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What Are Cyber Security Certifications?

Cyber security certifications are credentials that are conferred by non-academic, though reputable, outlets. To earn a cyber security certification, students need to pass a comprehensive examination that covers the specific area covered in the certification. While some may be able to pass these exams without preparation, most students need to take a course that teaches the material covered by the test.

The material covered in a cyber security examination is relative to the goal of that credential. For instance, an examination may cover cryptography. Prior to taking the examination, the association, company, or agency that provides the credential may have certain prerequisites for all candidates. For instance, many require certain degrees or experience. Those degrees may even be scrutinized to ensure that candidates have taken certain specific courses. Similar scrutiny may be placed on one's experience to ensure that the candidate has been working on relevant projects and in the correct overall environment.

Note that some certifications are provided by companies for workers who want to service their servers, networks, or databases. Many of these companies will offer courses to help prepare candidates for the appropriate exam. However, sometimes students can find independent instructional resources, whether online or through a local institution of some sort. For instance, many times students can take non-credit courses at a local community college or other institution.

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Who Needs Cyber Security Certifications?

Cyber security professionals need certifications to prove to current and future employers that they have the requisite skills needed to protect their technology resources. Certifications are terrific, not only for demonstrating that one's knowledge base is up to date at the time of the initial certification, but over time to maintain and grow that knowledge. This is because certifications need to be renewed on a regular basis, often annual or bi-annual. At the end of a certification period, holders need to show that they have logged an appropriate number of continuing education hours. Some certifications will require a new exam at the end of each certification period. Employers are thus impressed to see when a worker has held a certification for numerous certification periods.

These certifications are needed by all sorts of cyber security professionals. Whether they work on database security, network security, penetration testing, or security engineering, current credentials are vital to long-term success. After all, a certification is not only valuable in getting a job but in keeping that job. This is because cyber-criminals are constantly finding new methods for robbing organizations of their data, cash, or intellectual property assets.

Since cyber-crime is not specific to any one industry, technology professionals across the economy must seek certifications to stay current in their knowledge of the field. For instance, hackers can take over a hospital's database of medical records. This is a ransomware attack, which the criminals can ask millions of dollars to end or release the software back to company access. Healthcare IT staff thus needs to include a cyber security team that is able to implement appropriate cyber security measures that will thwart such an attack. Other industries that may be attacked include, but are not limited to, finance, banking, pharmaceuticals, and even government.

Ultimately, nearly any IT professional should consider a cyber security certification. Since the problem impacts all aspects covered by an IT department, everyone needs to have some knowledge of cyber security. This will help IT staff identify, if not solve, potential flaws in the security protocols of their company.

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Why a Business Might Need a Cyber Security Expert

A business needs a cyber security expert for the very reason that they have a lock on their door. They need security. Since most every business these days places a lot of importance on their technology and data, that data needs to be protected. This is because black hat hackers will try to steal that data or simply hold it hostage until their victim pays a huge amount. For instance, hospitals are often the target of a ransomware attack in which all patient records are locked away from the hospital until they wire millions of dollars to some offshore account.

This means that nearly every business needs a cyber security expert on their team. Even very small businesses should invest in cyber security certifications for their IT specialists. Even a low-level certification may be valuable. An IT worker with even an entry-level certification may be able to identify weaknesses and then communicate the problems to an information security consultant.

Where to Find Cyber Security Certifications

Cyber security certifications are available from a number of outlets. Certifications tend to come from either a company that provides specific technology or from an association that focuses on cyber security professionals. Those that come from a company focus only on their specific technology and how to use it to protect from a cyber-attack or how to protect it from attack. Professionals should consider these if they intend to make their whole career working with that specific technology. Certifications from industry associations tend to be neutral regarding technology and certify professionals to work on a variety of platforms.

In the case of companies that offer certifications, they often provide the preparation courses students need to pass their exams. However, many also allow other vendors to instruct potential candidates. When reviewing a third-part educator, candidates should ensure that they have a strong reputation and a proven track record that shows a high percent of students with satisfactory examination scores.

There is another option when it comes to certification courses. Many community colleges, and other educational institutions, offer courses that prepare students for certification examinations. These courses may even offer college credit, which can be applied toward a degree later. This route also has the benefit of resulting in an academic certificate which does not require renewal.

Many associations insist that certificate holders renew their credentials on an annual or biannual basis. Each can create their own requirements, so it's vital to review these requirements whenever you choose to earn a certification. To renew credentials, holders need to take continuing education courses or otherwise satisfy renewal criteria. Some allow renewal for those who publish relevant articles about cyber security or those who teach certification-relevant material to others. Since each association and certification is subject to enforcing its own renewal criteria, candidates should always review this part of the certification material.

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Top Cyber Security Certifications

There are a huge number of cyber security certifications available for ambitious professionals. For those just starting out, there are cyber security certifications that test candidates on a broad knowledge base. These are terrific for those in their first two years of work who want to start advancing their careers. Not only are they terrific credentials that elevate their status, but they expose professionals to the broad spectrum of cyber security. Most then discover a specific area, such as investigations or cryptography, that is of special interest.

After five or more years, cyber security professionals should seek more advanced credentials that expand their knowledge base and elevate their status even further. Some of these more advanced credentials may also require specific academic degrees or professional experience. They may also have stringent requirements for renewing the credential. When a cyber security professional is able to hold their credentials through numerous renewal periods, their status is further elevated. Each renewal indicates a continued dedication to their work and career.

Here are just some of the available certifications for cyber security professionals.

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
    This certification is conferred by the (ISC)2, a premier cyber security association. The CISSP examination proves that the taker has a broad knowledge of cyber security practices and principles. That is, a CISSP credential shows that the holder can design, implement, and maintain a world-class infosec system. This credential is thus highly sought and well respected throughout the cyber security and IT communities. This credential is held by professionals who sit at the top of major firms. They are Chief Information Security Officers, Security Auditors, Network Architects, and Security Analysts, to name a few of the roles that prize their CISSP credential.
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
    This cyber security credential is offered by ISACA and confirms a level of expertise with auditing IT systems. Since the credential is not specific to cyber security, it can be of great help to any IT professional. However, those in the infosec sector can use the credential to prove their supreme competency with assessing, building, and rolling out security measures. ISACA says that this credential is suitable for IT professionals in their early- to mid-career, but that they should have at least five years of experience doing information systems audits, control, or security work. Once a candidate has the requisite experience and has passed the examination within the previous five years, they can qualify for CISA certification.
  • Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
    This ISACA certification is aimed at IS and IT professionals who are eager to move up into management. This may be an excellent choice for an IT professional who already holds ISACA's CISA certification but who now desires a spot in management. Teams that are led by a credentialed manager will find that their clients hold them in higher esteem. To qualify for the credential, IT workers need a minimum of five years of experience, satisfactory scores on the CISM examination, impeccable ethics, and a dedication to the CPE policy. After all, CISM holders will want to maintain their credentials though continuing professional education.
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
    The term ethical hacker may seem somewhat contradictory, but these hackers are invaluable to any cyber security team. This credential is offered by the Infosec Institute and is held in high esteem across the IT sector. Candidates learn how to hack into systems for the purpose of determining their efficacy. They learn how to do the proper reconnaissance, crack into a system, and exploit all the weaknesses they can, including absconding with data. Once an ethical hacker has completed their mission, they report to the security manager with their findings. The Infosec Institute recommends this credential for cyber security consultants, analysts, vulnerability testers, and other offensive security professionals.
  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
    This is a certification provided by the (ISC)2, an industry leader in security education and certification. This credential focuses on cloud computing and the holder is thus certified to design, maintain, and protect data in the cloud. A wide range of IT professionals seek the CCSP credential, including, but not limited to cloud architects, cloud engineers, cloud security analysts, cloud specialists, and cloud developers, among others. Candidates for the examination must have at least five years of experience working in information technology with three of those in the cyber security realm. Professionals also must have a minimum of one year in one of the six domains of the (ISC)2 CCSP Common Body of Knowledge (CBK). Keep in mind that even those who don't yet meet the experience requirements can take and pass the examination. Such professionals carry credentials as an Associate of (ISC)2.
  • Certified Protection Professional (CPP)

    This is a highly sought certification offered by ASIS, a global community of cyber security professionals. Not only do they offer the CPP certification, but they also offer three other credentials: Associate Protection Professional (APP), Professional Certified Investigator (PCI), and Physical Security Professional (PSP.) However, the CPP is their premier certification.

    The CPP examination covers seven key domains in the cyber security sector: security principles, business principles, cyber-crime investigations, personnel security, physical security, information security, and crisis management. Professionals with the CPP credential are thus highly qualified and capable of managing any infosec team. In fact, the CPP credential is geared towards those who already have at least three years of security management.

  • Certified in Risk and Information System Control (CRISC)

    This certification is offered by ISACA and is intended for IT/IS audit, risk, and security professionals who are in the middle of their career. To qualify for the examination, cyber security professionals must have at least three years of experience in IT risk management and IS control. ISACA is firm on these experience requirements and does not offer substitutions.

    The CRISC examination covers four key domains in cyber security. The domains are portioned in the exam to reflect their importance: 26% Governance, 20% IT Risk Assessment, 32% Risk Response and Reporting, and 22% Information Technology and Security. Candidates will have four hours for the examination, which consists of 150 multiple choice questions.

  • CompTIA Security+

    CompTIA has designed this certification to best suit cyber security professionals who are early in their career. The examination requires that candidates have only two years of experience, which means that a student can enter their entry-level position and have two years before they're again hitting the books for another major examination. However, once they pass the exam many opportunities open up for them.

    Some job possibilities for a Security+ professional include, but are not limited to systems administrator, network administrator, security administrator, junior IT auditor / penetration tester, and security engineer. Naturally, a cyber security professional can take their credentials and enter the lucrative world of consulting. CompTIA reports that cyber security professionals who hold this credential can earn an average salary of $96,000.

  • GSEC: GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC)

    GIAC has designed the perfect certification for professionals who are new to the world of cyber security. They do recommend that exam candidates have some experience in information systems and networking. Though the outcomes are intended for new cyber security professionals, the exam is comprehensive.

    Test takers will find and exam that covers a broad range of topics, including but not limited to active defense, password management, basic concepts in cryptography, defensible network architecture, incident handling, web communications security, and Linux security issues. The exam is completed in a single four-hour, proctored session. It consists of 106-180 questions and requires a passing score of 73% or better.

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  • Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP)
    This certification is another stellar credential from (ISC)2. The exam qualifies hands-on practitioners in IT departments including, but not limited to the following job titles: network security engineer, systems administrator, security consultant or specialist, security administrator, systems or network analyst, and database administrator. These professionals needn't have a lot of experience as the examination requires only one year of cumulative work experience in one or more of the seven security domains. The exam thus tests cyber security professionals on all of the seven security domains: security operations, access controls, risk identification, incident response, cryptography, network and communications security, and systems or application security.
  • CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+)

    As cyber security professionals gain experience, so do they advance their credentials. Some may go to school for a cyber security master's degree but many more will earn one of CompTIA's highly esteemed credentials, including CASP+.

    This certification is aimed at advanced professional who are not yet at the managerial level. In fact, the examination requires that all takers have at least 10 years of general IT experience, with five of those engaged in security domains. CASP+ professionals take their manager's policies and frameworks and put them into practice with these skills: security architecture; governance, risk, and compliance; security operations; and security engineering and cryptography.

  • GIAC Certified Incident Handler (GCIH)

    In the course of a career in cyber security, it's likely that you'll encounter an incident. That is, black-hat hackers may attempt or achieve success in hacking your networks, databases, and applications. Hopefully you'll be able to avoid this bleak outcome but if not then credentials as a Certified Incident Handler will come in handy.

    This credential is offered by GIAC and is for the cyber security professional who is interested in focusing solely on incident response. In fact, the examination covers three key areas incident handling and investigation, computer and network hacker exploits, and hacker tools (Nmap, Nessus, Metasploit, and Netcat). The four-hour, proctored examination is comprised of 106 questions.

  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

    Offensive cyber security professionals are those who take an active role in testing and verifying their security measures. In the world of cyber security, this requires calling a penetration tester who is highly skilled at hacking into the very best security systems.

    To prepare for the OSCP examination, aspiring penetration testers are immersed in a long list of cyber security topics. Some of these include bypassing network filters, evading antivirus software, SQL attacks, Linux lateral movement, and programming theory, among others. To learn all of this information, penetration testers enroll in intensive courses that are available online. For the most part, OSCP students will engage in independent study of a 700-page PDF, 19 hours of videos, and a student forum that will help expand their knowledge and facilitate group learning.

  • EC Council Certified Security Analyst (ECSA)
    ECSA is a certification that verifies proficiency as a penetration tester. IT professionals who are looking to specialize their cyber security skills in the realm of penetration testing should seek out a course that prepares them for the EC Council examination. Courses can take only five intensive days of studying. At the end, information security professionals will know how to conduct a penetration test and then write a comprehensive report for their employer or client.
  • Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator (CHFI)
    Investigators arrive on the scene of a detrimental cyber-attack to help assess the losses and discover the responsible parties, the hackers. The CHFI credential is offered by the EC-Council and is accredited by ANSI. In the learning phase, professionals are immersed in laboratory simulations of hacks. These hacks are set up as vendor neutral so that, once they pass the test, investigators are qualified to work on Cisco, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, or Linux OS, among other options. Topics they will master include, but are not limited to, dark web forensics, database forensics, IoT forensics, data acquisition and duplication, and computer forensics certification.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is cyber security a better option than general computer science or information technology?

That depends on your goals. However, an InfoSec certification will be useful to anyone who works with technology. When an IT worker adds a cyber security certification to their resume, every employer is sure to be pleased, if not impressed. However, if you can only earn one certification, it may be optimal to improve on your existing credentials and skill sets.

What qualifications do I need to get started in cyber security?

To launch a career in cyber security, it's important to first become familiar with the information technology realm. That can include hardware and software issues, including programming languages. From that point, you can dive into cyber security certification courses from a reputable provider. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Oracle may offer infosec courses, but they are also provided by professional cyber security associations.

Will earning a cyber security certification allow me to find a new job in this sector, or will I need more?

There are no employment guarantees when it comes to certification. However, many employers do require certain certifications, on top of degrees and experience. For someone changing careers, seek the highest cyber security certification possible and then expect that you may have to start your next chapter with an entry-level position. However, your previous experience may work in your favor, assuming some of those skills translate to the next position.

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