Cybersecurity is, most simply, any protection used to prevent cyber attacks. In the practical sense, cybersecurity is a combination of technology (hardware and software), processes, and people working together to prevent attacks related to data, processes, or financial extortion.
Cybercriminals are eager to get their hands on sensitive data (to view, change, or destroy it), interrupt a business’ normal processes, or extort money from private individuals or businesses.
Therefore, cybersecurity uses multiple layers of protection across all vulnerable areas to keep people and their data safe. This applies to consumers, businesses, and governments.
The importance of cybersecurity
Cybersecurity is extremely important in our interconnected world. Almost every aspect of our lives is found online or on our devices, and that presents a huge opportunity for cybercriminals to attack us.
For consumers, good cybersecurity will most importantly help prevent financial losses. This can be either directly, as when criminals demand ransoms for sensitive information, or via identity theft, where credit card or other personal information is stolen and used to buy things, take out loans, apply for credit cards, etc. It can also prevent sensitive data leaks, such as the 2014 iCloud celebrity leak.
For businesses, cybersecurity can be quite devastating. Cyberattacks last year were estimated to affect 54% of companies. Proper cybersecurity can help in two important ways.
- Preventing financial loss: According to McAfee, the cost of online crimes has increased from $250 billion two years ago to $400 billion now. Equifax recently suffered a loss of $439 million following a data breach. Notably, the breach also cost them at least 147 million clients.
- Avoiding reputational damage and customer churn: Unfortunately, the costs of cyber-crime extend far beyond financial losses. Data breaches typically cause almost irreparable reputational damage and can easily lead to customer churn. Worse still, for such a company to secure new contracts and clients is yet another challenging feat.
Types of cybersecurity
Because cyberattacks come in many different forms and purposes, cybersecurity can be broken down into the following types:
Data security involves any measures or technologies that are related to protecting and maintaining the safety of data, including both business and consumer. Think of things like stronger authentication, encryption, backups, erasure, etc.
VPNs are a particularly useful and common consumer (and business) tool that encrypts user data in all communications online. While most of the popular brands will do well, we highly recommend a great VPN like NordVPN that uses military-grade encryption to scramble all your communications, as well as to hide your true IP address.
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Application security encompasses the tools used to make sure that software and apps are protected against hacking, unauthorized access, compromise, and being disabled. Common antivirus apps are good at both app security and network security, as they constantly check for malware and other threats.
Network security involves software and hardware that’s created to protect the network and data by managing access and stopping threats from entering or spreading through the network
This is mostly related to organizations, rather than consumers, as operation security protects information related to day-to-day activities. This can include classifying information, encrypting data, creating policies around online behaviors, and more.
Critical infrastructure security
While it’s overplayed in the movies, cyberattackers can target critical infrastructure, such as traffic lights, electricity grids, hospitals, and more. This type of cybersecurity is related to protecting and maintaining the integrity of these physical systems.
This is a wide and growing area of cybersecurity that aims to secure a wide variety of consumer and business IoT (Internet of Things) physical systems, such as smart thermostats, watches, doorbells, and many other new connected devices.
Most common cybersecurity threats
There are many important categories for attack vectors, or cybersecurity threats. They include the following five groups.
One of the oldest yet most prevalent types of threats is known as malware. This is malicious code designed to let cybercriminals steal data from compromised systems or otherwise use them for their own purposes.
Malware includes viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, adware, ransomware, and other types. A majority of such threats are easy to detect using reliable forms of anti-malware software.
You can read more about malware and how to protect yourself against it.
Ransomware is a type of malware that is specifically created to locking users out of their own computer system or data until they pay a ransom. There may also be a threat to publish users’ sensitive data within a certain time period unless the ransom is paid.
Ransomware is typically accomplished through phishing emails or by victims visiting infected websites. However, in one popular example, the WannaCry ransomware attack of 2017, the ransomware spread automatically from machine to machine. Many cybersecurity experts believe that WannaCry originated from North Korea.
Another common form of threat is phishing. Most commonly, it refers to fraudulent email messages purporting to come from a reputable source. The idea behind this is to access sensitive data from the victim – passwords, financial details, etc. Other times, it may simply seek to plant malware on the target computer.
Anti-phishing solutions identify anomalies in email messages and other incoming forms of communication.
But since there is no foolproof way to detect phishing attacks, another important form of protection is educating staff members and employees. Everyone should be aware of the various forms of attacks under this category and try to avoid falling prey.
Find out how you can identify and avoid phishing attempts.
This is a big threat for organizations. You might have heard this by now that employees are often the weak points through whom attackers find a way in. Social engineering basically takes advantage of individuals’ gullibility. It might take place over the phone, in the office or even online.
Have you ever held the door for a colleague who forgot their pass card? Or did you ever get a call from an intern or newbie who forgot the CRM password? Has your boss ever sent you an email requesting you to click on a link and change your logins?
Well, if you have fallen victim to any of the above tricks, you might, in fact, be the weak link in the company. The best form of protection against social engineering is vigilance. Simply being aware of the prevalent tactics can go a long way in reducing gullibility.
While social engineering relies on non-cyber methods (such as calling on the phone or walking through a door), the end-goal is related to cyberattacks.
Sabotage is a type of attack that is intended to take down websites or publicly available apps and services. This is normally done via a denial-of-service (DoS) attack, in which attackers will overwhelm a machine or network resource with excessive requests that overload the system. At that point, other users will be unable to access that system.
In the 2016 Dyn cyberattack, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack was carried out, shutting down sites and services like Airbnb, Amazon, Spotify, Starbucks, and many, many more.. The “distributed” part of DDoS means that the overwhelming requests don’t just come from one source. In the Dyn attack, it came from tens of millions of IP addresses from IoT devices that had been infected with malware named Mirai.
Crucial cybersecurity areas
When looking at all the factors that can create strong or weak cybersecurity, there are three main areas: people, processes, and technology.
The first line of defense (and perhaps the greatest risk) in terms of cybersecurity is the average consumer. When people follow good practices – using VPNs when going on public wifi, creating strong and unique passwords, not putting too much sensitive information on social media, not clicking on suspicious links, etc. – cybercriminals have a ridiculously hard time to achieve their goals. This goes for both businesses and regular consumers.
Depending on the size of a business’ operations, one professional may be all that’s needed to keep things in check. For businesses that require targeted services, it might be better to hire an IT consultant.
Larger organizations might need an entire department dedicated to managing cybersecurity. Others opt to outsource the role to specialized security firms and take their operations to the cloud for easier management.
Oftentimes, the greatest exploits emanate from everyday processes that we often do on autopilot. For instance, when it comes to installing software and creating accounts on the web, we get reminders to set unique passwords. How often do we do that? Most of us would admit to reusing passwords for most of our accounts.
Adhering to simple cybersecurity processes like changing passwords often or using a password manager to create strong, unique passwords would contribute significantly to better security.
Technology evolves at a remarkable pace, affecting everything around us. Devices change on a daily basis and broadband speeds are constantly changing. Most businesses are moving their operations to the cloud. They’re also collecting more data on their customers, and almost everyone shares data and documents electronically. These are the very things cybercriminals target and thus require adequate cybersecurity measures.
If the reality seems impossibly grim, that’s because it is. Cyber threats are constantly evolving and the only way to remain afloat is to stay up-to-date and adapt your approaches to security.
For everyday users, the best way to do that is to avoid the dangerous online behaviors that make you a target for cybercriminals. We’ve already gone over what bad online habits to avoid, so be sure to read up on that to stay safe.
For businesses, the best place to start is by hiring the right crop of cybersecurity professionals.
However, it is impossible for the IT department or consultant to mitigate all the online risks that businesses may face. While the technical team needs to play its role, cybersecurity at the end of the day is everyone’s responsibility.
Put the right processes and technologies in place and constantly remind everyone of the value of playing their part.
Nica is a BA Political Science degree holder who specializes in fintech, SaaS, business and academic writing. She has experience working with founders who graduated from Harvard, tech startups funded by Y-Combinator, CEOs of multi-million dollar blockchain companies, investment companies in London and many more.