Why cyber security is important in 2013

Today more than at any time in the past we are committed to using the Internet for almost all our business and social needs. Never before have we been so interconnected on such a global scale. Whilst on the one hand this has been enabling and super convenient it has on the other hand exposed us to the risk of fraud or other forms of malicious use of our computer systems on a scale previously unheard of.

There have been numerous surveys and reports issued over the past two years spelling out the financial cost of security breaches. The average annualised cost companies could face was reported, in one such report from the Ponemon Institute, as £2.1 million a year, with a range of £0.4 million to £7.7 million. In the past year we have seen many high profile companies fall fail of organised cyber attacks; Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, and NASA are just some of those affected. And then of course the usual and persistent attack on Microsoft Windows users all targeted by cyber criminals. These are not just isolated incidents, in 2011 there were around 50 million SQLi (SQL injection) attacks on web based applications. This is an almost unbelievable figure that as far as this writer is concerned, if it had not been reported by such a trustworthy source (Hewlett Packard) and also research by cyber security company (SBL) it would have been disregarded as over exaggerated.

Our networks generate numerous opportunities for attack, we are constantly sending and receiving code. If we could limit these movements to merely data we would mitigate the risk substantially, although the boundaries between what is seen to be data rather than executable code is shifting constantly. In some cases code can be delivered in an inert form over several days even weeks and then assembled as a malicious program by utilising the normal operating processes of the OS or other legitimate programs.

Should your company or organisation be targeted by a Cyber Criminal it becomes a real battle of wits between the criminal and your IT security department. I use the term Cyber Criminal in preference to hacker since it describes what they do more accurately. The targeted attack is the hardest to defend against, since the method and code used may be unique or at the very least your network might be the first to encounter this attack. As such many of the conventional defence mechanisms will be rendered useless in detecting or preventing the attack.

Sandboxing and quarantining techniques offer some of the best defence when considering these targeted attacks. By allowing the possible threat to penetrate into a controlled environment before it has access to your network proper, you have the time and opportunity to analyse and monitor code for unexpected activity. Vigilance is paramount more than ever as the attacker profile shifts further towards the organised criminal rather than the criminally minded individual. The good news is that there are now well developed, advanced academic courses on offer from leading Universities such as London University’s Royal Holloway college where those committed to defending our cyber world gain valuable knowledge and experience. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has just (May 2013) granted the Royal Holloway £3.8 million to host a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in cyber security. I think we are all agreed that it would be disastrous if we failed to keep up research and innovation in the area of cyber security.

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