Given the series of high-profile data breaches in the last few years at companies like Meta, Yahoo and Marriot International, the cyber war taking place in Ukraine, and various data theft issues that have emerged in the US government, cyber security has never felt so vital. While awareness of specific issues could be improved and plenty of mistakes are still being made, many companies and institutions will find that a skilled cyber security expert is almost literally worth their weight in gold.
Indeed, they are often the only people who stand between the most valuable corporate and private data and the host of malicious users working day and night to obtain it. But what does the job of cyber security expert entail exactly, what kind of tools do they use to carry out their work, and what approaches and software are applied in what area?
In this article, we look at cyber security as a field in general, the biggest potential risks, and its areas of application, as well as the main types of software that are used and what they target. In addition, it will examine the best ways to develop the skills and knowledge to succeed in this area, and why lifelong learning is crucial to a long-term career as a cyber security professional.
For many people, cyber security is something that is out of sight and out of mind. Most of the time, people tend to only notice the inconvenient security measures that are designed to help prevent security issues, such as cookie permission pop-ups, or having to recall a long string of complicated and easy-to-forget passwords. Yes, they might have a passing vague paranoia about something personal or valuable being stolen online, but other than that they tend not to give the area much thought.
Unfortunately, this is true not only for the general public, but also for many people who work in business too, and time and time again, not enough resources or attention are devoted to this key area of business, often leading to serious and financially damaging issues. As is the case with security issues in general, all too often we only become aware of the problem when it is already too late. Just like with Meta, for example, they were forced to pay out $276 million after a leak at Facebook which led to the theft of data belonging to more than 500 million users. Governments and public administrations are just as vulnerable. The US voter database scandal of 2015 led to the records of 191 million voters being stolen in a malicious attack.
Cyber security experts, of course, are tasked with using a wide variety of software to ensure that these kinds of issues do not occur. Cyber security experts are employed in a broad range of different areas. In addition to working in companies, they can also be found in everything from government institutions and NGOs to educational facilities and healthcare organizations. Generally speaking, cyber security experts are responsible for three main areas: ensuring that the networks used by an organization are secure, using encryption to ensure the confidentiality of all data, and identifying any potential issues or vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure that could cause a security issue. Naturally, anyone working in this profession must have a detailed understanding of the main approaches and the kind of software and hardware needed to carry out their job. So, what kind of tools do cyber security experts have at their disposal?
Network security tools
Network security tools are concerned with tackling network intrusions, for example, when malicious individuals attempt to infiltrate the internal network of a company or institution, often with the aim of causing damage or stealing data. Much like a castle, a good network security system needs to put up robust walls and defenses so that the gatekeepers can easily admit permitted users/actors that have permission to enter, while keeping everyone else out. Network security, of course, is a fundamental aspect of cyber security – it protects the network infrastructure from unauthorized access, misuse and theft. Without it, devices, applications, and users would be unable to operate safely within the system, essentially and ultimately making the system unusable.
Common basic network security tools that many people are familiar with include firewalls, which are security devices that monitor network traffic and determine whether to allow or block specific traffic based on strict and well-defined security protocols. Another typical network security feature is network segmentation, where boundaries between different assets are clearly defined and closely controlled in order to ensure that even if there is a breach, it does not spread beyond a single area and can be more easily shut down without causing significant damage. In addition, access control, which defines the users, groups and devices that are allowed to enter the network, and email security, which looks to prevent malicious individuals from entering the network via email, are both crucial aspects of any good security system.
Security information and event management (SIEM) tools such as Splunk are used to conduct searches that help monitor network security, identifying data threats and real-time issues. Another piece of software, Argus, is a systems and network monitoring application that monitors the status of network services, with a main specialization in the automotive industry. In each case, these tools are used to automatically target any weaknesses in the network – ideally in real-time – so that the cyber security expert can rectify the issue. Though there are some network security solutions that attempt to present a unified suite of tools to manage these issues, most cyber security experts will typically employ a range of different tools and software options, depending on the network and the needs of the organization.
Web vulnerability tools
Rather than managing a distinct part of the security network, web vulnerabilities are about preventing, detecting and fixing faults in various networks and online applications. Issues can include software bugs, system misconfigurations, and various other weaknesses in a web process or application. Although this area is closely related to network security, the focus is on identifying and resolving existing issues, rather than building secure infrastructure to prevent the issues arising in the first place.
Web vulnerability tools are vital because they target the actual threats or potential issues that are happening in the moment, acting as a kind of safety net for the organization’s online world. In many cases, through rapid detection and fast action from the cyber security experts, web vulnerability tools can help prevent any major problems by cutting them off at the source. In our castle analogy, we can perhaps think of them as the scouts and soldiers tasked with defending the ramparts and carefully scanning for any gaps in the walls.
In terms of specific software, SQLMap, for example, is an open-source penetration tool written in Python that automatically detects and flags up SQL injection flaws in database servers – crucial for preventing malicious attacks on data-driven applications. Another piece of software, Burp Suite, is extremely useful for both debugging functions and testing the security of web-based applications. Burp Suite carries out real-time scans and can detect any critical weaknesses in the network. In each case, the focus is on targeting vulnerabilities, either to attempt to fix them automatically, when possible, or to flag them up to cyber security experts capable of intervention.
While network security is about protecting the network encryption is rather about protecting the information itself. Encryption works by altering information into seemingly random text, also known as cypher text, that is incomprehensible to anyone not in possession of the cryptographic key needed to decode it. The cryptographic key is a set of mathematical values agreed upon by the user and sender, though of course general users only see the decoded text that emerges on the other side. Although there is much online communication that still occurs in unencrypted form, encryption is predicted to become the norm in the coming decade or so, as awareness of the importance of secure information increases in the corporate and public spheres, and the requisite technology also becomes even more efficient and affordable for all.
There is always a logical sequence that can be scrambled and unlocked using the cryptographic key. Encryption can either be symmetric, where there is only one key used by all parties to obtain the information, or asymmetric, where there are two separate keys, one for encryption, and the other to unlock the encrypted data. Although there are plenty of malicious individuals who are constantly trying to decode and access encrypted data, it remains one of the safest and most secure ways of transmitting data and is a must for any business involved in communication. WhatsApp, for instance, enables users to communicate securely without their messages being seen by third parties, and has built its business on a reputation for safe messaging.
One famous example of encryption software is Tor, a free and open-source software that enables anonymous communication by directing internet traffic via a worldwide overlay network. Popularized by famous whistleblower Edward Snowden, Tor enables users to go undetected in their internet use. In terms of enterprise encryption options, BitLocker is a popular option. BitLocker is a Windows encryption technology that protects data from unauthorized access by encrypting a drive and requiring one or more factors of authentication to unlock it. There are plenty of options available for encryption software that most cyber security experts will explore before deciding on the best one to resolve the problem at hand.
The path to knowledge
Given the overall complexity of cyber security, the range of different applications, and the wide array of software available, it is no surprise that most aspiring individuals in this field seek formal training to develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. Though there are some informal training courses available, and undergraduate degrees may provide students with a basic understanding of the world of cyber security, prospective cyber security experts are increasingly looking toward master’s degree programs. These can provide them with both the qualification and skillset needed to succeed.
Today, while there are plenty of campus degrees available, many people seek out an online degree. This allows them to study without relocating and is far more convenient for students remaining in either part-time or full-time employment during their studies.
For anyone looking for a cyber security master’s program online, there are several high-quality courses available. An online Master of Science from St. Bonaventure University, for example, provides students with the skills and knowledge needed to protect both businesses and individuals from cyberattacks and data theft. In addition to exploring the various types of software available and enabling prospective data security experts to become proficient in cloud security, machine learning, and AI, it also introduces them to a wide range of approaches and applications. Upon graduation, students will have a fundamental understanding of how to not only forensically analyse cybercrimes and prevent, detect, and respond to them, but also use data mining in improving cyber security and understand the importance of risk management and system protection.
Never stop learning
Even post-graduation, it is essential for those in this fast-paced field to keep ahead of the game, with security protocols, technology, and the capabilities of attackers advancing at a rapid rate with no signs of stopping. Much of any cyber security expert’s learning will take place on the job as they are exposed to a wide number of different problems and circumstances that they must deal with in real-time, often assisted by more experienced colleagues. As they become more experienced and knowledgeable in their field, many cyber security experts will find a niche to specialize in.
There is no question that a positive approach to lifelong learning is also key in this field. In addition to further vocational courses, the best security experts maintain a dialogue with their peers through conferences or webinars, or through mentorship. There is also a constant stream of information online that can sometimes provide vital clues related to the field. As technological developments continue to advance, it is essential to maintain awareness of the current state of play.
Moving toward the future
Given our connected world, there is no question that cyber security is one of the most vital areas of business. In addition, it is also an increasingly important topic in both public administration and even our private lives, given the vast potential for malicious actors to cause harm. Whichever area they work in, the best cyber security experts need to develop a deep understanding of all the main aspects of the profession. By working hard to gain a mastery of their profession and an excellent overview of the general picture, they will be able to implement the best possible solutions that benefit the system as a whole.
In addition to developing familiarity and understanding of the main types of approaches and software tools needed to implement a high level of cyber security, it is also important to have a perceptive and analytical mind, capable of not only developing first-class solutions, but also communicating the requirements to leaders and users to help ensure that high security standards are maintained. For all these reasons, the opportunities for growth offered in both formal and informal educational spheres are key to the profession. There can be no doubt that cyber security is a highly challenging career, but it is also one that is vital to our future.