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Cryptographer  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotCryptography is the art and science of keeping information secret. It involves writing or solving ciphers. A cipher is a disguised way of communicating.

Cryptography refers to mathematically based encryption methods that keep data away from the prying eyes of criminals or enemy governments.

"Modern society could not operate without information security," says cryptographer Arthur Low. "Because it's everywhere. Now people are shopping and doing business on the Internet, and if you did not have the ability to have secure messages over the Internet, our modern society could not function."

dotToday's businesses and governments use what is called "strong" encryption. This type of encryption is created using applied mathematics. Strong encryption was once used solely for military purposes. But in today's wired world, encryption is needed for all kinds of uses.

"There's lots of reasons why we need privacy, not just because we want to make money or because we want to conducts negotiations in secret -- just because that's the way society really works," says Low. "It doesn't work very well if everything is out in the open."

dotEvery time you shop on the Internet, you're using encryption technology. Online storefronts, such as iTunes, are set up to secure sessions automatically. That protects people's credit card information.

dotCryptography provides privacy for people and corporations. It encourages trust between businesses. It keeps hackers out of important data systems.

Most cryptography is done by computer software and specialized hardware devices. It's not the cryptographer who sits there figuring out a cipher one word at a time.

"I think a person who would be really good in the field of cryptography, [doing] coding and what's called cryptanalysis, would be mathematically gifted and would also be very interested in patterns and problem solving," says Low.

"The ability to concentrate on problems for a long time" is important, says cryptographer Greg Rose. "These days you need some kind of programming skills as well."

dotSuppose you had a message to send over the Internet that you didn't want someone else to read. In cryptographic terminology, the message is called plaintext or cleartext.

Encoding a message so that its contents are hidden from outsiders is called encryption. Once the message is encrypted, it is called ciphertext. Turning a message from ciphertext back into plaintext is called decryption. Governing both processes is something called a key -- and that key is based on mathematical algorithms.

dotCryptographers figure out different ways to encrypt information. Those who decipher information from encrypted messages without knowing the original key are called cryptanalysts.

dotPeople with certain physical needs may still be able to do this job. For example, braille and other related resources can help the visually impaired overcome some of the challenges related to the task.

The most important requirements for cryptographers are a mind for math and the ability to focus on complex problems for extended periods.

dotCryptography is a rapidly changing field. The need to safeguard the rapidly growing online world is only going to become more important over time.

"The kinds of things modern cryptography can do -- secure multi-party computation, fully homomorphic encryption, anonymous credentials, electronic cash -- will blow you away," says cryptography professor Anna Lysyanskaya.

"But a lot of it isn't being used in practice simply because people don't know it's possible," she says. "So tell everyone you know about it, and you will help bring about a cryptographic revolution!"

At a Glance

Use math to keep secret messages secret

  • Information security is critical to our modern society
  • You should enjoy looking for patterns and solving puzzles
  • Advanced education in applied mathematics is required