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What is Cyber Security and Why is it Important?

A student exploring what cyber security is, holding a tablet and standing in front of large machines at his internship.

In recent years, headlines about cyber security have become increasingly common. Thieves steal customer social security numbers from corporations’ computer systems. Unscrupulous hackers grab passwords and personal information from social media sites or pluck company secrets from the cloud. For companies of all sizes, keeping information safe is a growing concern.

What Is Cyber Security?

Cyber security consists of all the technologies and practices that keep computer systems and electronic data safe. And, in a world where more and more of our business and social lives are online, it’s an enormous and growing field with many types of job roles.

According to the Cyber Security & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), "Cyber security is the art of protecting networks, devices and data from unauthorized access or criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity and availability of information."

What Is Information Security?

Information security is the processes and tools designed and used to protect sensitive business information from modification, disruption, destruction and inspection, according to CISCO.

Information security and cyber security are often confused. According to CISCO, information security is a crucial part of cyber security but is used exclusively to ensure data security.

Everything is connected by computers and the internet now, including communication, entertainment, transportation, shopping, medicine and more. A copious amount of personal information is stored among these various services and apps, which is why information security is critical.

Why Is Cyber Security Increasingly Important?

Getting hacked isn’t just a direct threat to the confidential data companies need. It can also ruin their relationships with customers and even place them in significant legal jeopardy. With new technology, from self-driving cars to internet-enabled home security systems, the dangers of cybercrime become even more serious.

So, it’s no wonder that international research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. predicts worldwide security spending will hit $170 billion in 2022, an 8% increase in just a year.

Jonathan Kamyck with text Jonathan Kamyck“We’re seeing a tremendous demand for cyber security practitioners,” said Jonathan Kamyck, associate dean of cyber security at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “Most businesses, whether they’re large or small, will have an online presence, for example. Some of the things you would do in the old days with a phone call or face-to-face now happen through email or teleconference, and that introduces lots of complicated questions with regard to information.”

These days, the need to protect confidential information is a pressing concern at the highest levels of government and industry. State secrets can be stolen from the other side of the world. Companies whose whole business models depend on control of customer data can find their databases compromised. In just one high-profile 2017 case, personal information for 147.9 million people – about half the United States – was compromised in a breach of credit reporting company Equifax.

What Are Cyber Attacks?

Infographic with the text Common Cyber Attack Threats: Malware, Phising, Ransomware, VirusesA cyber attack is an unwelcomed attempt to steal, expose, alter, disable or destroy information through unauthorized access to computer systems, according to the International Business Machines (IBM).

There are many reasons behind a cyber attack, such as cyber warfare, cyber terrorism and even hacktivists, but these actions fall into three main categories: criminal, political and personal.

Attackers motivated by crime typically seek financial gain through money theft, data theft or business disruption. Similarly, personal attackers include disgruntled current or former employees who will take money or data in an attempt to attack a company's systems.  Socio-political motivated attackers desire attention for their cause, resulting in their attacks being known to the public, and this is a form of hacktivism. Other forms of cyber attacks include espionage, or spying to gain an unfair advantage over the competition, and intellectual challenging.

According to CISA, as of 2021, there is a ransomware attack every 11 seconds – a dramatic rise from every 39 seconds in 2019 (CISA PDF Source). In addition, small businesses are the target of nearly 43% of all cyber attacks, which is up 400%.

The Small Business Association (SBA) reports that small businesses make attractive targets and are typically attacked due to their lack of security infrastructure. The SBA also reports that a majority of small business owners felt their business was vulnerable to an attack. This is because many of these businesses:

  • Can't afford professional IT solutions
  • Have limited time to devote to cyber security
  • Don't know where to begin

What Are Types of Cyber Attacks and Threats?

Here are some of the most common threats among cyber attacks:

  • Malware: Malware, also known as malicious software, is intrusive software developed by cyber criminals to steal data or to damage and destroy computers and computer systems, according to CISCO. Malware has the capability of exfiltrating massive amounts of data. Examples of common malware are viruses, worms, trojan viruses, spyware, adware and ransomware.
  • Phishing: Phishing attacks are the practice of sending fraudulent communications while appearing to be a reputable source, according to CISCO. This is typically performed via email or on the phone. The goal is to steal sensitive information such as financial or login information – or to install malware onto a target's device.
  • Ransomware: Ransomware is a form of malware designed to encrypt files on a target device, rendering those files and the systems they rely on unusable, according to the CISA. Once the system has been encrypted, actors demand ransom in exchange for decryption.
  • Viruses: A virus is a harmful program intended to spread from computer to computer, as well as other connected devices, according to the SBA. The object of a virus is to give the attacker access to the infected systems. Many viruses pretend to be legitimate applications but then cause damage to the systems, steal data, interrupt services or download additional malware, according to Proofpoint.

Who Is Behind Cyber Attacks?

Attacks against enterprises can come from a variety of sources such as criminal organizations, state actors and private persons, according to IBM. An easy way to classify these attacks is by outsider versus insider threats.

Outsider or external threats include organized criminals, professional hackers and amateur hackers (like hacktivists).

Insider threats are typically those who have authorized access to a company's assets and abuse them deliberately or accidentally. These threats include employees who are careless of security procedures, disgruntled current or former employees and business partners or clients with system access.

Developing Cyber Awareness

Infographic with the text Good Security Measures: Downloading the latest patches and software updates, Ensuring data is secure, Make sure employees use strong passwordsCyber security awareness month takes place every October and encourages individuals and organizations to own their role in protecting their cyberspace, according to Forbes, although anyone can practice being mindful of cyber security at any time. Awareness of the dangers of browsing the web, checking emails and interacting online in general are all part of developing cyber security awareness.

Cyber security awareness can mean different things to different people depending on their technical knowledge. Ensuring appropriate training is available to individuals is a great way to motivate lasting behavioral changes.

While cyber security awareness is the first step, employees and individuals must embrace and proactively use effective practices both professionally and personally for it to truly be effective, according to Forbes.

Getting started with cyber security awareness is easy, and many resources are readily available on the CISA government website based on your needs. Whether you need formal training or a monthly email with cyber security tips and tricks, any awareness and training can impact behavior and create a positive change in how you view cyber security.

What Are the Types of Cyber Security?

Here are the most common types of cyber security available:

  • Application Security: Application security describes security used by applications to prevent data or code within the app from being stolen or hijacked. These security systems are implemented during application development but are designed to protect the application after deployment, according to VMWare.
  • Cloud Security: Cloud security involves the technology and procedures that secure cloud computing environments against internal and external threats. These security systems are designed to prevent unauthorized access and keep data and applications in the cloud secure from cyber security threats, according to McAfee.
  • Infrastructure Security: Critical infrastructure security describes the physical and cyber systems that are so vital to society that their incapacity would have a debilitating impact on our physical, economic or public health and safety, according to CISA.
  • Internet of Things (IoT) Security: IoT is the concept of connecting any device to the Internet and other connected devices. The IoT is a network of connected things and people, all of which share data about the way they are used and their environments, according to IBM. These devices include appliances, sensors, televisions, routers, printers and countless other home network devices. Securing these devices is important, and according to a study by Bloomberg, security is one of the biggest barriers to widespread IoT adaption.
  • Network Security: Network security is the protection of network infrastructure from unauthorized access, abuse or theft. These security systems involve creating a secure infrastructure for devices, applications and users to work together, according to CISCO.

Do You Need a Degree To Be a Cyber Security Professional?

A cyber security degree provides an opportunity for students to develop skills and a mindset that empowers them to begin a career in securing systems, protecting information assets and managing organizational risks.

Alex Pettito with the text Alex PettitoAlex Petitto ’21 earned his bachelor’s in cyber security. Petitto always wanted to work within the IT sector, and he chose cyber security because it’s an exponentially growing field. He transferred credits from a community college through a U.S. Air Force program and finished his bachelor's in under two years. "It was much quicker than I thought it would be,” he said.

It didn't take long for Petitto to begin exploring his career options. "Even before finishing (my) degree, I … received multiple invites to interview for entry-level positions within the industry and received three job offers," said Petitto. He decided to remain within the Air Force and transfer to a cyber security unit as opposed to joining the private sector.

Petitto said his cyber security degree opened doors for him in the field – “a monumental goal for me," he said. "This degree was a critical first step for breaking into the industry."

Your cyber security degree program can also connect you with experiential learning opportunities to further your growth as a cyber security professional. For example, the annual National Cyber League (NCL) has a competition wherein students from across the U.S. practice real-world cyber security tasks and skills. SNHU recently placed 9th out of over 500 colleges participating in the NCL competition.

Career Opportunity and Salary Potential in Cyber Security

As companies large and small scramble to respond to the growing threats, jobs in the cyber security field are growing fast. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that employment for information security analysts will grow by 33% through 2030. That’s more than twice as fast as the average computer-related occupation and four times as fast as American jobs in general.

To help fill the need for more professionals in the cyber security world, CyberSeek, a project funded by the federal government and supported by industry partners, provides detailed information on the demand for these workers by state. The tool shows that, across the country, there were 180,000 job openings for information security analysts between May 2021 and April 2022, with only 141,000 professionals holding jobs in the role, reflecting an unfilled demand of 39,000 workers.

“There’s a huge shortfall right now in entry-level and midlevel cyber security roles,” Kamyck said. “You’re looking at demand across all business sectors, with companies of all sizes.

CyberSeek lists the following entry-mid-and advanced-level roles available in the field. Average salaries are based on job openings posted between May 2021 and April 2022.

Entry-level Cyber Security Roles

  • Cyber Crime Analyst: Cyber crime analysts make an average salary of $100,000, and common skills necessary for the role include computer forensics, information security and malware engineering.
  • Cyber Security Specialist: Cyber security specialists make an average salary of $104,482, and important skills for the role include information security, network security and information assurance.
  • Incident and Intrusion Analyst: Incident analysts make an average salary of $88,226, and common skills needed include project management, network security and intrusion detection.
  • IT Auditor: Information technology auditors make an average salary of $110,000, and common skills for the role include internal auditing and audit planning, accounting and risk assessment.

Mid-level Cyber Security Roles

  • Cyber Security Analyst: Cybersecurity analysts make an average of $107,500, and the top skills required include information security and systems, network security and threat analysis.
  • Cyber Security Consultant: Consultants in cyber security make an average salary of $92,504 and need skills in information security and surveillance, asset protection and security operations.
  • Penetration and Vulnerability Tester: Penetration testers make an average salary of $101,091 and need skills in penetration testing, Java, vulnerability assessment and software development.

Advanced-level Cyber Security Roles

  • Cyber Security Architect: Cyber security architects make an average salary of $159,752, and top skills for the role include software development, network and information security and authentication.
  • Cyber Security Engineer: Cyber security engineers make an average of $117,510 a year and need cryptography, authentication and network security skills.
  • Cyber Security Manager:  Managers in this field earn an average salary of $130,000, and top skills include project management, network security and risk management.

What Does a Cyber Security Professional Do?

Infographic with the text Types of Cyber Security: Application security, cloud security, infastructure security, internet of things (IOT) security, network securityKamyck said cyber security professionals could play a wide range of roles in a modern company. For example, some small businesses may hire a single person to handle all kinds of work protecting data. Others contract with consultants who can offer a variety of targeted services. Meanwhile, larger firms may have whole departments dedicated to protecting information and chasing down threats.

While companies define roles related to information security in a variety of ways, Kamyck said there are some specific tasks that these employees are commonly called on to do. In many cases, they must analyze threats and gather information from a company’s servers, cloud services and employee computers and mobile devices.

“An analyst’s job is to find meaning in all of that data, see what’s concerning,” he said. “Is there a breach? Is someone violating a policy?”

In many cases, Kamyck said, security specialists work with other information technology professionals to ensure a company’s systems are secure. That involves not just technical know-how but also people-oriented skills.

But breaches don’t just take the form of someone hacking into a server. They can also involve customer lists sent through unencrypted email, a password written on a sticky note in a cubicle or a company laptop stolen from an employee’s car.

Depending on their specific role, cyber security professionals must also think strategically. In many industries, companies rely on employees having quick access to highly sensitive data, such as medical records or bank account information.

“The goal is to balance the needs of the company or the organization you’re working for with the need to protect the confidentiality of customer data and trade secrets,” Kamyck said.

Kamyck said people who do well in these jobs tend to be curious, competitive and willing to keep learning to stay up to date with rapidly changing technology. The work draws on multidisciplinary knowledge, and people who continue with the work find there are a variety of directions they can take in their careers.

For example, Kamyck said, if you're interested in the business side, you might become a manager or run audits that let companies know where they need to improve to meet compliance. If you love the adversarial part of the job, you might become a penetration tester, essentially an “ethical hacker” who tests for system vulnerabilities by trying to get through them.

How To Get Into Cyber Security

If you’re wondering how to get into cyber security, it’s clear there are many positions out there. The question is how to make sure you’re a good fit for them. According to BLS, most information security analyst jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information assurance, programming or another related field.

In some cases, the work calls for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Information Systems. That degree typically takes an additional two years of study and involves both technical and business management courses.

Cyber security job requirements also sometimes include related work experience. Rather than jumping right into the security side of information technology, you can start as a network or computer systems administrator. Depending on the specific cyber security position, employers may have other job requirements. For instance, keeping databases secure might be an ideal job for someone who’s spent time as a database administrator and is also well-versed in security issues.

Aside from work experience and college degrees, some employers also prefer job candidates who have received certifications demonstrating their understanding of best practices in the field. For example, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential validates a professional’s general knowledge and abilities in information security. There are also more specific certificates, which can highlight specialized knowledge of computer architecture, engineering or management.

Whatever path new employees in cyber security want to follow, Kamyck said, those who are willing to make an effort to learn the field will find abundant opportunities.

“There’s needs in government. There’s needs in finance. There’s needs in education,” Kamyck said. “There’s a tremendous unfilled need.”

Discover more about SNHU's online cyber security degree: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

Nicholas Patterson is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.