Computer Science Department
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Measuring Relative Attach Surfaces

Michael Howard*, Jon Pincus**, Jeannette M. Wing***

August 2003


Keywords: Security metrics, vulnerabilities, attach surface, threat modeling

We propose a metric for determining whether one version of a system is more secure than another with respect to a fixed set of dimensions. Rather than count bugs at the code level or count vulnerability reports at the system level, we count a system's attack opportunities. We use this count as an indication of the system's "attackability," likelihood that it will be successfully attacked. We describe a system's attack surface along three abstract dimensions: targets and enablers, channels and protocols, and access rights. Intuitively, the more exposed the system's surface, the more attack opportunities, and hence the more likely it will be a target of attack. Thus, one way to improve system security is to reduce its attack surface.

To validate our ideas, we recast Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-005 using our terminology, and we show how Howard's Relative Attack Surface Quotient for Windows is an instance of our general metric.

24 pages

*Windows Security Management, Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA 95052
**Microsoft Research, Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA 95052
***Work done while on sabbatical at Microsoft Research

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