OWASP Security Culture

Threat modelling

Use threat modelling to identify potential security issues early in the development lifecycle. Identifying issues early results in a reduction of vulnerabilities in a deployed system. This section will discuss why it is useful for developers to do threat modelling, give a step by step guide of the threat modelling activity, and how to introduce the activity to development teams by using gamification.

The goal of the threat modelling activity is to create the security requirements for a system. When building the system, the security requirements are incorporated, with appropriate security controls addressing identified areas of vulnerability. Security testing is later used to ensure the security controls are in place, verifying that the security requirements have been met. This gives assurance that the system is secure.

Security Requirements Flow Diagram
Figure 6-1: Security Requirements Flow Diagram

Why should developers perform threat modelling?

Security architects review solution designs and find security flaws. However, there is often a limited number of security architects and security professionals available to provide guidance, creating a bottleneck at the design phase. By introducing threat modelling into the development team, it can help to eliminate this bottleneck and scale out security.

When introducing the threat modelling activity, take into consideration the development teams workflow and current tools used. Consider using tools already in use rather than introducing a new tool which may take time to learn, in addition to learning threat modelling.

Threat modelling can be introduced to the development team by a security team member or other team member knowledgeable in security, who is able to convey possible attack patterns and appropriate security controls. It can be helpful for this person to be present in the initial threat modelling activities to provide guidance, before the development team manages the activity themselves.

To introduce threat modelling to the development team, use a system that the team is familiar with.


Terminology used as part of threat modelling and risk management:

  • Vulnerability: a weakness in the software or missing security control
  • Threat agent: an attacker who exploits a vulnerability
  • Risk severity: the risk posed to the organisation by a particular vulnerability. Risk severity is calculated from the Impact and Likelihood values.
  • Impact: the business impact resulting from a threat
  • Likelihood: the likelihood of the threat occurring
  • Security Controls: reduce Likelihood or Impact of a threat by addressing the associated vulnerability

For example, the threat of a Cross-Site Scripting attack (in which the threat agent causes unauthorised javascript to run in the victim’s web browser) attempts to exploit a vulnerability in the lack of input validation and use of escaping functions in a web application. An appropriate security control is to use input validation and escaping libraries, and a Web Application Firewall (WAF).

A simplified step-by-step guide of the threat modelling process

1. Model the system

Draw a data flow diagram of the system. There are particular tools available that can be used in threat modelling to create a data flow diagram and indicate the threats, such as OWASP Threat Dragon. Also consider making use of any existing tools the development team is already familiar with, rather than introducing a new tool, which may take time to learn and adopt.

Example: threat model of a payment gateway

A data flow diagram created in OWASP Threat Dragon showing the flow from a web browser using a merchant system to make a payment. The merchant system accesses a payment gateway, which uses a payment processing system, storing transaction details in a database.

Example Threat Model
Figure 6-2: Example Threat Model

Threat model data flow diagrams use a rectangle to represent Actors. A circle is used to represent Processes, such as a web application or API. And a rectangle without vertical edges is used to represent data stores, such as a database or configuration files. Arrows are used to indicate the information flows between the Actors, Processes and data stores. Trust boundaries, dotted lines, are placed on the data flow diagram on information flows between systems to indicate where data changes its level of trust. Finally, identify any sensitive data that exists, either in information flows or data stores. It may help to consult the organisation's data classification policy when identifying the sensitive data.

2. Identify threat agents/vulnerabilities

  • Define attack entry points (trust boundaries)

  • Look for system vulnerabilities and threats for identified attack entry points (threats can be external threat agents or inside threat agents).

  • To help identify possible threats and vulnerabilities, the STRIDE methodology can be used. If a development team is not yet familiar with the STRIDE methodology, it may be easiest to instead use a list of threats that the team is familiar with. A custom or standard checklist can be used focusing on either:

Example: threat model of a payment gateway

  • Define attack entry point: communication to the database
  • Define vulnerability: sensitive data exposure (OWASP Top Ten A3:2017)
  • Associated security requirement: encrypted communications required (OWASP ASVS v4.0.2-9.2.2)

3. Determine risk ratings

  • Define impact and likelihood of each threat. This can be either a quantitative measure, such as OWASP Risk Rating Methodology, or qualitative using for example low; medium; high ratings.
  • Determine risk rating for each threat (calculated from impact and likelihood)
  • Rank threats by severity rating

Example: threat model of a payment gateway

  • Risk rating for missing encrypted communication to the database is determined to be Low

4. Determine mitigations

  • Determine risk treatment strategy for each risk: reduce, transfer, avoid, accept
  • Agree on risk mitigation with risk owner and stakeholders
  • Select appropriate controls according to strategy. Consider using the OWASP Top Ten Proactive Controls
  • Write security tests to test the controls are in place
  • Reevaluate risk rating after controls applied
  • Periodically retest risk

Example: threat model of a payment gateway

  • Risk mitigation selected is to encrypt the communication to the database (OWASP Proactive Control C3)

For further guidance on threat modelling consult the following resources:


Use gamification as a way to introduce the threat modelling activity to the development team. Gamification can ensure all members of a team are involved and given the opportunity to provide input. A security team member can initially run and record the results of the gamification activity, before handing over to the development team.

The OWASP Cornucopia card game is designed to help developers think about possible threats in a solution design, and derive a set of security requirements to build against. Team members are each dealt cards which describe particular threats. They then take turns trying to make a case for their particular threat posing a risk to the solution design, scoring points if they are able to do so.

OWASP Cornucopia uses threats grouped into areas that are particularly relevant to software developers, such as authentication; authorisation; data validation. The threats are derived from OWASP Application Security Verification Standard (ASVS) and OWASP Web Security Testing Guide. Using OWASP Cornucopia can be useful when it is desired to have security requirements aligned with these standards.