Standard. Spoofing subverts authenticity by assuming a false identity. Elevation of privilege subverts proper authorization. That leaves repudiation as the threat to auditing, which may not be immediately obvious and so is worth a closer look.

According to the Gold Standard, we should maintain accurate records of critical actions taken within the system and then audit those actions. Repudiation occurs when someone credibly denies that they took some action. In my years working in software security, I have never seen anyone directly repudiate anything (nobody has ever yelled “Did so!” and “Did not!” at each other in front of me). But what does happen is, say, a database suddenly disappears, and nobody knows why, because nothing was logged, and the lost data is gone without a trace. The organization might suspect that an intrusion occurred. Or it could have been a rogue insider, or possibly a regrettable blunder by an administrator. But absent any evidence, nobody knows. That’s a big problem, because if you cannot explain what happened after an incident, it’s very hard to prevent it from happening again. In the physical world, such perfect crimes are rare because activities such as robbing a bank involve physical presence, which inherently leaves all kinds of traces. Software is different; unless you provide a means to reliably collect evidence and log events, no fingerprints or muddy boot tracks remain as evidence.

Typically, we mitigate the threat of repudiation by running systems in which administrators and users understand they are responsible for their actions, because they know an accurate audit trail exists. This is also one more good reason to avoid having admin passwords written on a sticky note that everyone shares. If you do that, when trouble happens, everyone can credibly claim someone else must have done it. This applies even if you fully trust everyone, because accidents happen, and the more evidence you have available when trouble arises, the easier it is to recover and remediate.

STRIDE at the Movies

Just for fun (and to solidify these concepts), consider the STRIDE threats applied to the plot of the film Ocean’s Eleven. This classic heist story nicely demonstrates threat modeling concepts, including the full complement of STRIDE categories, from the perspectives of both attacker and defender. Apologies for the simplification of the plot, which I’ve done for brevity and focus, as well as for spoilers.

Danny Ocean violates parole (an elevation of privilege), flies out to meet his old partner in crime, and heads for Vegas. He pitches an audacious heist to a wealthy casino insider, who fills him in on the casino’s operational details (information disclosure), then gathers his gang of ex-cons. They plan their operation using a full-scale replica vault built for practice. On the fateful night, Danny appears at the casino and is predictably apprehended by security, creating the perfect alibi (repudiation of guilt). Soon he slips away through an air duct, and through various intrigues he and his accomplices extract half the money from the vault (tampering with its integrity), exfiltrating their haul with a remote-control van.

Threatening to blow up the remaining millions in the vault (a very expensive denial of service), the gang negotiates to keep the money in the van. The casino owner refuses and calls in the SWAT team, and in the ensuing chaos the gang destroys the vault’s contents and gets away. After the smoke clears, the casino owner checks the vault, lamenting his total loss, then notices a minor detail that seems amiss. The owner confronts Danny—who is back in lockup, as if he had never left—and we learn that the SWAT team was, in fact, the gang (spoofing by impersonating the police), who walked out with the money hidden in their tactical equipment bags after the fake battle. The practice vault mock-up had provided video to make it only appear (spoofing of the location) that the real vault had been compromised, which didn’t actually happen until the casino granted full access to the fake SWAT team (an elevation of privilege for the gang). Danny gets the girl, and they all get away clean with the money—a happy ending for the perpetrators that might have turned out quite differently had the casino hired a threat modeling consultant!