Q is for …

Quantum computing

You probably know by now that typical computers function by using 1s and 0s, using binary maths. The transistors in them are either off (0) or on (1), with data being held as binary digits (bits).

In quantum computing, quantum mechanics form the basis of the machine. Rather than bits and bytes, quantum computers use quantum digits (qubits). I have to confess that I don’t understand the maths involved, but the two things to bear in mind are these:

  • There are more than just 1s and 0s: qubits can be in multiple states at the same time
  • Viewing the state of a qubit changes it
  • What these mean is that quantum computers have the potential to be incredibly fast, but it’s difficult to make use of their multiple states because looking at their state changes them.
  • Some organisations eg IBM have built small prototype quantum computers, but the technology is in its infancy. It will probably be several years before this sort of processing becomes commercially available.
  • When they are finally built, processing speeds will be massively increased, which also means that existing cryptography techniques will be at risk because even brute force attacks will be able to be carried out so much faster. A new form of quantum cryptography will have to be developed and implemented.
  • E is for…

    Encryption

    The process of scrambling a message or data as part of cryptography is called encryption. This is what makes the message impossible to read unless you know how to unscramble it using decryption. As the years have gone by this process has become more and more complicated, and there is heavy reliance on computing power and very advanced maths to make it work without risk of the message being compromised.

    Endpoints

    You may often hear the phrase endpoint when talking about computer equipment. The term refers to devices such as laptop and desktop computers, smartphones and tablet devices ie things which the end user uses to access data.

    Exploit

    Code written to take advantage of vulnerabilities in software is known as an exploit. It may be used to inject code, to run a different program, or to cause other damage to the system.

    Extranet

    An extranet is a controlled network environment which is used to give non company staff members access to company resources (for example, data files) typically through some sort of remote access solution.

    D is for…

    Dark Web

    Most of us are familiar with the Internet, and using search engines such as Google and Bing to find information we need. Those operate in a part of the World Wide Web that is often called the Surface Web. It seems like we can find a huge amount of data on the surface web, but in actual fact it’s only about 5% of all material that is available online. A large portion of the remaining data is found on the Deep Web – see below – but there’s a very murky area which is hidden away and can only be accessed by using special web browser software, the most well known being The Onion Router, or ToR. Most users will never have cause to visit this area, because it’s where various illegal web sites / services are found, including drugs, stolen goods, child abuse, false identity documents, counterfeit money etc. It’s therefore an area where criminals globally congregate to deal in and share their services.

    Data Centre

    A data centre is typically a large room – or set of rooms – with multiple servers in it. It can vary in size from one room with a few racks of servers, to a site with many thousands of servers. Typically they will have redundant power supplies, some form of backup solution, and will often provide services to multiple companies at the same time. Some organisations will run their own data centres, some will outsource their services to a Third Party, and some will operate a mix.

    Data centres are typically where cloud services live. Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon offer multiple data centres across most of the continents.

    DDoS

    Distributed Denial of Services (DDoS) are a method of attack on a company’s services (typically internet based, like web sites or file sharing). They are carried out by multiple internet connected devices including PCs, laptops and IoT machines, often using botnets. The word Distributed is used to signify that the devices are spreads around, possibly even al over the globe.

    When a DDoS attack is carried out, the target is overwhelmed by multiple messages being sent from all the devices in the botnet, to the extent that it is rendered unusable.

    A way of thinking of this is if you have a crowd of people trying to get through a door. If they move one at a time through the door, there’s no problem. If everyone tries to get through the door at the same time, it will become blocked and take time to become unblocked.

    Deep Web

    As mentioned above in Dark Web, the Deep Web makes up a huge proportion of the World Wide Web. The sites in this area are not indexed, which means they can’t be found by search engines like Google and Bing, but that doesn’t mean that they are providing illegal services.

    Deep Web sites are typically where you can find information that isn’t really for public consumption, but which is used by special interest groups. This will include research groups, academic communities, file sharing sites etc. Users access the sites only if they know the exact address, but can use standard browsers such as Internet Explorer and Chrome – other browsers are available.

    Decryption

    Decryption is how cryptography makes messages readable again after they have been encrypted. Depending on how data is encrypted, decryption may happen automatically, or you may have to carry out a specific routine using special software.

    Disaster Recovery

    Disaster Recovery (DR) is most commonly seen as the provision of the IT part of a Business Continuity Plan. It’s about getting your IT systems back up and running within set timescales in order to enable key resources to work as normal.

    For example, if you’ve planned to move to an alternate location in the event of an outage with your business, your DR solution will probably include appropriate network connections, having enough desktop or laptop devices available and having the relevant data and software available from the alternate location.

    It’s not uncommon for businesses to run tabletop exercises to work out who would do what in the event of a problem, but it’s also a good idea to actually test that the plan works. For example, if your DR plan is to have 20 people up and running within 4 hours at the alternate site, but there are only 10 devices available for them to use at the site, then your plan will fail.

    It’s important to note that when testing your plan, things not working are good things to find. It’s better to find that out during a test than when you actually need it.

    DOS

    Denial of Service (DOS) is similar to DDoS, but instead of being based on multiple devices acting concurrently, is based on a single device. That single device will send multiple messages consecutively at a very high rate, with the aim of overloading the target device.

    C is for…

    CAT5

    We don’t really hear this term very often any more, but it refers to probably the most common form of network cabling in offices and homes over the last 15-20 years. It’s the cable you may connect from your home router to your laptop if you don’t use Wi-Fi – it’s almost certainly been provided with the router and you may have left it in the box.

    The picture below shows the ends of a CAT5 cable. Recognise it?

    CIA Triad

    This is a common term used to refer to the three main pillars of information security, Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. Information Security is all about addressing these three topics when applied to data.

    Cloud

    “The Cloud” is a term used by many, and the common reference for it is “someone else’s computer”. That’s a pretty good explanation, in that cloud services are provided by a range of companies where they have buildings housing lots of servers, and you effectively rent out one or more of those servers. The benefits are that you don’t have to manage the servers, procurement of parts or maintenance. You don’t have to worry about ensuring the power is always on and quite often your backups are done for you. You can also generally flex storage space up and down as you need it, rather than having to own lots when you don’t always use it. Cloud can therefore seem quite attractive from a cost point of view. The disadvantages – which are actually things you need to ask about – are that you don’t know who has access to your physical servers, you don’t know who you’re sharing server space with, and you don’t necessarily know which country your data is being held in. You therefore need to have a good handle on the security of data, and make sure your Governance / audit processes take this into account.

    Confidentiality

    Part of the CIA triad, confidentiality is concerned with making sure only authorised people have access to data.

    For example, you would not want just anyone to be able to read your medical records: your doctor’s surgery or hospital will keep that information confidential.

    Cryptocurrency

    Put simply, cryptocurrency is an electronic form of currency which is not regulated, managed or overseen by any banks or governments. Based on cryptographic techniques, it uses blockchain technology to validate every transaction. There is no single point of control. Some stock exchanges and banks are starting to recognise the various currencies, such as Bitcoin, Ripple and Ethereum, and to actively trade in them, while others are banning cryptocurrency altogether. At the time of writing this article, values for the various currencies have been fluctuating massively and it’s likely that they will take some time to settle down.

    Cryptography

    Cryptography is all about scrambling data to make it unreadable or impossible to understand without first unscrambling it. The technical terms for these processes are encryption and decryption. Many methods have been used over the years to encrypt data.

    Manual manipulation of messages eg using one time pads (as the name infers, these were sheets of paper which were to be used only once: messages were scrambled using the random set of letters on the pad and the recipient would have to be using the same pad to decrypt the message) has been done for at least 2000 years or more.

    Computers have been increasingly used for this process in the last 70 years. Enigma was a machine used by the Germans in WW2 to securely swap messages and was the name given to the code which was broken by Polish mathematicians in the 1930s and again by a team led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during the war, as dramatised in the film The Imitation Game. Later in the war, a code called Lorenz was broken using a machine devised by Bill Tutte and built by Tommy Flowers. The machine was called Colossus and was the first real computer in the world. It was destroyed after the war and its creation kept secret until many years later, so an American invention in the late 1940s called ENIAC has until recently been thought to be the first computer.

    Modern cryptography relies on complicated maths and massive processing power, which can only be provided by computers. Techniques are continuously evolving, and manual cracking of codes is nigh on impossible now.

    Cyber

    We all use the term, but what exactly is cyber? There are many different definitions, all of which are right. The most basic is probably “something to do with computers”. It’s important that all people in a business share the same definition, so you all know exactly what you mean by the term.

    I believe that in 5 to 10 years we won’t be talking about cyber- anything. Cybersecurity, cyberwarfare etc will have lost the prefix and we’ll just be talking about security, warfare etc.

    B is for…

    Backup

    I’ve talked about these in a previous post, but essentially backups are copies of your data or computer which you can use to replace files which are inadvertently deleted, or as an alternative to paying the ransom in a ransomware attack.

    You should make backups on a regular basis, whether by simply copying your important files to another hard drive or perhaps a USB stick, or using specific software for backups. The really important bit is this though: once your backup is complete, disconnect the backup media from your computer. If your computer is encrypted in a ransomware attack and your backup media is still attached, your backup likely to be encrypted too.

    When trying to decide what to backup, think about what files at most important to you, about those which you really can’t do without. That’ll probably be financial information, including mortgage and insurance, but think about your photos and videos too. Put another way, if your house was on fire what would you save first, once family and pets were safe?

    Biometrics

    Biometrics are used as a form of authentication. They sound really technical, but all they really mean is a physical part of your body which is unique to you. That means fingerprints, palm prints, scans of your retinas and other unique factors which you’ve probably seen in spy movies etc, like ear prints. Some mobile devices eg the latest iPhones already use fingerprint recognition, so it’s not entirely all Hollywood make believe!

    Bitcoin

    Probably the best known cryptocurrency, the value of Bitcoin soared towards the end of 2017, but many financial experts believe that this is a bubble which will burst soon. Created by someone called Satoshi Nakamoto – no-one knows who that really is – there can only ever be 21 million Bitcoins. Each Bitcoin can be split into 100 million units, known as a satoshi. The process of creating bitcoins is based on cryptography and maths, and is called mining.

    Black Hat hacker

    Taken from the old western movies, a black hat hacker is one of the bad guys. They’re the ones trying to break into systems without permission, probably either to steal data or to cause damage to the organisation. They’re the ones you are most likely to hear about in the news, often with a White Hat hacker talking about what they’ve done. (White Hats are the good guys, and there are also Grey Hats which we’ll cover later in the year.)

    Block chain

    Blockchain is the technology used to create cryptocurrency, but in future it will be used for much more. If you think of blockchain as a sort of bank account where every transaction is visible to everyone in the world, where it is possible to track the origin and path of every piece of currency since the currency began, but without knowing who owns each account, that’s pretty much the principle behind it.

    The first ever transaction contained details of how much was spent and what account number (technically, which wallet) it went to, as well as the date and time, along with some other information. All the details were encrypted into one block.

    The second transaction did much the same, but also which wallet the transaction originated in and where it ended up. When encrypted it also included the details from the first block.

    The third transaction was the same, but on encryption it included the first and second block.

    And so on – that’s how the blockchain was born.

    One of the benefits of blockchain is that each transaction is validated by all other participants, so it is pretty much impossible to falsify a record: fraud is therefore unlikely, and provenance has an unbroken chain.

    This is useful in cryptocurrency, but has many other uses too. For example:

    • When buying a house, wouldn’t it be great to have a complete list of every transaction ever carried out from land purchase to addition of a conservatory or work to fix a problem with rot, which could not be falsified.
    • When new drugs are created to treat specific illnesses and diseases, think about how beneficial it would be to hold details of all tests and their results as part of the proof that they work, and which cannot be tampered with.

    Botnet

    When a device has been compromised, it may be used to attack other computers over the Internet. When this is the case, it is said to be running as a bot (like a robot). When multiple bots are used to carry out a simultaneous attack, or to run in a similar way, this is called a botnet ie a network of robots.

    Business Continuity

    Often used almost synonymously with Disaster Recovery (DR), Business Continuity is all about making sure that your business can carry on working in the event of an issue eg power cut, loss of data, flooding. It’s not all about cyber, though cyber is a constituent part.

    Most commonly people talk about Business Continuity Planning (BCP) which is all about determining, documenting and testing how you will react to something that affects your business. For example, you may have an alternate site for people to work from, or they may be able to work from home, but how do you tell people that’s what they need to do? How do you know that they will be able to access systems from the alternate location? How do you know they will have access to all the software and data they need from that alternate location?

    A key part of BCP is understanding who your key assets are, and what they need to do their job. You also need to understand the impact to your business if various components are unavailable, and how long you can afford to not be working. For example, if your business only provides services through the internet, having no internet access for several days could kill your business: your BCP will set out what you will do to get back online quickly.

    It’s not uncommon for businesses to run tabletop exercises to work out who would do what in the event of a problem, but it’s also a good idea to actually test that the plan works. For example, if your BC plan is to have 20 people up and running within 4 hours at the alternate site, but it takes more than 4 hours to travel to the site, then your plan will fail.

    It’s important to note that when testing your plan, things not working are good things to find. It’s better to find that out during a test than when you actually need it.