Cybersecurity 1a: Foundations

Course Overview

Units at a glance

Today, people carry the world around in their pockets. That’s right—the world. At any given moment, we have the power to seek, find, and interact with just about any kind of information we want via the internet. But it’s not all open doors and friendly faces out there in cyber space. As we continue to navigate our online landscape, it becomes clear it can be a dangerous place indeed, especially if we don’t take the right precautions. Passwords, codes, verification questions—these all serve as watchdogs for our data, but it’s important to remember there are also clever people out there who are adept at sneaking around these safety measures. By looking critically at the connectivity of the internet, it’s easy to see how the pathways of communication can also become avenues for attack. This is the founding notion behind cybersecurity and the exact reason why—many years and several hundred billion dollars later—its efforts still struggle to keep pace with hackers and online threats. And in this brave new cyber reality, learning the ins and outs of the world you carry in your pocket has never been more important.

Our personal computers, tablets, and smartphones offer different user options, but they all have one thing in common—operating systems. Since an operating system (OS) is what makes everything on your device run smoothly, it would be pretty terrible if it were to be compromised. Recognizing how our OSes govern what our technology can do is an important part of being a savvy user and crucial to effective cybersecurity. Being a well-protected online adventurer demands more than just a basic understanding of the computer itself; it requires some knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of the components that live inside the device as well.

When people “network,” they come together to share information and stay connected. And in that way, you can have a network of friends, a network of systems, or a network of ideas. Computers are similar —they must also join together for the purpose of sharing resources and communicating. This can include sharing anything from a printer to a file server, but the most valued and popular resource today for human connection is the internet. Once we begin to learn how a network really functions and what it can do, it will be easier to understand the vast and complicated world of cybersecurity. Sharing ideas, images, and resources is what makes the world go ‘round, and networks are what form the backbone of this new reality. As the ways and means of connecting and sharing become increasingly complex, so will our need to secure our computer networks, and developing them in innovative ways will become one of the most important challenges we face.

Some people might say we already have all the tools we will ever need to protect ourselves from cyberattacks; we just need to learn from the world around us and find ways to use them effectively. Humans have been in conflict since the beginning of time, and technology’s new landscape of virtual warfare is simply an extension of this ongoing condition—the modern battlefield, if you will. Just as our weapons arsenal has expanded over thousands of years from clubs and arrows to machine guns and bombs, the practices of cybersecurity are in the midst of their own mighty evolution. Understanding how a network provides the backbone for communication is just one step in visualizing how we can protect the vitality of our online platforms. From application security to firewalls, guardianship of our virtual world is no small task. But if the defenses of the real world are any indication of our ability to protect ourselves, there’s always a way to stay ahead of any threat. We just have to learn how.

One of the biggest vulnerabilities in technology today is the lack of access control. If an online attacker is able to find just the right code, password, or tactic to gain passage through certain obstacles, the treasure of personal data is ripe for the picking. In this way, access is the prized gateway and the main objective of any savvy cybercriminal. And as such, access control is also a security point that requires the utmost attention and support. Understanding how data can be accessed (and what can be done to prevent it) sits at the core of any meaningful cybersecurity effort. Doors of entry and the locks that protect them—in the real world and the cyber one—come in all shapes and sizes, and you need to understand every inch of this digital environment if you hope to protect it.

These days, everybody wants their internet connection wherever and whenever they feel like checking in with work and friends, or any other wide array of internet services. And luckily for them, the invention of mobile devices with full operating systems and network accessibility has made that desire a reality. In fact, experts say 70 percent of all online activity is now generated through some kind of mobile use, which means all the security measures originally designed for those big desktop computers must now be applied to our smartphones and other portable devices in a myriad of new ways. It turns out that virtual and wireless worlds, complete with cloud computing abilities that can store, process, and transit information on the go, offer a lot of technological convenience, but unfortunately, they have also introduced a great deal of cyber risk.

Although it can be tempting to place our most precious assets under lock and key, such a heavy-handed security approach is just not practical. Digitally speaking, your information must have the freedom to move around the internet—connecting, sharing, transmitting, and making the technological world turn. So, the question then becomes, “How do you keep data safe while still allowing it to roam freely?” The answer is two-fold, as it demands a thorough understanding of both the physical and virtual realms of cybersecurity. Now that you understand the paths data takes while traveling through networks and the hardware involved with keeping it safe, it’s time to dig into encryption, application security, and other effective ways to “harden” and safeguard your valuable data. If walking along a well-protected road makes you feel more confident, you will likely appreciate how cybersecurity’s layered approach is akin to camouflaging yourself or traveling in a bulletproof car. In the event of a real threat, even the smallest additional protections could be helpful. In reality, hackers are likely never going to disappear entirely, which means our approach to safety in our journey through cyberspace must be balanced, well-rounded, and as thorough as possible.

Just like any profession, recognizing the current trends and challenges within the cybersecurity field is one of the best ways to truly understand it. From cyber terrorism to ransomware attacks to the Internet of Things, the digital landscape of today is far more complicated and dangerous than ever before. Establishing proper habits of digital citizenship and taking responsibility for your online information are just a couple of the ways you can become a well-seasoned and knowledgeable professional. The digital arms race between malicious actors and the powers of good has never been more heated, as individuals around the globe struggle to predict and understand the many ways an attack can harm vital infrastructure and threaten human life. This is no small effort and demands that experts and users alike stay vigilant, well-informed, and ready to fight for their digital safety.

Course Highlights

Learn more about who’s online when you are.
Investigate what makes your devices run safely.
Evaluate how safe your information is on the internet.
Anticipate challenges to your cybersecurity.

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