What Is the CIA Triad (and How to Use It Today)

Updated on April 28, 2020
Erin McAllester profile image

Erin is studying cybersecurity. She thinks broadly about tech-related topics and how they affect our daily lives.

The three aspects of the CIA triad are confidentiality, integrity, and accessibility.
The three aspects of the CIA triad are confidentiality, integrity, and accessibility. | Source

Our personal information is the key to our assets. How can you keep your information private in your day-to-day? While the internet offers many tips and tricks for keeping your information safe, it is also useful to have a framework for understanding why executing these recommendations is helpful. Inc.com's Brian Scudamore recommends running your life like a business because "...when you start looking at each aspect of your life as a distinct system, it becomes easier to identify, address and streamline for the future." (Scudamore, 2018) Apply this to your information security, and, well, you'll have an infrastructure that's difficult to penetrate.

How Do I Design My Information Security System?

When businesses design information security systems they follow a three-part framework known as the CIA triad. I recommend you do the same.

What is the CIA Triad?

The CIA triad is broken down as follows:

  • Confidentiality
  • Integrity
  • Availability

The purpose behind the triad is simple; the three guiding principles are the backbone of acceptable use policies and other policies applied to information security systems.

The CIA Triad Broken Down

I encourage individuals to adopt the CIA triad as a mentality in their everyday life.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality is defined by Merriam-Webster as being “private or secret”. Confidentiality in an information technology setting must be robust enough to maintain the privacy of customer and employee data. Data privacy laws such as HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and GLBA (Gramm-Leach-Billey Act) require that customer and employee data remain confidential.

Integrity

The goal of integrity is to assure data isn't intercepted or manipulated in storage, transit, or after and during use. Data inside an organization, in particular personal information, must be kept away from factors and individuals that may alter or use the data for reasons other than its intended use.

Availability

Availability dictates the safe availability of data and services. Maintaining systems and protective methods that house critical data, namely through updating operating systems and deploying the most appropriate security methods, is crucial to any company. For example, a DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack on the 2017 Sundance Film Festival rendered all networks and therefore box offices unavailable. This is an example of failed availability. Availability is maintained with three types of controls:

  • Administrative controls determine who has access and how much information they have access to.
  • Technical controls are things like DMZs (demilitarized zones), firewalls, encryption, and password policies that prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing said data.
  • Physical access to private information can lead to information being compromised.

Sometimes keeping your information under lock and key isn't enough.
Sometimes keeping your information under lock and key isn't enough. | Source

How Can the CIA Triad Help You?

Has an employer ever asked you to share your bank account information and routing number so that you can receive a direct deposit? Have you ever had credit card information stolen from you without losing your wallet? Has an acquaintance ever asked you a personal question that, in retrospect, could lead them to know things about you that could compromise your assets? The goals and ideas behind confidentiality, integrity, and availability can help. I go over:

  1. Confidentiality and Your Data
  2. Behavioral Changes for Data Integrity
  3. Technical and Physical Accessibility Solutions

1. Confidentiality and Your Data

People compromise their personal information daily, including:

  • Credit cards
  • Bank account
  • Social Security number
  • Passwords to bank accounts and assets

One and (or all) of these is key to accessing items that belong to you, whether it be your credit score or money. Confidentiality is the art of minimizing the exposure of your information to outsiders. While good integrity and accessibility practices (below) greatly increase your ability to keep your data confidential, there are a few applicable mentalities for hardening your confidentiality.

  • Keep access points secret. If you can physically access your information, so can someone else. Whatever safety mechanism you’ve deployed to secure your information is accessible, so keep how and where you hold that information quiet and secure.
  • Don't self-sabotage by trusting the wrong people. The unfortunate truth is that you cannot trust everyone. Reflect on using other people’s devices before accessing accounts, and consider where you store important documents like your social security card.
  • Be knowledgable about your options. Have the confidence to research on your own to find solutions for storing your information.

2. Behavioral Changes for Data Integrity

A few simple behavioral changes can decrease the likelihood of compromising your information integrity, namely:

  • Avoid public WiFi,
  • and use password styling.

While many accounts offer two-step authentication and somewhat stringent password requirements, many people do not understand how critical a long password is to protect your accounts.

How Hackers Access Your Information Through Your Password

Passwords can be cracked using tools called rainbow tables. A rainbow table is a set of hash values that are matched to hashes translated from plaintext passwords. When a password is typed in and sent to a website so that you can obtain access, the password itself is sent as a hash, not in plain text. Rainbow tables allow hackers to cross-reference the hash with a table of hashes to decrypt your password. The longer and more diverse your password is, the harder it is to crack.

Rainbow tables are one of the many reasons why individuals should not access password-protected identity data over public WiFi networks.

Some good rules of thumb for your personal password policy are the following:

  1. Never use the same password for multiple systems
  2. Passwords should never contain words, slang, or acronyms
  3. Set your accounts to lock you out after a certain number of unsuccessful password input attempts
  4. Use different character types (uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols)
  5. Make your password long (greater than 8 characters in length)
  6. Be sure to change your passwords after a breakup if you shared a computer with someone

Password Strength

Which of these passwords is strongest?

See results
You can even download a VPN on your phone.
You can even download a VPN on your phone. | Source

3. Technical and Physical Accessibility Solutions

As mentioned above, the accessibility aspect of the CIA triad can be broken down into three primary portions: Administrative, technical, and physical.

Administrative

The best way to keep your information private is to access valuables only on the safety of a private, trusted WiFi network; ideally your own. It's critical to enforce your personal WiFi network with the same stringent password policies you do your other accounts. Change the name of your network so that hackers can't use the default network name to break the encryption.

Some potential threats to your online assets when accessed from the privacy of your own home are wardrivers. Wardriving, also known as access point mapping, is the act of mapping out local area network (or LAN) wireless access points and using them secretly, and occasionally, nefariously. A strong password decreases the likelihood of access from uninvited parties, following the suggestions above.

Technical

First and foremost, the most important thing you can do is enable WPA2 Wireless encryption.

Additionally, if you’re concerned you’ll experience surveillance from wardrivers, or if you’re simply not interested in your internet service provider knowing what you’re up to, it pays to install a VPN. There are a few great articles on VPNs here:

How to Set up Remote VPN Access Using pfSense and OpenVPN

VPNs With the Best Bet of Protecting Your Privacy

Physical

Certain documents that contain personal information are important to keep. Pay stubs, for example, are often used to verify income when applying for loans, apartments, or other things that require the asset holder to assess your financial situation. Keep these and things like social security cards, tax returns, birth certificates, and even extra cash locked in a fire-proof box. Other items, such as bank statements or receipts, bills, or other documents containing personal information should be shredded.

Data Safety Is a Lifestyle Choice

A few months ago, I was at a grocery store Starbucks in the southwestern U.S. and the barista was acting suspicious. At first, I took his awkward friendliness for nerves; he failed to ring me up for my latte and only charged me for the non-dairy milk substitution ($0.79). I alerted him to his mistake and he replied sheepishly "sorry", and corrected the issue.

Later that day, my bank notified me that they had blocked a charge from Best Buy in North Carolina for $1,300. I still had my credit card, and I have a wallet with RFID (radio-frequency identification) blocking technology, so I eliminated physical theft and (most likely) RFID skimming as possible attacks. This left card cloning through the EMV chip reader (what I'd used to pay for the latte at Starbucks) as the likely method for stealing my card information. Retrospectively, this made sense because the barista (the perpetrator/card copier) tried to undercharge me, which would have left more liquid credit in my account.

The reality is, you cannot foresee every situation where your identity might be compromised. The best you can do is understand your vulnerabilities and apply as many tactics as above to protect your data. Stay safe out there!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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