Highlights in the History of Cyber Security

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The Internet is technically still in its infancy, being introduced to the public for widespread use just a couple of decades ago.  The need for cyber security, however, has been around slightly longer.  Before the birth of the Internet as we know it, hackers were using telephone dial tones and home-made equipment to connect to military computers (which had ARPANET and MILNET over a decade before the general public had the Internet) and steal data, peruse files, and release viruses.

As defined by the University of Maryland, “cyber security” is information technology security that focuses on protecting the information assets of a public or private company, such as computers, programs, and data, from unintended or unauthorized access, use, modification, or destruction.  Every company or entity from a small, local retail outlet to the United States government has information assets that are confidential, sensitive, or otherwise in need of privatization, and cyber security is the act of and process through which this data is securely stored and protected.

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Most of the world’s biggest data breaches have occurred as a result of those systems being hacked by outsiders, while the smallest number of big data breaches were the result of inadequate system security or viruses.  Sensitive and confidential files have been compromised in numbers that range from a few dozen to over one hundred million (Heartland (2009), the biggest credit card scam in history).  Despite the hundreds of millions of user accounts and private citizens’ data records that have been stolen, damaged, or compromised in the last decade, it is somewhat comforting to know that these situations, almost in their entirety, were not allowed to occur due to poor cyber security protocols in place to protect that data.

Cyber attacks increased dramatically, almost 800%, from 2006 to 2012, and it is estimated that cyber security will become the second largest operational cost in the United States within a few years demanding more talented individuals with a cyber security specialization.  Some of the bigger data breaches, and their number of compromised files or records, include:

  • America Online: 92,000,000 and 20,000,000
  • U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: 26,500,000
  • TX/TJ Maxx: 94,000,000
  • United Kingdom Revenue & Customs: 25,000,000
  • United States Military: 76,000,000
  • Heartland: 130,000,000­­
  • Sony Online Entertainment: 24,600,000
  • Sony PSN: 77,000,000
  • Evernote: 50,000,000
  • RockYou!: 32,000,000

While data thieves steal everything from online game account names and passwords to social networking site access information, the more common targets for data breaches are banking institutions and credit card processing companies, where thieves can acquire information that has tangible value in the form of bank account balances and credit card numbers.  In February 2013, cyber criminals stole more than $45 million from different banks across the globe; the largest bank heist in history.

With many companies unable to keep pace with the technological savvy and creative data manipulation techniques used by cyber criminals, cyber security sometimes seems to be taking a reactive stance instead of a proactive one.  This is not necessarily the case, however, because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which someone can gain unauthorized access to a company’s data, and it is an almost impossible task to guard every single one of those access points.

The phrase “to catch a thief you have to think like one” may prove more true than we realize, because federal agencies have adopted the controversial but effective strategy of hiring convicted hackers and cyber criminals to work in their cyber security divisions.  Perhaps the best way to protect sensitive data is to try to steal it, reveal any weaknesses in the system, and repair them before they are discovered by real thieves with fraudulent intentions.

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