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What Is the CIA Triad?

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Jan 4, 2024
A cybersecurity expert works at a desk in front of a bank of monitors.

What Is the CIA Triad?

Our digital age offers unparalleled communication, connection, and convenience, but it also introduces significant vulnerabilities. Cybercriminals relentlessly attack U.S. systems, orchestrating pervasive fraud schemes, stealing and extorting data, and jeopardizing national security. In 2022 alone, cybercrimes compromising digital infrastructure cost Americans over $10.3 billion, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). 

“Cyber-enabled crime has been around for many years, but methods used by perpetrators continue to increase in scope and sophistication emanating from around the world,” says David Nanz, special agent in charge of the Springfield Field Office of the FBI.

At the core of many cybersecurity education models is a foundational security concept known as the CIA triad. Learning what the CIA triad is has become essential for cybersecurity experts. Standing for Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability, the CIA triad comprises the three pillars of information security that experts use to identify and reduce vulnerabilities in security systems. 

The C in the CIA Triad: Confidentiality

Confidentiality is a foundational pillar of cybersecurity, ensuring that sensitive data remains in the right hands. 

Understanding Confidentiality

In a world rife with cyber threats, the essence of confidentiality is to keep private data just that — private. Confidentiality is centered on safeguarding data to ensure that access to specific information is strictly limited to individuals or systems with the appropriate permissions. 

This is critical to numerous organizations and industries, in which safeguarding patient medical records, financial statements, and private communications is a primary priority. The goal is straightforward: to prevent unauthorized users or systems from accessing or retrieving sensitive data. 

Confidentiality Vulnerabilities

Several vulnerabilities can compromise the confidentiality of data:

  • Phishing attacks. Cyber attackers use deceptive emails and websites to trick users into providing sensitive data or credentials.
  • Weak passwords. Easily guessable or widely used passwords can offer easy access to protected data.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks. Hackers gain access to private messages and possibly corrupt them. 
  • Unpatched software. Software applications that have not been updated can have vulnerabilities that attackers exploit.
  • Malware and spyware. Malicious software can be used to secretly monitor and collect sensitive information from a device.

Designing Cybersecurity Systems to Enhance Confidentiality

To bolster confidentiality in cybersecurity systems:

  • Educate users. Regularly train users on the importance of cybersecurity, teaching them to recognize threats, such as phishing emails, and the importance of strong password practices.
  • Use encryption. Use encryption for data both at rest and in transit. This ensures that even if data is intercepted, it remains unintelligible without the decryption key.
  • Deploy intrusion detection and prevention Systems. Deploy IDPS to monitor, identify, and block potential threats in real time.
  • Require multifactor authentication. Require more than one method of authentication, combining something the user knows (password), something the user has (a token or phone), and something the user “is” (fingerprint or facial recognition).
  • Implement robust access controls. Implement strict access control lists (ACLs) or role-based access control (RBAC) to ensure that only authorized individuals can access specific data.

By understanding its significance, recognizing potential vulnerabilities, and applying rigorous security measures, organizations can create strong defenses against ever-evolving cyber threats.

The I in the CIA Triad: Integrity

What the CIA triad is aiming to achieve is reliable, trustworthy, and factual data. The second pillar, Integrity, focuses on accuracy and reliability.

Understanding Integrity

Integrity ensures that the data in use — whether a piece of software code, an email, or a database record — remains genuine, unaltered, and true to its original state. 

In the context of cybersecurity, integrity is all about making certain that information remains authentic and that unauthorized entities have not tampered with it. By preserving the integrity of data, organizations can trust their systems and the information they contain, ensuring that malicious entities cannot alter or corrupt the data.

Integrity Vulnerabilities

Some of the same digital vulnerabilities that compromise confidentiality can also affect integrity, such as man-in-the-middle attacks. 

Additional common vulnerabilities that can jeopardize integrity include malware and ransomware. Malicious software can modify, delete, or corrupt user data. An SQL injection (SQLi) is also an issue. This type of attack allows the attacker to execute malicious SQL statements in a database, possibly leading to data being altered or deleted.

Finally, physical tampering or uncontrolled user privileges can compromise integrity. With tampering, direct physical access to a device or server can allow for data manipulation. With uncontrolled user privileges, users with excessive permissions or users without appropriate permissions can alter data that they should not be altering. Both can intentionally or unintentionally compromise integrity, so effective cybersecurity systems must be established to prevent them. 

Designing Cybersecurity Systems to Enhance Integrity

To strengthen data integrity, experts implement:

  • Data backups. Regularly backing up data so that it can be restored to its original state is necessary in the event of a breach or corruption.
  • Data validation techniques. Using input validation can ensure that only appropriate and expected data is entered into systems.
  • File integrity checkers. Building software that regularly checks if data or files have been altered is crucial for the healthy maintenance of any cybersecurity system.
  • Digital signatures. Using the cryptographic equivalents of handwritten signatures or stamped seals, but much more secure, can help validate the integrity of a message or document.
  • User access controls. Implementing the principle of least privilege (POLP) ensures that users have only the permissions they need to do their jobs and nothing more.
  • Network segmentation. Dividing the network into segments enables systems to continue working during an attack. When one portion is compromised, a segmented network may insulate the others from compromise.
  • Regular audits. Conducting regular security audits to check for any discrepancies or changes in data is key to ensuring integrity.

Data integrity is paramount in the digital world. It assures users and organizations that their information remains genuine and uncorrupted. By applying rigorous security measures that promote integrity, organizations can create vital defenses.

The A in the CIA Triad: Availability

While the first two pillars of the CIA triad emphasize the protection and authenticity of data, the third pillar, Availability, focuses on ensuring uninterrupted access to the data.

Understanding Availability

The concept of availability is committed to making sure that data or systems are readily available to those who have the right to access them, precisely when they need them. 

Imagine the dire consequences if a doctor could not access a patient’s medical records during an ER visit, or if emergency services could not retrieve real-time data during a crisis. Such scenarios underline why ensuring data availability is of paramount importance, especially in sectors in which timing and data access can mean the difference between life and death.

Availability Vulnerabilities

Several vulnerabilities can impede data availability:

  • Software bugs or misconfigurations. Incorrect software configurations or glitches can cause system outages.
  • Distributed denial of service. Cybercriminals flood a system, server, or network with excessive traffic, causing it to slow down or crash, thereby making it unavailable to users.
  • Ransomware. Users can be locked out of their data or their entire systems until a ransom is paid to the attacker.
  • Hardware failures. Physical damage to hard drives or servers can prevent access to data. Events such as floods, fires, and earthquakes can disrupt physical infrastructure, impeding data access.

Designing Cybersecurity Systems to Enhance Integrity

To fortify the availability in cybersecurity systems, several measures are needed.

  • Redundancy. Maintain duplicate systems or data backups in separate locations. If one system fails, the backup can take over to ensure availability.
  • Load balancers. Distribute incoming network traffic across multiple servers, ensuring that no single server is overwhelmed with too much traffic.
  • Regular maintenance. Schedule periodic maintenance and updates during off-peak hours to minimize disruptions and maintain availability during busy periods.
  • Distributed denial of service protection tools. Implement solutions that can detect and mitigate DDoS attacks in real time, preventing availability from being cut off in an attack.
  • Cloud solutions. Use cloud services that can provide scalable resources to ensure that data is available even during traffic spikes or system failures.
  • Continuous monitoring. Deploy monitoring solutions that identify potential availability issues before they escalate to allow for timely intervention.
  • Disaster recovery plan. Establish a comprehensive plan that details how to restore data and services in the event of a catastrophe.

Data availability is a linchpin in ensuring continuous and timely access to critical information. With the right steps, organizations can ensure the seamless availability of their valuable data amid myriad threats.

Expanding the CIA Triad 

Some industry experts believe that what the CIA triad is may not be exhaustive enough to address the evolving challenges posed by modern technology. Whether on Wall Street or in the White House, at a rural hospital or in higher education, professionals and their organizations should be proactive about cyber attacks. 

To this end, experts are exploring additional concepts beyond the CIA triad to address modern digital challenges:

  • Authenticity. Authenticity ensures that transactions, communications, and data sources can be trusted to be genuine, not an imitation or a fraud.
  • Nonrepudiation. Nonrepudiation prevents a sender from denying the authenticity of a piece of information or a sender from denying the transmission of a message. Nonrepudiation mechanisms provide evidence that ensures a specific action (for example, sending an email or transferring funds) actually occurred. 
  • Resilience. Resilience is the ability of a system to anticipate, withstand, recover from, and adapt to adverse conditions, disruptions, or attacks. This can involve strategies such as backup systems, failover mechanisms, continuous monitoring, and regular drills or simulations to test the robustness of a system.

As our digital ecosystem becomes more complex, the nuances of cybersecurity need to evolve as well. While the CIA triad provides a solid foundation, the inclusion of concepts such as authenticity, nonrepudiation, and resilience adds depth, addressing contemporary challenges and ensuring a more holistic approach to safeguarding our digital assets.

Elevate Your Cybersecurity Game With an Advanced Degree

To protect against growing digital threats, cybersecurity is essential. Embracing the fundamentals, such as the CIA triad, is the first step toward an effective cybersecurity strategy. For those passionate about delving deeper into the intricate world of cybersecurity, the online Master of Science in Cyber Security program at The University of Tulsa offers an enriching journey into the frontiers of digital protection. 

Equip yourself with the tools and knowledge to safeguard the digital world of tomorrow. Find out how TU can help you find a place at the forefront of cybersecurity.

Recommended Readings

The Importance of Cybersecurity Leadership

Cybersecurity Ethics: Why It’s Important

Chief Information Security Officer: Job Description and Salary

Sources:

Center for Internet Security, Election Security Spotlight — CIA Triad

FBI, Internet Crime Complaint Center Releases 2022 Statistics

Fortinet, CIA Triad

LinkedIn, “The ‘CIA Triad’ Is Insufficient in the Age of AI/OT/IoT”

TechTarget, “What Is the CIA Triad (Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability)?”

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