Modelling human threats in security ceremonies

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Socio-Technical Systems (STSs) combine the operations of technical systems with the choices and intervention of humans, namely the users of the technical systems. Designing such systems is far from trivial due to the interaction of heterogeneous components, including hardware components and software applications, physical elements such as tickets, user interfaces, such as touchscreens and displays, and notably, humans. While the possible security issues about the technical components are well known yet continuously investigated, the focus of this article is on the various levels of threat that human actors may pose, namely, the focus is on security ceremonies. The approach is to formally model human threats systematically and to formally verify whether they can break the security properties of a few running examples: two currently deployed Deposit-Return Systems (DRSs) and a variant that we designed to strengthen them. The two real-world DRSs are found to support security properties differently, and some relevant properties fail, yet our variant is verified to meet all the properties. Our human threat model is distributed and interacting: it formalises all humans as potential threatening users because they can execute rules that encode specific threats in addition to being honest, that is, to follow the prescribed rules of interaction with the technical system; additionally, humans may exchange information or objects directly, hence practically favour each other although no specific form of collusion is prescribed. We start by introducing four different human threat models, and some security properties are found to succumb against the strongest model, the addition of the four. The question then arises on what meaningful combinations of the four would not break the properties. This leads to the definition of a lattice of human threat models and to a general methodology to traverse it by verifying each node against the properties. The methodology is executed on our running example for the sake of demonstration. Our approach thus is modular and extensible to include additional threats, potentially even borrowed from existing works, and, consequently, to the growth of the corresponding lattice. STSs can easily become very complex, hence we deem modularity and extensibility of the human threat model as key factors. The current computer-assisted tool support is put to test but proves to be sufficient.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Computer Security
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)411–433
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Security protocols
  • formal methods
  • attacker models
  • Tamarin


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