Threat modeling: Predicting cybersecurity attacks

We’re in a new era of cybersecurity challenges. Threat modeling, a form of vulnerability management, is a key tool to address them.

The evolution of cyberthreats has ushered in a new era of cybersecurity challenges, necessitating more proactive measures to protect sensitive data and maintain organizational stability. One such approach is threat modeling, a systematic process that helps organizations identify and mitigate potential vulnerabilities and threats. A form of vulnerability management, threat modeling originated in software development, but today it is used in a wider capacity to locate and resolve security vulnerabilities in every system operating within an organization's network.

Threat modeling is a crucial process for addressing potential vulnerabilities and threats to systems, data, and infrastructure. Serving multiple purposes within modern cybersecurity frameworks, threat modeling empowers businesses to:

  • Identify vulnerabilities 
    By systematically analyzing their systems and applications, organizations can identify potential weaknesses and vulnerabilities that may be exploited by malicious actors.
  • Prioritize security efforts 
    Threat modeling helps organizations prioritize their security efforts by focusing on the most critical and high-risk areas, thereby optimizing the allocation of resources.
  • Enhance defense strategies 
    Organizations can develop targeted and effective defense strategies built on insights provided through the threat modeling process.
  • Foster collaboration 
    Threat modeling encourages collaboration among various stakeholders, such as developers, architects, security professionals, and business stakeholders, fostering a shared understanding of security risks and ensuring a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity.

Threat modeling provides valuable insights and documentation that helps enable informed decision-making while providing reliable evidence to justify security actions. By optimizing visibility into at-risk systems and devices, organizations can operate more confidently and securely.

The benefits of effective threat modeling extend throughout the organization and include:

  • Early problem detection 
    For developers, threat modeling allows organizations to detect potential security issues early in the software development life cycle (SDLC)—even before the coding phase begins. By identifying vulnerabilities at an early stage, organizations can address them promptly, reducing the likelihood of costly fixes or security breaches later in the development process.
  • Attack-surface vulnerability mitigation  
    The enhanced transparency afforded by threat modeling makes it easier to identify vulnerabilities in networks, systems, devices, and applications. These vulnerabilities can then be proactively addressed.
  • Design flaw identification 
    Traditional testing methods and code reviews may overlook design flaws that can leave systems vulnerable to attacks. Threat modeling helps spot these design flaws by systematically analyzing the system's architecture, data flows, and components. By addressing design flaws early on, organizations can build more robust and secure applications.
  • Consideration of new attack vectors 
    Cyber threats evolve constantly, with new attack vectors emerging every day. Threat modeling enables organizations to evaluate and consider those attacks that might not be covered by standard testing methods. By anticipating and addressing novel threats, organizations can stay ahead of the curve.
  • Targeted testing and code review 
    Threat modeling helps organizations maximize their budgets by providing a clear understanding of where to focus testing efforts. Organizations can identify and prioritize high-risk areas for testing and code reviews, ensuring that resources are allocated effectively to address the most critical vulnerabilities.

Threat modeling provides valuable insights and documentation that helps enable informed decision-making while providing reliable evidence to justify security actions.

  • Identification of security requirements 
    A comprehensive threat model helps organizations identify and document the specific security requirements of their applications or systems. This ensures that security measures are tailored to address the unique risks facing the organization.
  • Comprehensive threat coverage 
    Threat modeling encourages organizations to think beyond standard attack vectors and consider the security issues unique to their applications or systems. By modeling threats specific to their environment, organizations gain a comprehensive understanding of the potential risks they face and can develop customized defenses accordingly.
  • Justification of security posture 
    A well-documented threat model provides assurance and serves as evidence to explain and defend the security posture of an application or system. Decision-makers can rely on documented threats and mitigation strategies to justify security efforts and allocate resources appropriately.

To realize all these benefits, modern threat modeling employs a specific process. Although organizations may customize this process to match their needs and circumstances more accurately, nearly all of them include the following steps:

1. Define the scope 
The first step in threat modeling is to define the scope of the analysis. This involves identifying the systems, applications, and/or components that will be included in the threat modeling exercise.

2. Create a model 
Organizations create a model or diagram that represents the system or application under consideration. This visual representation helps in identifying components, data flows, interactions, and potential entry points for threats.

3. Identify threats
During this step, organizations systematically identify potential threats and vulnerabilities by considering various attack vectors and possible scenarios. This demands a multifaceted approach that incorporates threat libraries, industry-specific threat intelligence, and an in-depth review of all security controls and paths a threat actor could take to reach an asset.

4. Assess risks 
Once threats are identified, organizations assess the risks associated with each threat by considering factors such as the likelihood of occurrence and potential impact should a breach occur. This step helps categorize the threats and prioritize high-risk areas for more immediate mitigation efforts.

5. Develop mitigation strategies
Organizations develop appropriate mitigation strategies and countermeasures to counter the threats identified and assessed during the previous stages. This involves implementing security controls, establishing secure coding practices, and enacting network and system hardening measures. Training employees in proper threat response procedures is likewise essential.

6. Validate and iterate
After implementing the mitigation strategies, organizations validate their effectiveness through security and penetration testing, along with other evaluation techniques. This validation helps identify any remaining gaps or weaknesses in the security measures and allows for iterative improvements to the threat model and mitigation strategies.

Threat modeling methodologies provide structured frameworks and approaches to conduct effective threat modeling exercises within organizations. These methodologies guide the process of identifying, assessing, and mitigating potential threats. Some of the most common threat modeling methodologies include:

Attack trees

Attack trees are graphical models that depict potential attack paths and their relationships, presenting a hierarchical structure of possible attack scenarios and helping identify potential weaknesses.


hTMM stands for “Hybrid Threat Modeling Methodology,” which combines elements of multiple existing threat modeling methodologies, incorporating best practices from each to tailor the process to the specific needs of an organization.


PASTA (Process of Attack Simulation and Threat Analysis) is a risk-centric threat modeling methodology that focuses on understanding business context and assets, identifying threats, assessing risks, and determining suitable countermeasures.


STRIDE is a mnemonic framework developed by Microsoft that helps identify and categorize potential threats based on six threat categories: spoofing, tampering, repudiation, information disclosure, denial of service, and elevation of privilege. It assists in systematically analyzing a system's assets and potential vulnerabilities related to these categories. 

Trike is a threat modeling methodology that involves systematically assessing threats and their potential impacts, identifying attack vectors, and analyzing vulnerabilities to develop appropriate countermeasures.


VAST stands for “Visual, Agile, and Simple Threat” and is a visual methodology that utilizes mind maps and diagrams to represent assets, threats, and vulnerabilities.

While threat modeling offers significant benefits, it is not without its challenges. Successfully implementing threat modeling requires overcoming several hurdles, both external and from within. Awareness of these challenges is crucial to ensuring that the threat modeling investment pays off.

Here are some common challenges organizations may face:

  • Knowledge and expertise gap 
    Organizations may struggle to find individuals with the necessary knowledge and expertise in threat modeling techniques, requiring investment in training or external assistance.
  • Resource constraints 
    Limited resources can impact the depth and quality of the threat modeling exercise, necessitating careful allocation of dedicated resources and time.
  • Increasingly complex systems 
    Modern systems' complexity makes mapping and understanding their intricacies a challenge, demanding accurate system diagrams and comprehensive architectural knowledge.
  • Emerging threats 
    Staying updated with the constantly evolving threat landscape and incorporating new threats into the threat modeling process requires active monitoring and constant analysis.
  • Software development life cycle integration 
    Determining when and how to incorporate threat modeling into the SDLC poses challenges that require careful planning, collaboration, and alignment with existing development practices.
  • Communication and collaboration 
    Effective communication and collaboration among diverse stakeholders, including developers, architects, and business representatives, are necessary to ensure successful threat modeling.
  • Evolving system changes 
    Regularly reviewing and updating threat models to reflect system changes, such as updates and new features, is essential to maintain their effectiveness.

Addressing the challenges associated with threat modeling demands an intentional and adaptive approach. To ensure the success of threat modeling exercises, consider the following best practices:

Start early in the software development life cycle

Engaging in threat modeling early in the software development life cycle (SDLC) is vital to identifying and addressing potential security issues before they become more costly to fix. By integrating threat modeling into the initial stages of the development process, organizations can design security into their systems from the outset.

Involve diverse stakeholders

Threat modeling should involve collaboration among various stakeholders, including developers, architects, security professionals, and business representatives. Each stakeholder brings unique perspectives and expertise that contribute to a more comprehensive and accurate threat model.

Tailor the approach to the organization's context

Adapt the threat modeling approach to fit the organization's specific context, systems, and processes. This ensures that the threat modeling exercise aligns with the organization's goals, resources, and constraints, enabling effective implementation while maximizing value.

Use existing security knowledge and frameworks

Leverage existing security solutions and frameworks, such as secure coding standards and security controls frameworks like OWASP Top 10 or NIST Cybersecurity Framework. Incorporating established security principles and guidelines ensures that the threat modeling exercise is comprehensive, well informed, and proven.

Continuously update and evolve the threat model

Threat modeling should be an iterative process that evolves alongside system changes, emerging threats, and technological advancements. Regularly review and update the threat model to ensure its accuracy and relevance, considering new attack vectors, system updates, and changing business requirements.

Integrate threat modeling into risk management

Threat modeling should be tightly integrated into the organization's risk management processes. This helps prioritize security efforts based on identified threats and associated risks. Consider risk assessments, risk registers, and risk mitigation strategies to ensure that threat modeling aligns with the organization's overall risk management framework.

Cyberthreats are evolving, and organizations need to evolve along with them. Threat modeling is a vital element of this mandate, providing organizations with a proactive and systematic approach to identify, assess, and mitigate potential vulnerabilities and threats. By visualizing and analyzing attack vectors, organizations can make informed decisions, allocate resources effectively, and strengthen their overall security posture—provided that they have access to the appropriate tools and support to make it happen. ServiceNow provides organizations with the technologies they need to create an unobstructed picture of their security ecosystem and the dangers that threaten it. After all, when it comes to managing the dangers that threaten essential data and systems, having the right risk management strategies and tools can make all the difference. 


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