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  • Mariah Brooks

The Cybersecurity Pyramid Explained: Understanding the Five Layers of Cybersecurity

An AI generated image of a pyramid in a cyber landscape.

Most organizations have at least some level of cybersecurity in place—in today’s dynamic threat landscape, you’d be remiss not to. However, even after investing thousands of dollars in dozens of cybersecurity solutions, over half of organizations don’t know if these tools are actually working. 

Factor in elements like cyber awareness training, disaster recovery plans, and compliance requirements, and most organizations today simply can’t accurately gauge their cybersecurity posture. 

This is precisely where the Blue Equinox Cybersecurity Pyramid comes into play. By objectively evaluating your business’s cybersecurity maturity level, we can help you pinpoint where your organization excels and where you have room to grow. A color-coded, easy-to-understand visual tool customized to your organization, the cybersecurity pyramid is a critical component in our IT consulting process. Although it provides just a snapshot of your overall cybersecurity posture, it can ultimately guide your organization toward optimal cyber resilience.

Here, we’ll explore everything there is to know about the cybersecurity pyramid so you can decipher what it means for your business and how to best interpret our recommendations.

What is the Cybersecurity Pyramid?

Put simply, the cybersecurity pyramid is a visual tool for communicating where an organization’s overall cybersecurity currently stands. It’s an important part of our IT consulting process, where we work closely with organizations like yours to put the best solutions in place to address your unique IT needs.

We start by evaluating your organization’s existing security measures to determine what you do and do not have in place. Then, we map those results onto a pyramid with five distinct layers so you can easily see where you’re in the “green” and where you’re in the “red.”

The Cybersecurity Pyramid vs the Pyramid of Pain

If you’re familiar with cybersecurity, then you may have heard of the “Cybersecurity Pyramid of Pain,” a framework from David Bianco that categorizes the indicators and attributes of cyber threats from “easy” to “tough” to overcome. While this tool can be helpful for organizations, it also has limitations. Most importantly, unlike Blue Eqinox’s Cybersecurity Pyramid, the Pyramid of Pain is not prescriptive or specific to each organization.

At Blue Equinox, our cybersecurity pyramids are customized to reflect the current state of cybersecurity at your organization. That means we closely analyze the security measures, tools, and controls you have in place to create a personalized graphic showing exactly where you’re doing well and where you can do better. 

The Five Layers of the Cybersecurity Pyramid

An example of the color-coded cybersecurity pyramid from Blue Equinox.

Starting with “Bare Minimum” at the bottom of the pyramid and working up to “Optimal” at the top, the five layers of the cybersecurity pyramid are fundamental to understanding where your organization’s cybersecurity currently stands and why. By organizing the pyramid in this structure—five layers with corresponding cybersecurity measures—organizations like yours can easily see where they’re performing well and where they need to improve. 

The pyramid’s three distinct colors (red, yellow, and green) also play an important role: they show you how your organization is performing within each specific element (contained in a box). For instance, an organization at the “Bare Minimum” level with mostly red or yellow boxes will have a lot of room for improvement, while an organization at the “Optimal” level with mostly green boxes will have less room for improvement. 

Each of the five layers of the Cybersecurity Pyramid also contains various elements that, taken together, represent where each organization’s cybersecurity measures currently stack up. 

Ultimately, the structure and colored categories provide organizations with actionable recommendations to improve their cybersecurity maturity level, no matter where they currently stand. 

Let’s take a closer look:

Level 1: Bare Minimum

This layer represents the most essential cybersecurity measures that protect organizations against the most common threats. These are the fundamental security measures that every organization should implement at the bare minimum. Some cybersecurity is better than nothing, and even having just a few of these measures in place can help your organization protect its operations and set the stage for a more mature program in the future.

Here are the security elements that make up the first level of the cybersecurity pyramid:

  • Offsite Backup (Cloud): Most organizations begin their cybersecurity journeys with offsite backup. Securing data backups in the cloud makes it possible to recover critical data, even during a disaster. 

  • Offsite Backup (On-Premise): Like cloud backups, on-premise backups are a physical layer of security that gives organizations more diverse options for data recovery. Since data stored in on-premise backups is under your organization's direct control, it is recoverable even if your cloud service provider is experiencing an outage. 

  • Offsite Backup (Email): Email is a critical communication tool for most (if not all) organizations. That’s why secure email backups are important—they protect your organization from losing the content of valuable conversations or important information, so you can sustain business continuity even if your systems fail. 

  • Forced Patching (RMM): Remote Monitoring and Management technology helps organizations remotely manage and monitor their IT infrastructure. RMM lets you monitor the health of your network and computers and can detect and report problems automatically. This is essential for forced patching, or automatically updating software so all systems are up-to-date with the latest security patches. 

  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): This security measure requires users to provide two or more verification factors to access a resource (like an app or online account). MFA adds an extra layer of security and can significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access, even if a password is compromised. In fact, MFA can stop 30-50% of account compromise attacks when used correctly.

  • Firewall: One of the first lines of defense against cyberattacks, firewalls are security systems that monitor and control incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predefined rules. 

  • Secure Remote Access (VPN/SASE): A Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) help remote employees securely connect to corporate networks.

  • Managed Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR): Endpoint detection and response solutions continuously monitor and respond to threats on endpoint devices (think computers, laptops, servers, mobile devices, etc.) using advanced analytics that can detect suspicious activities. Managed EDR services also give you access to a team of experts to monitor alerts, investigate, and respond to security incidents. 

  • Antivirus/Antimalware: This is software designed to detect, prevent, and remove malicious software like viruses, worms, and ransomware from computers and networks. It scans files and programs to thwart potential threats before they can harm your organization.

  • Email Security (Antispam/Antiphishing): These tools protect organizations by filtering out unwanted or harmful emails. They block spam and detect phishing attempts, or fraudulent emails designed to steal sensitive information. 

Level 2: Getting Better

At this layer, the cybersecurity pyramid introduces critical controls that prevent employees from creating security vulnerabilities. Combined with cybersecurity awareness training, these measures can significantly reduce the risk posed by the human element in cybersecurity—after all, 90% of cyberattacks today are caused by human error. As an added bonus, organizations often become eligible for more favorable cyber insurance terms at this level.

Here are the security elements that make up the second level of the cybersecurity pyramid:

  • Outbound Email Encryption: This security measure encrypts emails sent from an organization to make sure sensitive information stays confidential and secure during transit. 

  • Web Browsing Protection (DNS): Often implemented through DNS filtering, web browsing protection blocks access to malicious websites and filters out harmful content. 

  • Asset Inventory & Management: This involves systematically cataloging and tracking all of your organization’s assets, including hardware, software, and data. 

  • Password Vault: A security tool that securely stores and manages passwords while continuously monitoring the dark web for leaked or stolen credentials, a password vault with dark web scanning improves security by ensuring strong, unique passwords are used across accounts and providing alerts if credentials are compromised. 

  • Network & Security Assessment: Practicing network and security assessments allow organizations to identify gaps and vulnerabilities for remediation. Ultimately, this sets the stage for targeted improvements and strategic planning around cybersecurity initiatives. 

  • Disk Encryption: This security measure converts data stored on a disk into a coded form that can only be accessed with a decryption key. Disk encryption ensures that data stays protected and unreadable even if the physical disk is stolen or accessed without authorization. 

  • Cyber Insurance: A specialized policy designed to mitigate financial risks associated with cyber incidents (like data breaches or cyberattacks), cyber insurance covers recovery costs, including legal fees, fines, and compensation for damages to third parties. 

  • Cyber Awareness Training: By educating employees about cybersecurity risks and best practices, such as recognizing phishing attempts and securing sensitive information, cyber awareness training can help organizations build a security-conscious culture and significantly reduce the likelihood of human-related security breaches.

Level 3: Almost There

Organizations at this level have systematic security controls in place and are looking to validate how effective they are. For instance, conducting regular network and security assessments can provide a high-level overview of your organization’s cybersecurity posture and help identify and address any significant vulnerabilities. 

Here are the security elements that make up the third level of the cybersecurity pyramid:

  • Regular Vulnerability Scans: A preventative security measure, regular vulnerability scans mean routinely checking systems, networks, and software for security weaknesses and potential threats and remediating them.

  • Logging Change Monitoring: This security practice tracks and records changes to system configurations and files, which helps organizations quickly identify unauthorized modifications and security breaches for prompt investigation and response. 

  • SaaS (Cloud Apps) Monitoring: The shift to the cloud means organizations must monitor their software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications for unusual activity to improve visibility and control over cloud-based resources. It’s also important for responding to threats in the cloud, especially since 45% of breaches are cloud-based.

  • PII Data: Protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) means implementing security measures to manage and secure sensitive data, like names, addresses, and social security numbers, to prevent unauthorized access and breaches. This is important for complying with privacy laws and building and maintaining trust with customers. 

  • LAN (Network): Securing a Local Area Network (LAN) means implementing protective measures like firewalls, access controls, and encryption to protect an organization’s internal network from unauthorized access and cyber threats. 

  • Mobile Device Management: This security strategy involves enforcing policies, managing configurations, and securing mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, that access corporate resources. 

  • Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP): Business continuity plans (BCPs), incident response plans (IRPs), and DRPs are all about planning for the future. They answer the question, “What would happen if disaster struck?” by clearly outlining strategies for response and recovery following disasters, from tornadoes to ransomware attacks. 

  • NIST CSF Assessment: Evaluating your organization’s cybersecurity practices and infrastructure against the guidelines set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) isn’t just good practice—it can help you identify gaps in your cybersecurity defenses. Plus, it provides a structured approach to improve your security posture more easily. 

Level 4: Proactive

Here, organizations aren’t just defending themselves—they’re actively and proactively engaging with cybersecurity. They’re conducting regular penetration tests and vulnerability scans to stay well ahead of threats, processes that typically require a more comprehensive and continuous review of cybersecurity measures. 

Here are the security elements that make up the fourth level of the cybersecurity pyramid:

  • Penetration Testing: Also called pen testing, this is a security exercise where experts simulate cyberattacks on a system, network, or application to identify vulnerabilities and assess security measures. This helps organizations understand where security weaknesses exist and make informed improvements to their defenses. 

  • Active Protection Systems (APS): An active protection system can detect and mitigate incoming threats like malware and hackers in real time. It uses various security techniques, such as anomaly detection and behavior analysis, to prevent damage to the system.

  • Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS): This type of system monitors network traffic to detect and prevent attacks by immediately blocking identified threats. It complements the firewall by providing deep packet inspection and taking action to stop attacks before they spread within the network.

  • Web Application Firewall (WAF): A web application firewall specifically protects web applications by filtering and monitoring HTTP traffic between a web application and the Internet. By inspecting each packet and blocking malicious traffic, it helps organizations defend against web-based attacks like SQL injections, cross-site scripting (XSS), and forgery requests. 

  • Data Loss Prevention (DLP): By detecting and blocking sensitive data while in use, in motion, and at rest, data loss prevention systems can help organizations prevent data breaches. They enforce compliance policies by monitoring data and preventing unauthorized access or transmission.

  • Threat Hunting: This involves actively looking for indicators of compromise within an organization’s networks and systems, going beyond automated detection to anticipate and mitigate sophisticated attacks. This proactive security practice helps uncover hidden threats that evade traditional security measures. 

  • Secure Data: Securing data means implementing encryption, controlled access, and auditing measures to protect digital information from unauthorized users and against breaches and other forms of data loss. 

  • Secure Telecommunications: This means ensuring your voice and data transmissions are conducted securely to prevent interception and unauthorized access. This is often achieved through encryption protocols and secure network architectures that protect the integrity and privacy of communication channels. 

  • Managed Security Operations Center (SOC): A managed SOC team uses advanced technologies and processes to detect, analyze, and respond promptly to cybersecurity incidents, minimizing their potential impact. It offers 24/7 security monitoring and incident response capabilities managed by cybersecurity experts. 

Level 5: Optimal

Strategy, operations, and compliance come together holistically at the topmost layer. For organizations at this level, cybersecurity is woven into the strategic fabric of their operations, with data governance and regulatory compliance programs seamlessly functioning in tandem. This layer is like the unicorn of cybersecurity postures—most organizations today (even the largest enterprises) have never experienced this level of omnipotence, but it’s still the ultimate goal.

Here are the security elements that make up the fifth and final level of the cybersecurity pyramid:

  • Data Privacy: Data privacy means ensuring that personal information is appropriately protected from unauthorized access and disclosure. It involves implementing policies and controls that comply with regulatory requirements and protect individual privacy by managing how personal data is collected, stored, processed, and shared. 

  • Data Governance: Strong data governance policies guide an organization’s secure and compliant use of data, reflecting a mature understanding of its value and the importance of protecting it. The ideal data governance strategy will seamlessly integrate security into your organization’s core operations and strategic objectives without impeding productivity.

  • Compliance-as-a-Service: Even the largest organizations struggle to keep pace with the ever-changing regulatory compliance landscape. New regulations seemingly emerge daily, demanding more and more from organizations already struggling to maintain compliance with existing ones. By leveraging external expertise, organizations can more easily demonstrate compliance with laws, regulations, and standards and build trust with stakeholders and customers.

How Blue Equinox Can Help

This list of cybersecurity measures should indicate how much work goes into protecting organizations from cyber threats. It’s a time-consuming and labor-intensive process—but worth it. That’s why we’re dedicated to helping organizations like yours get an objective cybersecurity assessment and improve the most critical gaps and vulnerabilities as quickly as possible using our cybersecurity pyramid as a guide. But even with a customized cybersecurity pyramid in hand, the journey is far from over. 

At Blue Equinox, we recognize that there’s always room for improvement when it comes to cybersecurity, even for “Optimal” organizations. We don’t just give you a cybersecurity pyramid and split; we’re there every step of the way to help you implement our recommendations and improve your cybersecurity posture.

Our team of seasoned IT experts and consultants has seen it all, and we’re here to impart that knowledge and experience to our clients for lasting cyber resilience. With Blue Equinox, you’re not just getting an IT consultant. You’re getting a forever partner on your journey toward cybersecurity excellence.

Contact one of our specialists today to get a customized cybersecurity pyramid and to learn more about how our IT consulting services can catapult your company into the future of cybersecurity. 

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