What Is the CIA Triad Security Model?

Darren Craig Darren Craig / April 20, 2023 / Data Privacy

While a company’s information security controls and policies aim to keep its sensitive data secure, what does that mean in practice? Or, put another way, how can security teams determine whether the information and assets under their purview are actually secure?  

Confidentiality, integrity and availability, collectively known as the CIA triad, is a model designed to guide a company’s information security risk mitigation strategies. As three of the core components of cyber security in general, the CIA triad provides imple, yet fundamental, benchmarks by which a company can judge the effectiveness of their information security defence measures.    

In this post, we delve into the principles of confidentiality, integrity, and availability and explain why the CIA triad security model is important for your organisation.   

What is Confidentiality? 

Confidentiality ensures that information is only available to parties with the appropriate permissions to access it; subsequently, it’s akin to privacy.  

A malicious actor could compromise confidentiality by carrying out a data breach and leaking the exfiltrated information. Alternatively, human error could compromise confidentiality: leaving information displayed on an unattended workstation or sharing access credentials, for instance. Additionally, someone could steal hardware containing confidential information, like servers, laptops, portable hard drives – or, simply, a mobile device. 

What is Integrity? 

Integrity in cyber security refers to the processes and mechanisms involved in maintaining data’s consistency, accuracy and trustworthiness. In other words, ensuring that unauthorised parties can’t alter or delete data, whether when stored on in transit.   

Integrity could be jeopardised with malicious intent, like a hacker gaining admin access privileges to a company’s database and altering data. Conversely, it could happen accidentally via human error or a physical incident such as a power outage, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) (e.g., from a lightning strike), or a server crash.  

What is Availability? 

Availability requires that information be consistently and immediately accessible when requested by those with the appropriate access permissions.  

There are several ways that the availability of data can be compromised, including:  

  • Power outages 
  • Physical damage to IT infrastructure 
  • Overloaded servers, i.e., large numbers of users trying to access a web application. 
  • Malicious activity like malware or distributed denial-of-service (DDoS)

Why is CIA triad security crucial for your company? 

The CIA triad is vital for organisations because it’s a set of foundational principles for developing cyber security systems. Subsequently, the CIA triad helps companies comply with data privacy legislation, strengthen business continuity and disaster recovery strategies and, ultimately, enhance their cyber security posture. That said, the CIA triad is essential when it comes to information security in particular. 

The CIA triad is also helpful for evaluating what went wrong in the event of a security incident like a data breach. Depending on the consequences of malicious activity, i.e., which element of the CIA triad was compromised, security teams can determine which parts of their cyber security mitigation strategy need to be improved.  

Conversely, the CIA triad can be used to evaluate which policies and controls are effective. Let’s say, for instance, that cybercriminals launch a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) and compromise the availability of a company’s data. Yet, on the other hand, confidentiality and integrity were preserved thanks to other cyber security measures, like intrusion detection systems (IDS) and network segmentation. Armed with these insights, security teams can prioritise implementing measures to safeguard availability.  

When is the right time to use the CIA triad? 

In truth, there’s never really a wrong time to consider the principles of CIA triad security, because they apply to all areas of cyber threat mitigation. The CIA triad is most important, however, when implementing security measures to protect your sensitive data.  

Security teams should adhere to the principles of the CIA triad when developing processes and controls pertaining to data storage and transfer, access control, data classification, or any other facet of information security.  

The CIA triad is also useful for cyber security awareness training because it offers a simple framework for teaching your workforce about information security. The concepts of confidentiality, integrity, and availability are easy to apply to real-life scenarios and provide a logical, coherent way to educate employees about how their actions can weaken their company’s cyber security posture.  

Examples of the CIA triad 

Let’s briefly look at some CIA triad examples, honing in on each principle in turn.   

Confidentiality 

The members of a company’s HR department should be the only employees with access to the organisation’s personnel files. This data is highly sensitive as it will contain personally identifiable information (PII), including names, addresses, DOBs, medical histories, and bank account details. 

Integrity 

An email or SMS must convey the same message to the recipient as originally typed by the sender. Similarly, if your company has a website or eCommerce platform, the information stored on your web servers, such as product descriptions, prices, and images, must be the same as displayed by the user’s browser.  

Availability 

A company hosting its web application on several, if not dozens, hundreds, or thousands of, servers in conjunction with load balancers to handle large amounts of traffic. On a more fundamental level, part of a strategy to ensure availability is having a backup generator in place in case there’s a power outage.   

How do you ensure the protection of the CIA triad? 

Ensuring the protection of the CIA triad requires employing different tactics for each element. 

1. Confidentiality 
• Keeping access control lists and other file permission configurations up to date. 1.
• Enforcing strong password best practices 
• Data encryption 
• Multi-factor authentication (MFA), e.g., username and passwords, access cards, security tokens or fobs, biometrics (fingerprint, facial, voice, etc.) 
• Special training for individuals with access to sensitive data, i.e., risk factors and mitigation strategies 
• Additional measures for extremely sensitive data can include: 
• Storage on air-gapped devices 
• Hard copies only – with the associated shredding and disposal 

2. Integrity 
• Backup and data recovery strategies  
• Version control, to prevent the accidental change or deletion of information 
• Access control  and permission management 
• Non-repudiation, i.e., something that can’t be disputed or denied, measures, like digital signatures 
• Cyber security awareness training, to educate employees on risk factors and regulatory requirements to reduce human error 

3. Availability 
• Regular and proper maintenance of technical infrastructure, i.e., hardware, applications, and systems
• Providing sufficient network bandwidth to accommodate periods of high traffic and prevent bottlenecks 
• Ensure systems and applications stay updated, i.e., a patch management strategy 
• Creating business continuity and disaster recovery plans, e.g., redundancy, failover, etc. 
• Using continuous monitoring tools to stay appraised of current cyber security posture 

What are the drawbacks of the CIA triad model? 

The main concern about the CIA triad model is it’s potential inadequacy for dealing with modern computing techniques and not being able to keep up with the rapid rate of digital transformation.  

The field of Big Data could test the limits of CIA triad security for several reasons. For a start, with so many organisations keen to work with Big Data, to attain a competitive advantage, there’s a chance they won’t implement sufficiently robust security policies and controls to handle the enormous amount of information involved. Plus, as well as the colossal volume of information, Big Data requires companies to draw data from various sources and in multiple formats, which warrants further security considerations.   

Similarly, the Internet of Things (IoT) may stretch the capabilities of the CIA triad as it blurs an organisation’s network perimeters and exponentially increases the amount of data it generates. IoT devices also increase the number of internet-facing assets on a network, considerably expanding a company’s attack surface. More alarmingly, IoT devices can often go without being updated, if doing so is difficult or inconvenient, or may simply lack the computational power to feature cyber security measures.   

Although elements of the triad are three of the most foundational and crucial cybersecurity needs, experts believe the CIA triad needs an upgrade to stay effective. 

Consequently, some cyber security experts are calling for a transition from the CIA triad model to the DIE (distributed, immutable and ephemeral) framework. In the DIE triad model, availability is ensured through distributed data, i.e., in a cloud architecture. Integrity is safeguarded through immutability, i.e., that it’s impossible to change the data when recorded. Subsequently, immutability is one of the key benefits of blockchain technology.

Lastly, confidentiality is enforced through the data being ephemeral, i.e., temporary – which means the recipient can only access it briefly before it’s deleted.  

How RiskXchange can help you maintain the CIA of your data  

We’ll help you strengthen your information security risk mitigation policies, and overall cyber security posture, by ensuring it corresponds with the CIA triad. Our comprehensive attack surface assessment will help identify vulnerabilities in your IT infrastructure, which of the CIA triad could be compromised as a result, and remediation strategies.