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What is cybersecurity? Definition, importance, threats and best practices

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Table of contents

  • What is cybersecurity?
  • Why is cybersecurity important?
  • Top 5 cybersecurity threats to manage
  • Top 10 best practices for cybersecurity in 2022
  • Cybersecurity is essential for everyone

Cybersecurity has become a central issue as digital technologies play a bigger role in everyone’s lives. Headlines about cybercrime populate the news, but what is cybersecurity and why is it important? Here’s everything you need to know: 

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is the practice of protecting networks, devices and data from damage, loss or unauthorized access. Just as physical security protects buildings and the people in them from various physical threats, cybersecurity safeguards digital technologies and their users from digital dangers.

Cybersecurity is a broad topic, covering many different disciplines, actions, threats and ideas. However, these parts come back to the same idea: protecting people’s digital lives and assets. Things like digital currency, data and access to some computers are valuable targets for criminals, so protecting them is crucial.

Think of how many different things today use digital technologies and data. It’s a massive category, so there are various types of cybersecurity, too. Here are a few examples:

  • Network security: Protects computer networks like home Wi-Fi or a business’s network from threats
  • Application security: Ensures programs and apps repel hackers and keep users’ data private
  • Cloud security: Focuses on the cloud, where users and businesses store data and run apps online using remote data centers
  • Information security: Focuses on keeping sensitive data safe and private
  • Endpoint security: Secures devices like computers, phones or Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets to ensure they don’t become a way to get into other devices or data on a network.

These cybersecurity examples are far from the only types, but they’re some of the biggest. As the field grows, many smaller, more specialized subcategories emerge. All these smaller considerations combine to create an organization’s overall cybersecurity.

Why is cybersecurity important?

Cybersecurity is vital because digital assets are valuable and vulnerable. With so much of daily life online, from bank account access to names and addresses, cybercrime can make lots of money and cause untold damage.

Cybersecurity is also important because of how common cybercrime is. In 2019, 32% of businesses identified cyberattacks or other security breaches and that doesn’t account for those who were infiltrated without realizing it. That figure has also only increased.

Big corporations with lots of valuable data aren’t the only targets, either. Security breaches happen to small businesses, too and even to random individuals. Cybersecurity is so important because everyone could be a victim.

Top 5 cybersecurity threats to manage

Just as there are many types of cybersecurity, there are multiple cybersecurity threats. Here’s a look at some of the most common and dangerous ones facing businesses and individuals today.

1. Malware

Malware is one of the most common types of cybersecurity threats, despite a steady decline over the past few years. It’s short for “malicious software” and is a broad category covering programs and lines of code that cause damage or provide unauthorized access.

Viruses, trojans, spyware and ransomware are all types of malware. These can be as insignificant as placing unwanted pop-ups on a computer or as dangerous as stealing sensitive files and sending them somewhere else.

2. Phishing

While malware relies on technical factors to cause damage, phishing targets human vulnerabilities. These attacks involve tricking someone into giving away sensitive information or clicking on something that will install malware on their device. They’re often the starting point for a larger, more damaging attack.

Phishing often comes in the form of emails in which cybercriminals pose as authority figures or have enticing news. These messages often appeal to people’s fears or desires to get them to act quickly without thinking. For example, many say the users are prize-winners or in trouble with the law.

3. Insider threats

While most cybersecurity threats come from outside an organization, some of the most dangerous come from within. Insider threats happen when someone with authorized access, like an employee, threatens a system, intentionally or not.

Many insider threats are non-malicious. This happens when an authorized user becomes a phishing victim or accidentally posts on the wrong account, unintentionally endangering a system. Others may act on purpose, like a disgruntled ex-employee taking revenge on their former employer by installing malware on their computers.

4. Man-in-the-middle attacks

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks are a form of eavesdropping, where cybercriminals will intercept data as it travels between points. Instead of stealing this information in the traditional sense, they copy it so it reaches its intended destination. Consequently, it may look like nothing took place at all.

MITM attacks can happen through malware, fake websites and even compromised Wi-Fi networks. While they may not be as common as others, they’re dangerous because they’re hard to detect. A user could enter personal information into a hijacked website form and not realize it until it’s too late.

5. Botnets

Botnets are another common type of cybersecurity threat. These are networks of multiple infected computers, letting one threat actor attack using many devices at once. This often takes the form of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, where attackers crash a system by overloading it with requests.

Botnet attacks have seen a massive jump recently. In June 2021, 51% of organizations had detected botnet activity on their networks, up from 35% just six months earlier. Large-scale DDoS attacks can also cause massive damage, shutting down critical systems for hours or even days.

Top 10 best practices for cybersecurity in 2022

Cybercrime isn’t just a broad category, but a growing one. These threats cost the world $6 trillion in 2021 and experts say that figure will rise by 15% annually for the next five years.

Amid these rising threats, cybersecurity best practices become all the more important. Here are 10 of the best cybersecurity practices for businesses, employees and consumers.

1. Use anti-malware software

One of the most important cybersecurity best practices is to install anti-malware software. The market is full of antivirus programs and services that can help people with any budget. Best of all, these programs automate malware detection and prevention, so you don’t have to be an expert to stay safe.

Many cybersecurity threats start as malware, so this software can stop various attacks. They also update regularly, which helps them stay on top of new attack methods. Considering how easy these are to use and how crucial they are, there’s no reason to avoid them.

2. Use strong, varied passwords

Another crucial cybersecurity step is to use strong passwords. Most hacking-related data breaches stem from weak passwords, which are easy to avoid. Cracking a 12-character password takes 62 trillion times longer than a six-character one.

Passwords should be long and contain numbers, symbols and varying letter cases. It’s also important to avoid using the same one for multiple accounts, as that lets a hacker into more places with one breached password. Changing them every few months can also minimize risks.

3. Enable multifactor authentication

Sometimes, a strong password isn’t enough. That’s why enabling multifactor authentication (MFA) is another essential cybersecurity best practice for employees and general users. MFA is quick to set up, easy to use and can stop nearly all attacks, according to some experts.

MFA adds another step to the login process, most often a one-time code sent to a user’s phone. Some MFA options are more advanced, like facial recognition services or fingerprint scanners. While these features may not see as much use as they should, they’re available on most internet services.

4. Verify before trusting

It’s important to verify security, since cybersecurity threats often don’t seem suspicious at first glance. Before clicking a link or responding to an email, inspect it more carefully. It could be a trap if it contains spelling errors, unusual language and is strangely urgent or seems off.

The same principle applies to internet networks, devices and applications. Never trust public Wi-Fi because anyone could use it to perform MITM attacks. Similarly, always check to make sure a program’s developer is trustworthy before downloading and installing it. Companies should apply this to business partners, too.

5. Update frequently

Cybersecurity is a dynamic field. Criminals are always coming up with new ways to attack targets and cybersecurity tools adapt in response. That means it’s crucial to update all software regularly. Otherwise, users could be vulnerable to a weak point that app developers have already patched.

Some of the most infamous cybersecurity breach examples have happened because of outdated software. In 2019, the United Nations tried to hide a data breach that used a vulnerability a current software update would have patched. This is a critical cybersecurity best practice for businesses, which may be bigger targets.

6. Encrypt where possible

One more technical cybersecurity step is to encrypt sensitive data. Encryption makes information unreadable to anyone apart from its intended audience by scrambling it and giving authorized users a key to unscramble it. This doesn’t stop data breaches, but it makes them less impactful.

If a cybercriminal can’t read or understand data, it’s useless to them, making someone a less enticing target. It also ensures that any sensitive information that leaks will stay private. Using multiple encryption types such as end-to-end and at-rest encryption keeps information extra safe.

7. Segment networks

An important security best practice for businesses is to segment their networks. This involves running devices and storing data on different networks to ensure a breach in one area can’t provide access to everything else. This step is especially critical for large IoT networks.

This mostly applies to organizations, but individual users can use this step, too. Running smart home devices on a different network than work or home computers is a good idea. That way, a smart TV, which is easier to hack into, doesn’t become a doorway to more sensitive data.

8. Create backups of sensitive files

It’s also crucial to back up any sensitive data or programs. This won’t prevent a cyberattack, but it will minimize the damage. Stolen data or downed systems aren’t as pressing if you have extra copies you can use.

With cybercrime as rampant as it is, it’s unsafe to assume someone will never be the target of a successful breach. More than half of all consumers have been the victim of cybercrime. Since no defense is perfect, ensuring a hack won’t be crippling is essential.

9. Stay informed and tell others

Despite how massive a problem cybercrime is, many people don’t know cybersecurity best practices. Many simple steps can be effective. It’s just a matter of knowing what risks are out there and what to do about them. Consequently, staying informed is half the battle.

This step is an important cybersecurity best practice for employees especially. Businesses should train all workers about things like strong password management and how to spot a phishing attempt. Holding these meetings regularly can help companies stay on top of emerging threats and remain safe despite a changing landscape.

10. Review security steps regularly

Every user and company should understand that today’s best practices may not work tomorrow. Cybersecurity is a continually evolving field, so it’s important to review defenses to ensure they’re still reliable. Without regular reviews, people could be vulnerable and not realize it.

Businesses can perform penetration testing, where a cybersecurity expert tries to break into their systems to reveal their weak points. Consumers can read up on the latest cybersecurity news to see what new steps they may need to take. The worst thing you can be is complacent.

Cybersecurity is essential for everyone

After learning what cybersecurity is and why it’s important, it’s easy to see why it’s in such high demand. This can be a complicated topic, but it’s essential. Everyone, from the world’s most powerful CEOs to casual Twitter users, should understand the importance of cybersecurity.

These cybersecurity examples are just a sampling of the threats and defense steps out there today. Understanding these basics is the first step to staying safe in today’s digital world.

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