Cybersecurity For Dummies
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While cybersecurity may sound like a simple enough term to define, in actuality, from a practical standpoint, it means quite different things to different people in different situations, leading to extremely varied relevant policies, procedures, and practices.

An individual who wants to protect their social media accounts from hacker takeovers, for example, is exceedingly unlikely to assume many of the cybersecurity approaches and technologies used by Pentagon workers to secure classified networks.

what is cybersecurity ©Shutterstock/BeeBright

Typically, cybersecurity means the following:

  • For individuals, cybersecurity means that their personal data is not accessible to anyone other than themselves and others who they have so authorized, and that their computing devices work properly and are free from malware.
  • For small business owners, cybersecurity may include ensuring that credit card data is properly protected and that standards for data security are properly implemented at point-of-sale registers.
  • For firms conducting online business, cybersecurity may include protecting servers that untrusted outsiders regularly interact with.
  • For shared service providers, cybersecurity may entail protecting numerous data centers that house numerous servers that, in turn, host many virtual servers belonging to many different organizations.
  • For the government, cybersecurity may include establishing different classifications of data, each with its own set of related laws, policies, procedures, and technologies.

The bottom line is that while the word cybersecurity is easy to define, the practical expectations that enters people's minds when they hear the word vary quite a bit.

Technically speaking, cybersecurity is the subset of information security that addresses information and information systems that store and process data in electronic form, whereas information security encompasses the security of all forms of data (for example, securing a paper file and a filing cabinet).

That said, today, many people colloquially interchange the terms, often referring to aspects of information security that are technically not part of cybersecurity as being part of the latter. Such usage also results from the blending of the two in many situations.

For example, if someone writes down a password on a piece of paper and leaves the paper on their desk where other people can see the password instead of placing the paper in a safe deposit box or safe, they have violated a principle of information security, not of cybersecurity, even though their actions may result in serious cybersecurity repercussions.

The risks that cybersecurity mitigates

People sometimes explain the reason that cybersecurity is important as being “because it prevents hackers from breaking into systems and stealing data and money.” But such a description dramatically understates the role that cybersecurity plays in keeping the modern home, business, or even world running.

In fact, the role of cybersecurity can be looked at from a variety of different vantage points, with each presenting a different set of goals. Of course the following lists aren’t complete, but they should provide food for thought and underscore the importance of understanding how to cybersecure yourself and your loved ones.

The goal of cybersecurity: The CIA triad

Cybersecurity professionals often explain that the goal of cybersecurity is to ensure the Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability (CIA) of data, sometimes referred to as the CIA Triad, with the pun lovingly intended:
  • Confidentiality refers to ensuring that information isn’t disclosed or in any other way made available to unauthorized entities (including people, organizations, or computer processes).

    Don’t confuse confidentially with privacy: Confidentiality is a subset of the realm of privacy. It deals specifically with protecting data from unauthorized viewers, whereas privacy in general encompasses much more.

    Hackers that steal data undermine confidentiality.
  • Integrity refers to ensuring that data is both accurate and complete.

    Accurate means, for example, that the data is never modified in any way by any unauthorized party or by a technical glitch. Complete refers to, for example, data that has had no portion of itself removed by any unauthorized party or technical glitch.

    Integrity also includes ensuring nonrepudiation, meaning that data is created and handled in such a fashion that nobody can reasonably argue that the data is not authentic or is inaccurate.

    Cyberattacks that intercept data and modify it before relaying it to its destination — sometimes known as man-in-the-middle attacks — undermine integrity.

  • Availability refers to ensuring that information, the systems used to store and process it, the communication mechanisms used to access and relay it, and all associated security controls function correctly to meet some specific benchmark (for example, 99.99 percent uptime). People outside of the cybersecurity field sometimes think of availability as a secondary aspect of information security after confidentiality and integrity. In fact, ensuring availability is an integral part of cybersecurity. Doing so, though, is sometimes more difficult than ensuring confidentiality or integrity.

    One reason for this is that maintaining availability often requires involving many more noncybersecurity professionals, leading to a “too many cooks in the kitchen” type challenge, especially in larger organizations.

    Distributed Denial of Service attacks attempt to undermine availability. Also, consider that attacks often use large numbers of stolen computer power and bandwidth to launch DDoS attacks, but responders who seek to ensure availability can only leverage the relatively small amount of resources that they can afford.

What cybersecurity means from a human perspective

The risks that cybersecurity addresses can also be thought of in terms better reflecting the human experience:
  • Privacy risks: Risks emanating from the potential loss of adequate control over, or misuse of, personal or other confidential information.
  • Financial risks: Risks of financial losses due to hacking. Financial losses can include both those that are direct — for example, the theft of money from someone’s bank account by a hacker who hacked into the account — and those that are indirect, such as the loss of customers who no longer trust a small business after the latter suffers a security breach.
  • Professional risks: Risks to one’s professional career that stem from breaches. Obviously, cybersecurity professionals are at risk for career damage if a breach occurs under their watch and is determined to have happened due to negligence, but other types of professionals can suffer career harm due to a breach as well. C-level executives can be fired, board members can be sued, and so on. Professional damage can also occur if hackers release private communications or data that shows someone in a bad light — for example, records that a person was disciplined for some inappropriate action, sent an email containing objectionable material, and so on.
  • Business risks: Risks to a business similar to the professional risks to an individual. Internal documents leaked after breach of Sony Pictures painted various the firm in a negative light vis-à-vis some of its compensation practices.
  • Personal risks: Many people store private information on their electronic devices, from explicit photos to records of participation in activities that may not be deemed respectable by members of their respective social circles. Such data can sometimes cause significant harm to personal relationships if it leaks. Likewise, stolen personal data can help criminals steal people’s identities, which can result in all sorts of personal problems.
Ultimately, cybersecurity will have different implications depending on the industry you’re operating in and the challenges you are facing.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

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This All-in-One gathers the expertise of the leading For Dummies authors in the world of cybersecurity, including Joseph Steinberg, author of Cybersecurity For Dummies; Kevin Beaver, author of Hacking For Dummies; Ted Coombs, author of Cloud Security For Dummies; and Ira Winkler, author of Security Awareness For Dummies.

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