October is National Cyber Security Awareness month, a campaign sponsored by the federal government that may be gaining urgency in light of a spate of large-scale network hacks.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and two other organizations, the National Cyber Security Alliance and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, have sponsored the annual event for the past decade. Events and initiatives held throughout the month are designed to educate public- and private-sector partners about the importance of securing the nation’s networks.
“As a nation, we face constant cyber threats against our critical infrastructure and economy,” according to the DHS website. “As individuals, cybersecurity risks can threaten our finances, identity, and privacy.”
Richard Ford, the Harris Professor of Computer Science in Assured Information at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida, said various safeguards are available to defend against hackers and other cyber intruders.
“At the individual level, making sure all your software is patched up to date is a critical and simple first step toward a safer life online,” Ford said. “Coming in a close second place is being aware of what you are clicking on or opening.
“At the national level I think we need a broader strategy that doesn’t just spend more money, but spends the money more intelligently with a strong return on investment,” the Florida Tech professor said.
A list of events related to cybersecurity is available at StaySafeOnline.org. Additional information on National Cyber Security Awareness Month can be found on the Department of Homeland Security’s website, including the weekly themes such as Cyber Crime and Law Enforcement, and Cybersecurity for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses and Entrepreneurs.
The federal Homeland Security agency recommends computer users take the following steps to secure themselves online:
A string of hacks in recent months, several of which involved major U.S. retailers, has magnified the importance of online security. CNNMoney reported in May 2014 that nearly half of U.S. adults had some form of personal identification exposed in the preceding 12 months.
The first of the large-scale intrusions was announced in December 2013 when retail giant Target revealed that its networks had been hacked by cyber thieves in Eastern Europe. Target officials estimated that the thieves stole 40 million credit card numbers and an additional 70 million pieces of customer data. Shortly after, Michaels, an arts and crafts retailer, and department store chain Neiman Marcus, also reported hacks that involved the theft of millions of credit and debit card numbers.
In August 2014, a Milwaukee-based security firm announced that it had uncovered a stash of 1 billion unique usernames and passwords that had been stolen by a Russian crime ring. The stolen data, which also included 500 million email addresses, was believed to be the largest collection of its kind. During the same month, supermarket chains Albertsons and Supervalu and hospital operator Community Health Systems announced that their networks had been compromised.
In early September, Home Depot announced that its payment data systems had been breached, possibly exposing the personal information of customers who had used their credit cards at the home improvement chain’s stores in the United States and Canada since April 2014.
At the national level, Professor Ford said he considers the theft of trade secrets and attacks against critical infrastructure as the most urgent cybersecurity concerns. For individual computer users, malware poses the greatest risk, “hands down.”
“The problem is, all these threats are pressing,” he said. “They are all serious, they are all expensive to fix and they’re all very complex.”
The need for cybersecurity professionals has outstripped supply since 2007 and demand remains high across the nation, especially among federal agencies, according to a June 2014 report by RAND Corporation.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecast 37% job growth for information security analysts from 2012 to 2022. By comparison, the agency projects an average growth rate of 11% for all occupations during that same decade.