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Threat Modeling

The Rocky Path to Effective Threat Modeling Automation

March 20, 2024
Written by
Abhay Bhargav

A game of whack-a-mole—that's what cybersecurity is without effective threat modeling. It’s an important process of proactively mapping out how attackers might exploit our systems. However, automating threat modeling has been very challenging even when the benefits are already so clear.

So, if threat modeling is a critical process, why is automating so darn tricky? After all, the cybersecurity industry is drowning in alerts and data. Automation would seem like the logical answer to streamline threat modeling and make our lives easier.

Let’s talk about this conundrum. It’s important for us to learn the complex challenges that made automation more like a pipe dream than a reality.

Table of Contents

  1. The complexity of modern IT systems
  2. The evolving threat landscape
  3. The human factor
  4. The challenge of personalizing automated threat modeling
  5. How to overcome compatibility barriers
  6. Data overload in automation
  7. The cost of automation
  8. The quest for standardization
  9. Towards a more secure tomorrow

The complexity of modern IT systems

Cutting-edge cloud services, complex third-party integrations, legacy systems that refuse to bow out, and more—this is the dizzying array of modern IT systems that requires our attention.

Here’s where it gets more complicated: with innovation comes the challenges to keep these systems secure. It’s about mapping a dynamic, always-evolving ecosystem. Each component, be it a cloud service or a piece of legacy software, comes with its distinct set of variables, behaviors, and potential vulnerabilities.

The reason is the sheer diversity and interconnectedness of these components. For example, cloud services might get updated or scaled on the fly, introducing new variables into the equation almost daily. Third-party integrations make it more complicated as they usually operate under different security protocols and update cycles. It doesn’t end there, legacy systems don’t have the same agility, but they’re as important to operations as the other components.

In the context of the complexity of modern IT systems, automating threat modeling is not as simple as teaching a system to recognize potential threats. You need to develop an automation solution that can adapt as quickly as the systems it’s designed to protect while understanding each component and how they fit within the broader IT ecosystem. Honestly, it’s not as simple as it sounds, and that’s why automation in this domain has been an uphill battle, one that demands both technological innovation and a comprehensive understanding of the IT landscape.

The evolving threat landscape

The only thing constant in this world is change. Same goes with cybersecurity. Cybercriminals are always finding new ways to improve their tactics, techniques, and procedures to penetrate defenses and exploit new vulnerabilities. If you’re thinking about malware and phishing schemes, then yes, you’re right, but it goes way beyond that. It’s about adapting strategies that scale with the innovations of today’s digital ecosystem, exploiting the smallest opening with precision and ingenuity.

This makes the automation of threat modeling more challenging as it goes beyond simply codifying a set of known threats to a system. Let’s discuss:

  • Create a system that can learn, adapt, and anticipate because the adversaries aren’t just changing their tools; they’re rewriting the rules by forcing organizations to have automated systems that can recognize and counter new tactics used by them.
  • Automated systems need to be built with advanced learning capabilities to ingest and analyze vast data sets, identify patterns, and adapt their threat models in real-time. Honestly, this is a tall order, given the complexity and variability of the modern IT ecosystem. 
  • Aside from reacting to known threats, automated systems need to have the capability to anticipate future threats with sophisticated predictive analytics.
  • Given the rapid pace at which cyber threats evolve, automation systems must be capable of updating their threat models at a similarly swift pace to remain effective.

The goal of automating threat modeling stays the same: to develop systems that are robust and efficient as much as they are adaptive and dynamic to outsmart malicious actors at their own game.

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The human factor

There are two components of effective threat modeling that are both irreplaceable and uniquely human: intuition and expertise. Despite the progress in automation and machine learning, the deep understanding and predictive capabilities of expert cybersecurity professionals remain unmatched. They can interpret gray areas, understand ambiguous data, and most of all, predict the unpredictable nature of human behavior behind every cyber threat and attack.

The current landscape of automated threat modeling is already impressive with its latest innovation in technology. Yet, these systems often hit a wall when trying to make a copy of the complex nature of human skills honed through years of experience. The ingenuity of human intuition, especially when it comes to deciphering complex patterns of understanding behind an attacker’s actions, is second to none.

Interpreting ambiguities

Human experts do a good job of understanding incomplete or vague information, which is a common occurrence in threat analysis. Automated tools, on the other hand, need clear, defined data to work effectively. It struggles with the shades of gray that human analysts deal with daily.

Predictive behavior

The ability to predict an attacker’s next move or the potential misuse of what otherwise looks like a benign system feature is where human intuition really shines. Automated tools are largely reactive and rely on historical data and known patterns to make predictions.

Contextual understanding

Humans are good at contextualizing information by taking external factors into account, such as current events or emerging technologies that might influence the threat landscape. The problem with automated systems is their lack of a broader perspective, focusing instead on the data at hand.

Creative problem-solving

When faced with unconventional threats or complex scenarios, human experts can think outside the box and apply creative problem-solving skills. Automation, by nature, is bound by the algorithms and parameters set by its developers, hence limiting its ability to innovate in response to new challenges.

The challenge of personalizing automated threat modeling

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in cybersecurity. Each organization’s digital infrastructure is unique with its specific needs, assets, and vulnerabilities. Because of that, there’s a need for highly customizable automation solutions in threat modeling, solutions that can be tailored specifically for the individual contours of an organization.

Here’s where the struggle is: this level of customization in automated threat modeling systems is not easy. Let’s talk about why.

Diverse environments

Organizations operate in exceedingly different IT environments, from cloud-based infrastructure to hybrid modes, each with its own set of complexities. Designing automation that can seamlessly adapt to these varying environments needs an advanced understanding of their distinct qualities.

Unique vulnerabilities

An organization’s risk profile is different from another because of factors like industry, size, and geographical location. An automated system that can find and prioritize these unique vulnerabilities is challenging to design because it demands a high degree of personalization.

Scalability vs. customization

Striking the right balance between scalability and customization is a tricky business. While automated solutions need to be scalable to be cost-effective, they also need to offer enough flexibility to meet the specific needs of different organizations.

Integration with existing tools

Organizations already have an arsenal of cybersecurity tools in place. Making sure that automated threat modeling solutions can integrate smoothly with these existing tools without disrupting workflows adds another layer of complexity.

Evolving threat landscapes

The more the threat landscape evolves, so too must the automated solutions designed to protect against them. Designing these systems to be customizable and adaptable over time can be a huge challenge.

These challenges need the collective effort of developers, security professionals, and organizational stakeholders. The goal is to develop automated threat modeling systems that can adapt to the unique challenges and requirements that every organization needs.

How to overcome compatibility barriers

Integrating automated threat modeling tools into existing security frameworks is tricky if you want to minimize disruption to operations. Even the most seasoned cybersecurity teams struggle with this.

The diversity of security protocols, tools, and infrastructures across organizations demands an automated threat modeling solution that is versatile enough to adapt to various environments, even with their own set of rules, configuration, and legacy systems.

Compatibility issues

The first problem is usually in making sure that the new automated tools can communicate effectively with the existing security infrastructure. To do that, you need extensive compatibility checks and, sometimes, develop custom interfaces or adapters.

Data silos

Many organizations wrestle with data silos, where information is compartmentalized and difficult to access cross-departmentally. When integrating a new system that needs comprehensive access to security data, you might need to make changes in the data management practices.

Workflow disruptions

When you introduce new tools, it usually means altering existing workflow, which can disrupt day-to-day operations. The challenge is to implement automation in a way that improves current processes without causing much downtime or efficiency losses.

Training and adaptation

After technical integration, there’s the human aspect. Teams need to be trained on how new tools work. Aside from that, they have to be informed about the intricacies of how they fit into the broader security strategy of your organization.

Scalability concerns

As organizations grow and evolve, so do their security needs. Automated threat modeling systems need to fit into the current infrastructure and  grow with future growth and changes.

Data overload in automation

Automated threat modeling promises a more efficient way to secure our digital belongings, but at the same time, it creates another problem: data overload. Systems like those consume and analyze vast data sets to identify potential threats. Usually, they find themselves drowning in a sea of data that makes distinguishing critical signals difficult to do.

Data overload not only strains the computational resources but also risks concealing genuine threats among irrelevant information. The main problem is the system’s ability to prioritize and contextualize data while making sure that the attention is focused on what truly matters.

Here’s the multi-faceted approach that cybersecurity professionals can apply:

  • Develop more sophisticated algorithms to filter out irrelevant data at an early stage to make sure that only pertinent information is subjected to deeper analysis.
  • Incorporating contextual information to better understand the significance of data.
  • Using machine learning models that adapt over time, learning from false positives and missed threats to improve their accuracy and efficiency.
  • Sharing insights across platforms and organizations to build a broader view of emerging threats.
  • Recognizing the irreplaceable value of human intuition and expertise in overseeing automated processes to make sure that the final judgment on potential threats is informed by seasoned professionals.

The cost of automation

It’s a huge investment to implement an automated threat modeling system. Aside from the promise of efficiency and better security, organizations must confront the reality of resource allocation—financial, temporal, and human. This part of automation is especially critical for small businesses, where resources might be limited.

Financial investment

The upfront cost of procuring or developing an automated threat modeling solution is not a joke. And it doesn’t stop after purchasing software, organizations might need to invest in hardware upgrades, cloud storage, and other infrastructure improvements to support the new system.

Time commitment

Time is a precious commodity, and the deployment of automated threat modeling systems is not instantaneous. It involves a period of configuration, testing, and integration into existing workflows, during which its full benefits are not yet realized. Aside from those, ongoing maintenance and updates add to the time investment.

Expertise requirements

While the goal of automation is to streamline processes, setting up and maintaining an automated system requires a high level of expertise. Organizations need skilled professionals who can configure the system to their specific needs, interpret its outputs, and intervene when necessary.

These can be a huge hurdle for small organizations. The financial outlay may strain limited budgets, the time for implementation and maintenance can divert resources from other critical tasks, and the expertise needed may not be readily available in-house.

However, not all hope is lost. Smaller organizations can:

  • Exploring cost-effective, scalable solutions tailored to their size and needs.
  • Using open-source tools or platforms that offer flexibility without the hefty price tag.
  • Considering phased or modular implementation to spread out costs and workload.
  • Investing in training for existing staff to build the required expertise internally.

Understanding the resource realities of automation in threat modeling is important for organizations to make informed decisions. It's about weighing the long-term benefits of enhanced security and efficiency against the immediate demands of implementation to make sure that the investment aligns with the organization's capabilities and strategic objectives.

The quest for standardization

When it comes to threat modeling, the diversity of methodology is both a strength and a challenge. It’s because variety reflects the adaptability of threat modeling to different contexts and needs but, at the same time, also introduces a significant challenge for automation. Because there’s no unified approach or standard, the development of automated tools becomes more complicated.

There are several methodologies such as STRIDE, PASTA, DREAD, and more. Each offers a tailored approach to different aspects of cybersecurity. However, this diversity means that automated systems need to be highly adaptable, with the capability to understand and apply multiple frameworks effectively. It complicates the design and implementation of such systems, limits their versatility, and increases their complexity.

Potential paths towards this standardization include:

  • Encouraging collaboration among cybersecurity professionals, organizations, and standard-setting bodies to agree on core principles and practices that can be universally applied.
  • Developing modular threat modeling frameworks that can be adapted to different methodologies while maintaining a consistent underlying structure.
  • Establishing a set of best practices and guidelines that can serve as a reference point for both manual and automated threat modeling to ensure a base level of consistency and quality.
  • Advocating for open standards in threat modeling to foster interoperability and compatibility among tools and methodologies for smoother integration of automated systems.

Towards a more secure tomorrow

Complex systems, sophisticated attackers, integration intricacies—implementing automated threat modeling is complicated, and it needs an expert’s hand. Even finding someone is a challenge.

And AppSecEngineer is here to provide the solution. Our Threat Modeling collection is designed to empower cybersecurity professionals with cutting-edge tools, resources, and training. What we have is a community where knowledge meets actions, and theory transforms into practice.

Dive into the future of #ThreatModeling with GenAI & LLMs! Join us for a free webinar on March 26th, 9 AM PT. Apply to attend.

If you’re looking to refine your skills, stay ahead of emerging threats, or integrate the latest methodologies into your work, then you know where to look.

Source for article
Abhay Bhargav

Abhay Bhargav

Abhay is a speaker and trainer at major industry events including DEF CON, BlackHat, OWASP AppSecUSA. He loves golf (don't get him started).

Abhay Bhargav


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