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The Importance of Information Assurance and Cybersecurity in a Changing World

Data has become the most valuable new commodity in the information age. As users on the internet, we’re constantly exchanging data with our search engines, the sites we visit and the online platforms we spend time on. With the rise of ecommerce, we’re making transactions online too. The information we use to move through cyberspace is often sensitive, and the only way that can happen safely is if that information is protected.

Information assurance is how companies protected customer information even before the whole world moved online. Even when information could only be written by hand, transported in physical files and stored in brick and mortar buildings, the people in charge of it had to find ways of keeping it secure.

Thanks to servers and cloud systems, we don’t have to worry so much about important accounting ledgers being stolen during a break-in or destroyed in a building flood. Online information is still vulnerable, though, which is why information assurance – specifically cyber security – can’t be overlooked in a changing world.

Before we can make the most of information assurance, though, we need to break down what it is and how it can help keep cyberspace functional. Of course, we’ll need to start with the one question that informs all the others.

What is Information assurance?

In the broadest sense, information assurance is an umbrella term for a diverse range of tactics to keep information safe. For the users who give up their data, information assurance is what makes it safe for them to do so. For the websites and platforms that collect that data, information assurance is how they keep that data from being corrupted, stolen or compromised.

It’s a risk management strategy that looks at the unique problems posed by collecting, storing and moving private information on the internet. Now, cyberspace isn’t exactly more dangerous than the real world in this regard, it just has different gaps that need to be plugged.

Information assurance includes everything from investing in high grade servers to having strict policies about who can access information, why and how. It covers the technical side of cyber security like antivirus software, good cloud storage systems and protecting access points.

But it’s easy to get lost in the technology around it and forget the role people play. Data is still vulnerable to human error. For example, a project manager might take a company laptop home to do some work over the weekend. If that laptop doesn’t have the right cyber security, then a host of risks can come into play.

That project manager might decide that a café was the perfect place to do payroll on a Saturday morning. The thing is if they connected that laptop to a network that wasn’t secure – like a café’s public Wi-Fi – then that data would suddenly become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

That might seem like an outlandish example now, but that wasn’t always the case. The frequency of breaches like that was a big reason why major firms started fitting their laptops with internal mobile network cards instead of Wi-Fi cards that could connect to any network.

Now an internal mobile network card is just one example of information assurance, but it highlights the two goals of the whole process. Information assurance is about making a data system more secure and limiting the risk of human interference, it doesn’t matter if that interference is negligence from a project manager or a malware attack from a hacker.

Why is information assurance so important?

We’ve looked a bit at how both people and online systems benefit from information assurance, but the reasons extend to many other areas. An important thing to remember about data is that it doesn’t just exist as a set of numbers stored in the IT department forever.

Data is as fluid and dynamic as the conversations we have in person. We use it to communicate with each other, build trust, verify key points, exchange valuable knowledge and make transactions. The beauty of the internet is that it’s made a lot of these exchanges quicker and connected people and businesses across the world.

Like money in a transit truck, data is most vulnerable when it’s moving from one point to another. We refer to this kind of information as data in transit. It’s important to separate it from static, stored information - termed data at rest – because information assurance deals with moving it safely rather than keeping it secure.

Third parties also place a huge amount of importance on proper data assurance. Very few insurance companies are willing to approve cyber insurance policies for people and businesses that haven’t taken the steps to tighten up their own security.

The same is true for investors. The repetitional damage that can come from a data leak can be as costly as any liability lawsuit, so information assurance forms a big part of the risk management strategies they want to see.

When that information is needed for important engagements like loan applications, board meetings, audits and other reports, the first thing to be scrutinized is the data’s integrity. Wherever data is needed, information security plays a role.

Major information assurance factors

Information assurance can get incredibly broad at times. That’s needed when systems like global banks are being assessed, but there are lots of isolated practices within the overall system... Not all of these practices need to be used in order to have an effective system – it’s just about using the right ones in the right places.

From a practical standpoint, individuals and small businesses might not have the funds to set up the most expensive and complex system. Even if they do, they might only deal in specific data that doesn’t need to use every method of information assurance.

Every tool has its uses, which is why it’s important to look at information assurance as a collection of different practices that work together. When we break them down, though, we can get a clearer picture of how they fit together.

We’ll do that by looking at three vital outcomes in information assurance: risk management, transaction security, and data integrity.

Risk management and protecting assets

The value of data can make it a two-edged sword. It’s highly prized because of how it facilitates so many processes in cyberspace, but with power comes responsibility. If a company’s negligence leads to their data being compromised, then it can potentially face legal trouble over and above the value it loses from a breach.

In this regard, companies turn to information assurance to make sure that data stays an asset without turning into a liability. It’s the most obvious form of risk management in the system, but for good reason. Companies don’t just risk having their pockets hurt by legitimate parties, either.

Even if a hacker gets a hold of private user information like an email database, they’re more likely to leverage that against the company itself than the listed users. Sure, they can find creative uses for a stranger’s email, but they’re more likely to maximize it with companies who don’t want to be exposed to liability.

Data has many benefits, but when it comes to information assurance, the start point for many is making sure it stays an asset by protecting it.

Encryption for private exchanges and online transactions

E-commerce is the biggest retail market to emerge out of 2020. Global lockdowns moved consumers to online stores at an unprecedented rate. In the last year, millions of new shoppers registered credit card information, home addresses, personal cell phone numbers and email addresses.

Part of the reason so many people didn’t migrate to online shopping until they had to was because of the fear that came with logging that level of information online. With ecommerce retailers more competitive than ever thanks to digital marketing, one customer account hack can dissolve an entire consumer base’s trust in a platform.

No one wants to feel like their bank information is vulnerable online at the best of times, let alone in a pandemic.

So when transactions are made online, ecommerce platforms need information assurance to make sure they go over safely. We mentioned that data in transit is vulnerable because it’s’ moving between two points, but that doesn’t mean it’s floating around cyberspace. The two most vulnerable points in transit are actually just as the sender makes the transaction and just as the receiver accepts it.

This is why end-to-end encryption is vital for information assurance. It protects these two points by encrypting the data when the sender confirms the transaction. Because the sender and the receiver would be using the same system to make the transaction, the data is automatically decrypted once it's safely with the receiver and no longer in transit.

This isn’t just used for financial transactions, either. Messaging apps like WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption to send texts between users. Not only does this keep private messages safe, but it helps to build brand trust. The safer users feel on a platform, the longer they tend to spend on it.

Think of end-to-end encryption like locking a briefcase with a combination that only you and the receiver know. Even if disaster strikes and that briefcase is lost, its content can’t be compromised.

Encrypted data is impossible to decode without the receiver’s “key” – and hackers know that. Even if they manage to access data in transit, it’s a waste if they can’t do anything with it, so they’re less likely to try.

The great thing about end-to-end encryption in that context is that it works as a deterrent too. Cyber deterrents feed back into liability reduction, consumer trust and stakeholder confidence.

Integrity in data analysis

As a form of cyber security, it’s a little easier to see information assurance as a way of keeping criminals out, but it’s useful even when there’s no threat of a cyber-attack. From small online stores that deliver locally to global ecommerce giants like Amazon and ASOS, good business decisions are based on accurate data.

When it comes to ensuring the integrity of data, information assurance focuses on auditing how data is collected, tracking every single time that data is interacted with and maintaining transparency in the organization process.

Data collection can be tricky depending on what it’s for, so how it’s gathered needs to be monitored in a way that a future audit can retrace the process.

For example, if an online apparel store wanted to run a survey with loyal customers, it would need ways of verifying its own parameters. It might use the store database to find shoppers with store accounts or who had crossed a certain sales threshold in the last year. Those accounts would be verified by credit card information, so there would be no duplicate entries.

That database would give the store a list of emails to send the survey too. If we wanted to take data integrity further, we could advice the store to email a link to a secure survey platform where customers would have to verify their accounts before they began.

That would all count towards assuring data integrity – and that’s before the survey would even be taken.

The work is worth it, though. Market analysis relies on solid data about the environment to calculate trends and predict future outcomes. Business analysis relies on equally solid data from within a company to make projections and set the goals for future operations. If the incoming data can’t be assured or verified, then the any report it produces is potentially compromised.

Cyberspace is built on information assurance

There is no digital age without information assurance. It’s that simple. The extent to which we rely on the internet would be impossible without ways to protect our data in cyberspace. The way things are, the world is becoming more reliant on digital exchanges and that trend isn’t going to slow down in the next five years.

On one hand, information assurance leads to better business decisions, a wider range of opportunities and a more fulfilling user experience. Its advantages are there for those who take hold of them. On the other hand, it’s’ just impossible to use cyberspace well without it.

That’s why it’s so important to understand and use properly. Information assurance is the foundation for sustainable internet use, but it can also unlock new innovations in the digital world.

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