Threat Modeling of the Cloud

If there’s one problem in cloud computing you have to revisit regularly, it’s security. Security concerns, real or imagined, must be squarely addressed in order to convince an organization to use cloud computing. One highly useful technique for analyzing security issues and designing defenses is threat modeling, a security analysis technique long used at Microsoft. Threat modeling is useful in any software context, but is particularly valuable in cloud computing due to the widespread preoccupation with security. It’s also useful because technical and non-technical people alike can follow the diagrams easily. At some level this modeling is useful for general cloud scenarios, but as you start to get specific you will need to have your cloud platform in view, which in my case is Windows Azure.

To illustrate how threat modeling works in a cloud computing context, let’s address a specific threat. A common concern is that the use of shared resources in the cloud might compromise the security of your data by allowing it to fall into the wrong hands—what we call Data Isolation Failure. A data isolation failure is one of the primary risks organizations considering cloud computing worry about.

To create our threat model, we’ll start with the end result we’re trying to avoid: data in the wrong hands.

Next we need to think about what can lead to this end result that we don’t want. How could data of yours in the cloud end up in the wrong hands? It seems this could happen deliberately or by accident. We can draw two nodes, one for deliberate compromise and one for accidental compromise; we number the nodes so that we can reference them in discussions. Either one of these conditions is sufficient to cause data to be in the wrong hands, so this is an OR condition. We’ll see later on how to show an AND condition.

Let’s identify the causes of accidental data compromise (1.1). One would be human failure to set the proper restrictions in the first place: for example, leaving a commonly used or easily-guessed database password in place. Another might be a failure on the part of the cloud infrastructure to enforce security properly. Yet another cause might be hardware failure, where a failed drive is taken out of the data center for repair. These and other causes are added to the tree, which now looks like this:

We can now do the same for the deliberately compromised branch (1.2). Some causes include an inside job, which could happen within your business but could also happen at the cloud provider. Another deliberate compromise would be a hacker observing data in transmission. These and other causes could be developed further, but we’ll stop here for now.

If we consider these causes sufficiently developed, we can explore mitigations to the root causes, the bottom leaves of the tree. These mitigations are shown in circles in the diagram below (no mitigation is shown for the “data in transmission observed” node because it needs to be developed further). For cloud threat modeling I like to color code my mitigations to show the responsible party: green for the business, yellow for the cloud provider, red for a third party.

You should not start to identify mitigations until your threat tree is fully developed, or you’ll go down rabbit trails thinking about mitigations rather than threats. Stay focused on the threats. I have deliberately violated this rule just now in order to show why it’s important. At the start of this article we identified the threat we were trying to model as “data in the wrong hands”. That was an insufficiently described threat, and we left out an important consideration: is the data intelligible to the party that obtains it? While we don’t want data falling into the wrong hands under any circumstances, we certainly feel better off if the data is unintelligible to the recipient. The threat tree we have just developed, then, is really a subtree of a threat we can state more completely as: Other parties obtain intelligible data in cloud. The top of our tree now looks like this, with 2 conditions that must both be true. The arc connecting the branches indicates an AND relationship.

The addition of this second condition is crucial, for two reasons. First, failing to consider all of the aspects in a threat model may give you a false sense of security when you haven’t examined all of the angles. More importantly, though, this second condition is something we can easily do something about by having our application encrypt the data it stores and transmits. In contrast we didn’t have direct control over all of the first branch’s mitigations. Let’s develop the data intelligible side of the tree a bit more. For brevity reasons we’ll just go to one more level, then stop and add mitigations.

Mitigation is much easier in this subtree because data encryption is in the control of the business. The business merely needs to decide to encrypt, do it well, and protect and rotate its keys. Whenever you can directly mitigate rather than depending on another party to do the right thing you’re in a much better position. The full tree that we’ve developed so far now looks like this.

Since the data intelligible and data in the wrong hands conditions must both be true for this threat to be material, mitigating just one of the branches mitigates the entire threat. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the other branch, but it does mean one of the branches is likely superior in terms of your ability to defend against it. This may enable you to identify a branch and its mitigation(s) as the critical mitigation path to focus on.

While this example is not completely developed I hope it illustrates the spirit of the technique and you can find plenty of reference materials for threat modeling on MSDN. Cloud security will continue to be a hot topic, and the best way to make some headway is to get specific about concerns and defenses. Threat modeling is a good way to do exactly that.

One thought on “Threat Modeling of the Cloud

  1. This is good technique to enhance the security of cloud computing using threat modeling. This can be fit in framework for information security metrics for cloud computing.

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