Question: What is the difference between IT security and cybersecurity? IT security vs. cybersecurity degree programs
Updated: November 30, 2022
Answer: The terms IT security and cybersecurity are commonly used interchangeably, both in the academic sphere and by IT and cyber professionals. The differences, to the extent that they exist, vary by school and by organization, and typically relate to the range and scope of the policies, tools, and actions deployed to protect and defend digital infrastructures and the information they contain.
IT security and cybersecurity descend from and are closely related to information assurance and information security (infosec). All of these terms refer to the strategies employed by government agencies, military branches, businesses, organizations, and individuals to protect vital information from capture and/or corruption. As the technologies associated with information security have evolved, from the manual encryption and physical locks used to protect analog data, to the digital encryption and access controls that secure modern computer and communication systems, so has the terminology.
Information technology (IT) encompasses the hardware infrastructure, software applications, networking equipment, communication assets, mobile devices, and data storage and processing capabilities that comprise modern computer and communication systems. IT security refers to policies, practices, tools, and technologies that protect the integrity of IT systems, the data those systems contain, and the array of interlinked public and private institutions, businesses, and utilities that depend on the secure functioning of those systems.
Cyber systems are synonymous with IT systems, comprising the same complex array of interlinked digital computing, data, and communication technologies. Cybersecurity is a relatively new term that in some contexts claims a broader purview than IT security, encompassing the core strategies, tools, and technologies used in IT security, augmented by proactive offensive tactics and digital forensics investigations.
Thus, while fundamental security protocols are central to nearly all aspects of IT systems management and are foundational to the principles and practices of IT security, there are additional tools and techniques that some academics and professionals consider to be unique to cybersecurity.
Defining Information Security vs. Cybersecurity
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a division within the US Department of Commerce, provides a definition of information security and two definitions for cybersecurity that help to illustrate the similarities and differences between IT security and cybersecurity.
NIST’s Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC) defines information security as, “The protection of information and information systems from unauthorized access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification, or destruction in order to provide confidentiality, integrity, and availability.” The CRSC definition for information technology (IT) is longer and more technical but includes the following: “The term information technology includes computers, ancillary equipment, software, firmware and similar procedures, services (including support services), and related resources.”
In contrast, the CSRC defines “cyber security” more broadly as, “The ability to protect or defend the use of cyberspace from cyber attacks.” Cybersecurity, the compound noun, has a longer CSRC definition that aligns more closely with information security and reflects only minor differences between the two: “The prevention of damage to, protection of, and restoration of computers, electronic communications systems, electronic communications services, wire communication, and electronic communication, including information contained therein, to ensure its availability, integrity, authentication, confidentiality, and nonrepudiation.”
In general, the most useful way to characterize the difference between IT security and cybersecurity is situational. While most analysts, academics, researchers, and practitioners use the terms interchangeably, in some contexts there are minor differences in scope that distinguish the study and practice of IT security from cybersecurity.
Note: The broader field of information security/information assurance is distinct from IT security and cybersecurity in that it includes non-digital assets, such as written records, knowledge held by members of a business or organization, and physical materials that are not part of computer networks. These information assets may also become part of broader cyber and IT security efforts when they impact the security of digital infrastructures.
Components of Cybersecurity and IT Security
One useful way of comparing and contrasting cybersecurity with IT security — and illustrating their similarly — is to delineate typical components of IT systems. The table below lists some of the more common features of IT and cyber systems and indicates whether or not those features are central to the study and practice of cybersecurity and IT security. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list and it is important to note that not all cybersecurity and IT security students or professionals have proficiencies in every area listed.
|Data backup and recovery systems||Out of Scope||Yes|
|User authentication/access controls||Yes||Yes|
|Intrusion detection software||Yes||Yes|
|Penetration testing tools||Yes||Out of Scope|
|Virtual private network (VPNs)||Yes||Yes|
|AI/ML applications||Out of Scope||Yes|
|Intrusion detection software||Yes||Yes|
For further details on specific careers in cybersecurity and IT security and the knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with those careers, visit our Guide to Careers in Cybersecurity, Information Assurance, and Digital Forensics.
IT Security and Cybersecurity Degree Programs
Many accredited colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in cybersecurity and IT security. For students researching programs, it is important to understand that there are significant differences between an IT or IT management curriculum and curriculum that focuses on cybersecurity, information security, and/or IT security. While both types of programs provide foundational training and instruction in computer programming, network administration, and the components of digital information systems, cybersecurity and IT security programs include coursework that covers topics such as security governance, security protocols, security practices, and security tools.
The list below covers many of the proficiency areas that are commonly part of an IT security or cybersecurity bachelor’s or master’s degree program:
- Foundations of Cybersecurity
- IT Security Policy and Practice
- Regulatory and Ethical Concerns in IT Security
- Viruses and Malware
- Threat and Vulnerability Analysis
- Penetration Testing
- Applied Cryptography
- Network Security
- Software Application Security
- Firewalls and Infrastructure Security
- Data Privacy and Security
- Cyber Intelligence and Investigations
At the undergraduate level, students in a cybersecurity or IT security program begin their studies by cultivating advanced mathematics and computer programming proficiencies and learning the foundations of computer science. Master’s programs generally expect applicants to have completed this foundational coursework or have experience with computer programming and database management prior to beginning their graduate studies.
It is important to note that curricular details and the names of specific courses vary by school and by program at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. Some IT security programs, for example, may emphasize aspects of IT management that are not addressed in other programs, while a cybersecurity curriculum may include additional training in computer forensics and other cyber specializations. Students who are considering a bachelor’s or master’s program in cybersecurity or IT security should research programs carefully to find a program that matches their career goals and interests.
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