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If you have strong mathematical skills, love puzzles, and can't stay away from computers, you may be a great candidate for a cryptography career in cyber security. The field is expanding exponentially as there are so many firms in need of secure databases, networks, and client services. The government is also in dire need of cyber security cryptographers who can protect military information from foes both foreign and domestic.
This page is devoted to cryptography and how to become a lifelong cryptographer. Please continue reading to learn how to become a cyber security cryptographer.
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What is a Cyber Security Cryptographer?
A cyber security cryptographer is an information technology (IT) professional who specializes in securing data with cryptosystems. That is, they take data and make it indecipherable by outside intruders. Essentially, cryptographers create security systems. Since this specialization is so mathematically oriented, a mathematics background is often preferred. Cryptographers may also come from a computer science background. While many cyber security systems professionals are directly concerned with hackers and law enforcement activities, cryptographers are more concerned with preventing intruders from hacking their data.
Cryptographers work for a variety of employer. Some are in law enforcement and work with the National Security Agency. Others may work for state or local government. Most work in the private sector and help their clients or employers secure their data from all security threats.
Steps to Become a Cryptographer:
There are many ways to become a cryptographer. However, most will start by discovering a particular passion for mathematics, technology, and even puzzles. As a youngster, if you were intrigued by logic puzzles, cracking codes, and even computer programming, you may have the seed it takes to become a cryptographer.
You will certainly need to have a strong talent for mathematics. Math forms the core of most any science or technological field. In cryptography, mathematical algorithms are vital for scrambling textual messages so that those without the key cannot access the information. Budding cryptographers will probably find that they have a natural inclination to learn about these algorithms and may even start designing their own.
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Thus, a great first step towards becoming a cryptographer is to start exploring the field as a passion. You may have friends in your social circle who are similarly intrigued with cryptography and you can surely find cryptography resources, including social networks, online.
The second step towards becoming a cryptographer is formal education. These days, that can take many different forms. If you are not yet enrolled in a college degree program, you can find resources online that will teach higher level mathematics and cryptography. In fact, there may be college courses available through free services such as Coursera, EdX, or Khan Academy. Some of these courses may even lead to a college certificate, if you wish to pay extra.
Through independent learning you might master subjects such as public key cryptography and other computer engineering subjects, including computer programming. This will provide a leg-up into this career option if you decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.
You might even be able to land a technical support or other IT job based on your independent learning. After all, if you are able to discuss higher level aspects of computing in an interview, you may well be able to start accruing experience in your field.
To truly succeed as a cryptographer, you will need to start your career with a bachelor’s degree. However, some are able to get started with an associate degree in computer science. The field is highly complex so it's recommended that you earn the best credentials you can. You might even consider a technical degree at the graduate level. With that in mind, seek out programs with the best accreditation possible.
If you already know that cyber security and cryptography are your passions, you can seek out cryptography programs with either an ABET or CAE accreditation. ABET accredits programs that cover fields such as engineering, computer engineering, sciences, and most STEM subject. CAE is a designation created by the National Security Agency in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security to exclusively accredit cyber security programs.
Once you have a degree, you should not only seek out an entry-level position in an IT or cyber security department, but you should start expanding and developing your knowledge. You can do this by earning a certification from a respected institute. For instance, you might become a certified encryption specialist through the EC-Council.
There are many other cyber security certifications available from many independent agencies. Look for courses that offer a focus on cryptography in addition to other topics, such as database management or networking. When you achieve a certification that requires continuing education, perhaps even including periodic exams, your credentials will prove that your knowledge is continually expanding and evolving. While you can always stay up to date with independent learning, when you maintain a respected certificate you can show evidence that your efforts are consistent and valuable.
If you left school after completing a bachelor’s degree in cyber security with a focus on cryptography, you should start looking at graduate programs. Seek out a computer engineering graduate degree program with ABET or CAE accreditation. You could also consider an MBA with a concentration in Computer Science. There are also dual-MBA programs where you can complete two degrees in around 3-4 years. When you add a business degree to your resume you will have an easier time rising into a CISO, CSO, or CIO position.
What Does a Cyber Security Cryptographer Do?
On a daily basis, a cryptographer is likely involved in encrypting data and creating systems whereby data can be secured, but which can also be accessed by those with privileges. That is, the data is useless if nobody can access it. Depending on the need, a cryptographer might set up encrypted email or chat systems that can't be accessed by anyone but the users. Other cryptographers work to secure financial transactions. In fact, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are secured by a cryptosystem known as blockchain.
Cryptographers can spend a lot of time researching their field. Since cyber security is evolving at a rapid pace, it's imperative that infosec professionals remain on top of current trends. After all, black-hat hackers are sure to be doing much the same. Once a hacker can crack into an encrypted system, they might be able to access all of a company's records, including financial information, not to mention precious intellectual property.
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It's also vital that cryptographers continually update their systems with new encrypted algorithms and multiple layers of encryption. Since a system breach might occur without anyone's knowledge and persist for a long period, it's important that the cyber security protocols continually undergo revision.
Cyber Security Cryptographer Skills to Acquire
- Number Theory:
This is the study of whole numbers. To be an effective cryptographer you will need to have a high-level understanding of mathematics; this branch is esoteric for many, but you'll need to understand how prime numbers are distributed, for example.
- Linear Algebra:
You will need to learn linear algebra in order to understand vectors, matrices, and vector spaces. The Germans used linear algebra when they created their Enigma machine in WWII. Thankfully, some brilliant cryptographers were able to decipher and crack the Enigma code, likely by reverse engineering the algebraic relationships they discovered.
This branch of mathematics concerns how many different combinations can be made from a given set of objects, including letters or numbers. This is vital for encrypting data in that this skill may enable you to mix up all the characters in a sensitive document so that anyone who manages to access it will not be able to work with it. However, you can apply a key to the file and decode it for legitimate use.
Cryptography might be a highly analytical career that is more concerned with numbers and abstract symbols than communication, but you will need to prepare reports and even manuals for the rest of your team. After all, if you encrypt sensitive documents for your CEO, they must be able to unlock them when needed. Furthermore, you may need to decipher the cryptographic needs of a non-technical employer so that you can provide them with the security systems they need.
There is more than one way to enter the cyber security systems field. Some professionals simply have a natural affinity for computers and slowly migrate from a managerial position into a spot with the IT department. Then there are others who are wholly self-taught.
In fact, there are many in the wider IT field who had a desire to learn computer programming, for instance, so they picked up a book and learned the skill. Since this is a field that is in high demand, managers are more likely to overlook the fact that a highly skilled professional lacks a degree. Cyber security systems is in such high demand that if you have strong math skills and some proven track record with cryptography, you can likely land an entry-level job, or better.
Others might start out with a certificate in cryptography from their local community college or an online outlet, including a professional association. This will help you avoid the expense and time investment required for a full four-year degree and will enable you to jump right into a career. However, keep in mind that those who take this route often have a high level of natural talent to begin with. If that is you, you should dive in and learn the core cryptography skills so you can launch a career asap.
Cyber Security Cryptographer Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
Cryptography experts can work for any number of businesses, government agencies, and industries. Wherever there is sensitive data, a cryptographer's skill may be needed. In fact, you might find yourself working for a health care system to help safeguard their medical records or you could work for a large restaurant chain and help them protect their new recipes and other intellectual property. Even Hollywood studios may need you to help protect their information so that it's not copied by the competition.
On the other hand, you might decide that you'd rather not be an employee and that you would rather dive into work as a consultant. There are many smaller companies who may only need you to help them encrypt their database as a one-time project, though perhaps with recurring updates. If you have ample experience you might be able to work as an independent contractor though you may find that you need a wider cyber security team in order to satisfy a certain client's needs.
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Finally, you could decide to venture into the United States Military. There you might be exposed to top cryptography research that involves cutting edge quantum computers, the Internet of Things (IOT), and other top computing secrets. You will also be able to help protect our vital interests from foreign and domestic threats to our national security.
Cyber security as a whole is exploding. The government and private industry are looking to secure their digital assets with the best cryptography possible. Now with the rise of cryptocurrency, the opportunities in your field are exploding. The future will need your skills to not only help secure cross-border transactions of digital currency, but everyday people will need their phone apps secured before they purchase items or send money to friends.
Thus, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is showing that the median salary for an information security analyst is currently over $99,000. That's before bonuses, benefits, and other non-salary compensation, including stock options. The BLS says that the typical entry-level education level for information security analysts is a bachelor’s degree and that demand for the field is soaring. In the years between 2019-29, the bureau of labor statistics projects that the field will expand by over 30%. Given that average growth is around 7%, this bodes quite well for infosec professionals. In comparison, computer systems analysts report a median income of $91,000 and their field is projected to expand by 7% in the same ten-year time frame.
Advancing From Here
Cryptographers are in such demand that you can surely go as far as you'd like in this field. If you work in research, you can become a top cryptography expert and command a very high salary for your work. Researchers may contract with government agencies to help protect the fundamental infrastructure of the United States.
If you are in the private sector, you might move up into a managerial position and from there into the C-suites. To achieve a higher corporate position, you may need an MBA or other managerial training, though that is not always necessary. Another possibility is to open up a consulting firm of your own as an independent consultant or with other trusted cryptography professionals.
There are many positions available for those cyber security professionals who specialize in cryptography. Many are research positions which will allow you to expand on your knowledge and explore the areas you are most passionate about. Others are with some of the largest firms in the nation who need your help to secure their databases. You can even work with cryptocurrency firms in their efforts to expand services to their customers in the safest, most professional manner.
Most of the positions listed below require a minimum of a master's degree in mathematics or computer science. However, it's still possible to be a cryptography whiz without holding a top degree. You'll certainly need to know multiple computing languages, including Python, C, C++, Java, and Mathematica.
- Applied Cryptographer:
This position requires a master's degree in mathematics or computer science. Employers may be looking for someone who can work with quantum-safe cryptography, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things.
- Staff Applied Cryptographer:
Some of these positions are with the world's leading brokerages for cryptocurrency. They are looking for employees to design and build cryptocurrency services, among other tasks. They may or may not have an educational requirement and the jobs may be remote.
- HE Cryptographer:
In this field, research positions are available that delve into Homomorphic Cryptography Theory and Applications. To apply, you should have a PhD in mathematics, computer engineering, or some equivalent discipline. You may also need computer programming skills in Python, C++, C, and Java, for starters.
- Cryptography Research Scientist:
This is a job that requires that you have a graduate degree at a minimum. You'll need to have experience working on blockchain technology. Since this is a research position, you'll need to have top communication skills. In fact, you may even need to present papers at conferences.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What are the typical job duties for a cryptographer?
The main goal of a cryptographer is to protect data from being modified, deleted, copied, or intercepted by unauthorized users. They may need to develop statistical and mathmatical models to ensure potential threats are being blocked.
What hours do cryptographers work?
Most cryptographers work a typical 40 hour work week.
What skills are required to become a cryptographer?
A cryptographer needs to have knowledge of network systems, database architecture, and computer systems. They need to understand complicated mathematical theory and be able to apply the concepts to encryption algorithms.
How long does it take to become a cryptographer?
A cryptographer will typically need a bachelors degree in computer science, mathematics, or a related field.
What do employers look for when hiring a cryptographer?
Employers typically require a bachelor's degree but it may be helpful to have a master's degree. Employers will be looking for a strong background and experience in statistics, analytics, and computer competency.