Introduction to Cyber Security

FutureLearnThis fall, I enrolled in, and completed, my first first MOOC (massive open online course), Introduction to Cyber Security at the Open University (UK) through their FutureLearn program. I found out about the course almost simultaneously through Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing and the Radical Reference listserv (thanks, Kevin).

Screen shot from course "trailer," featuring Cory Doctorow

Screen shot from course “trailer,” featuring Cory Doctorow

The free eight-week course started on October 15 and ended on December 5. Each week started with a short video, featuring course guide Cory Doctorow, and the rest of the week’s course materials included short articles and videos. Transcripts of the videos were made available, and other materials were available to download in PDF. Each step of each week included a discussion area, but only some of the steps included specific prompts or assignments to research and comment; facilitators from OU moderated the discussions and occasionally answered questions. Each week ended with a quiz; students had three tries to get each answer, earning successively fewer points for each try.

Week 1: [Security] Threat Landscape: Learn basic techniques for protecting your computers and your online information.
Week 2: Authentication and passwords
Week 3: Malware basics
Week 4: Networking and Communications: How does the Internet work?
Week 5: Cryptography basics
Week 6: Network security and firewalls
Week 7: “When your defenses fail”: What to do when things go wrong
Week 8: Managing and analyzing security risks

The FutureLearn website was incredibly easy to use, with a clean and intuitive design, and each week of the course was broken down into little bite-size chunks so it was easy to do a little bit at a time, or plow through a whole week in one or two sessions. I tended to do most of the work on Thursdays and Fridays, so there were plenty of comments in the discussions by the time I got there.

Anyone can still take the course, so I won’t go too in-depth here, but the following are some tips, facts, and resources I found valuable or noteworthy during the course:

  • Identify your information assets: these include school, work, and personal documents; photos; social media account information and content; e-mail; and more, basically anything you store locally on your computer or in the cloud. What is the value (high/medium/low) of this information to you? What are the relevant threats?
  • Passwords are how we identify ourselves (authentication). Passwords should be memorable, long, and unique (don’t use the same password for different sites or accounts). Password managers such as LastPass or KeyPass can help, but that is placing a lot of trust in them. Password managers should: require a password, lock up if inactive, be encrypted, and use 2-factor authentication.
  • Use 2-factor authentication whenever it is available.
  • 85% of all e-mail sent in 2011 was spam.
  • Anti-virus software uses two techniques: signatures (distinctive patterns of data) and heuristics (rules based on previous knowledge about known viruses).
  • The Sophos “Threatsaurus” provides an “A-Z of computer and data security threats” in plain English.
  • The Internet is “a network of networks.” Protocols (e.g. TCP/IP) are conventions for communication between computers. All computers understand the same protocols, even in different networks.
  • Wireless networks are exposed to risks to Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability (CIA); thus, encryption is necessary. The best option currently is Wireless Protected Access (WPA2).
  • The Domain Name Server (DNS) translates URLs to IP addresses.
  • Any data that can be represented in binary format can be encrypted by a computer.
  • Symmetric encryption: 2 copies of 1 shared key. But how to transmit the shared key safely? Asymmetric encryption (a.k.a. public key cryptography) uses two keys and the Diffie-Hellman key exchange. (The video to explain this was very helpful.)
  • Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is a collection of crypto techniques. In the course, we sent and received encrypted e-mail with Mailvelope.
  • Transport Layer Security (TLS) has replaced Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) as the standard crypto protocol to provide communication security over the Internet.
  • Firewalls block dangerous information/communications from spreading across networks. A personal firewall protects the computer it’s installed on.
  • Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) allow a secure connection across an untrusted network. VPNs use hashes, digital signatures, and message authentication codes (MACs).
  • Data loss is often due to “insider attacks”; these make up 36-37% of information security breaches.
  • Data is the representation of information (meaning).
  • The eight principles of the Data Protection Act (UK). Much of the information about legislation in Week 7 was specific to the UK, including the Computer Misuse Act (1990), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), and the Fraud Act (2006).
  • File permissions may be set to write (allows editing), read (allows copying), and execute (run program).
  • Use a likelihood-impact matrix to analyze risk: protect high-impact, high-likelihood data like e-mail, passwords, and online banking data.

Now that I’ve gained an increased awareness of cyber security, what’s changed? Partly due to this course and partly thanks to earlier articles, conference sessions, and workshops, here are the tools I use now:

See also this excellent list of privacy tools from the Watertown Free Library. Privacy/security is one of those topics you can’t just learn about once and be done; it’s a constant effort to keep up. But as more and more of our data becomes electronic, it’s essential that we keep tabs on threats and do our best to protect our online privacy.

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