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Cryptographers protect messages and data from unauthorized access. If an intruder's attempt succeeds, a cryptographer's job is to figure out how they did it so that security teams can close those loopholes. A cryptographer, however, can enjoy a broad job description.
These professionals work with other cybersecurity experts to develop cryptographic solutions to meet security needs. They may use authentication tools like encryption algorithms, secure protocols, digital signatures, and key management systems. Cryptographers also test cryptographic solutions for effectiveness and analyze failures when breaches occur.
As of July 2022, ZipRecruiter reports that cryptography professionals earned an average salary of over $150,000 a year. Use this page to explore a day in the life of a cryptographer in depth.
What Is a Cryptographer?
Cryptographers are cybersecurity professionals who specialize in encoding and decoding information. To ensure that only certain parties can access the code, most cryptographers use encryption algorithms.
Modern cryptography has evolved from its military origins. Today, the discipline also supports communication security in areas like business, privacy, and political activism. Cryptographers work with a constantly expanding array of techniques, software, and cryptographic puzzles. They may serve on a team with software engineers, mathematicians, and forensic analysts .
Most cryptographers hold a bachelor's or master's degree in mathematics or computer science. To work for the U.S. Department of Defense, they may also need a professional certification in a cybersecurity or programming discipline.
Job Description for a Cryptographer
Cryptographers focus on creating encryption algorithms. The job includes several different skill sets, including computer science, mathematics, and linguistics.
As computer networks become more complex, cryptographers will likely play an increasingly critical role in keeping online information secure. To do so, cryptographers often work with peers to build new cryptographic schemes or algorithms for their research projects.
Cryptographers may face professional challenges. For instance, their work may take years to yield any progress. They also need to stay up to date on new advances in technology and cryptography trends. The role demands creative thinking and advanced understanding of mathematical concepts such as number theory, finite fields, and calculus.
For many cryptographers, day-to-day responsibilities involve developing stronger codes to protect sensitive data or finding flaws in existing encryption protocols. Some work with computer scientists and other professionals to evaluate operating system security. Others specialize in breaking current codes so that companies can know what not to do next time.
Consider the key duties in a crypgorapher's job description listed below:
Main Duties of Cryptographers
Audit Cryptographic Code: As part of an audit, cryptographers use crypto primitives to find coding flaws that a hacker could exploit. Audits can also include looking for weak hashes, block ciphers, and legacy ciphers.
Test Cryptology Theories: Cryptography practice rests on number theory. Data encryption relies on specific ciphers, usually public key ciphers, that demand advanced mathematical theory. Cryptographers determine how hackers could decode a particular cipher depending on the number theory it relies on.
Use Different Cryptography Types to Enhance Encryption: Modern cryptographers code and decode information using several techniques, algorithms, and methods. These fall under one of two cryptography types — symmetric or asymmetric. Symmetric encryption works within closed systems. Asymmetric encryption, sometimes called public key encryption, is available in open or public systems.
Work With Encryption Algorithms: Modern cryptographers typically use one of five common encryption algorithms. These are advanced encryption standard (AES), triple data encryption standard, Rivest-Shamir-Adleman, Blowfish, and Twofish. AES is the most common and the most effective against attackers. Cryptographers need to know how to use each of these algorithms.
Prototype Cryptographic Primitives: Cryptographic primitives are low-level algorithms that cryptographers use to build cryptographic models. These primitives include one-way hash function, symmetric key cryptography, and digital signatures. Other examples include public-key cryptography, commitment scheme, and pseudo-random number generators. Cryptographers also create new algorithms to encrypt data.
Nonstandard Duties for Cryptographers
Write Training Materials: Cryptography's complexity can make the subject difficult for even seasoned cybersecurity experts to understand. Cryptographers may need to train their colleagues on their processes and outcomes. A cryptographer may develop training materials for software engineers and other cybersecurity team members.
Consult for Security Organizations: Cryptographers with broad-based cybersecurity knowledge may consult for national security agencies, corporations, and security specialists. In this role, they help create and maintain security systems, train other cryptographers, and develop security algorithms. They may also help develop security policies and identify risks.
Document Research Findings: In a university, laboratory, or technology engineering setting, some cryptographers conduct research into the math and science that make up their discipline. These researchers need to document their findings before peer review and publication.
Prototype New Security Solutions: Hackers begin their work as soon as a new solution is put in place. What is unhackable today could be cracked tomorrow, so cryptographers must begin developing new solutions right away. These solutions might include tools for end-to-end post-quantum cryptography built to withstand both traditional and quantum computing security risks.
Keep Up With Current Research: Cryptography's boundaries are constantly expanding. A keen cryptographer needs to stay on top of the latest information, tools, algorithms, and technologies. To do this, they might earn a master's degree or a doctorate , read the Journal of Cryptography , attend professional conferences, or register for an industry certification.
The Day to Day for a Cryptographer
A cryptographer's end goal depends on where they work. For instance, federal cybersecurity employees may work to identify criminals or strengthen national security. Corporate cryptographers may focus on protecting cash transfers.
A typical day for a cryptographer involves developing algorithms, creating security systems, and devising ciphers that encrypt sensitive information. Their day might also include handling data breach reports and security incidents. From there, they could move into discussions with a client about best-use practices or cryptography strategy updates.
A cryptographer's tasks can also vary by workplace. For example, one business might want their cryptographer to figure out how to strengthen their data protection. Another may need help deciding if they need cryptologic services at all.
At any point, a cryptographer might handle operational activities like reviewing system logs for anomalies or automating routine tasks. Consider the following schedule:
- Morning : Work on a Java coding project with a multilingual team.
- Afternoon : Collaborate with a Ph.D. student on a new computational research model.
- Evening : Make a presentation about a new security tool to the management team.
Where Cryptographers Work
Cryptographers can work across many industries and locations. These professionals often hold jobs with the federal government, technology firms, and research institutions. Many cryptographers work in traditional office settings located in urban centers. Others work remotely.
Cryptography jobs cluster around major technology, finance, or national security hubs such as California , New York, Virginia , and Maryland. Employers in these states may also offer some of the highest wages. Cryptographers in these areas may work for the federal government or one of its contractors or for technology firms.
For example, both the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense hire cryptographers. In the private sector, engineering firms, blockchain companies, neurotechnology organizations, and social networking companies all employ cryptographers. Many jobs in Virginia and Maryland center on U.S. government work. Jobs in California and New York may focus more on private enterprise.
Blockchain presents an area of particular interest for cryptographers. While many people know the blockchain because of cryptocurrency, the chain is actually more widespread. Blockchain is now a leading technology in automated payments, insurance, transportation, and logistics. Cryptographers secure the transactions between the chain's nodes.
Cryptographers with advanced degrees in electrical engineering or computer science may teach at a university or work for a research firm. These professionals can serve in locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Should You Become a Cryptographer?
Cryptographers are skilled professionals who can encrypt data using an array of cryptographic methods. Their tools include encryption algorithms, ciphers, key management techniques, and digital signatures.
To succeed in this field, cryptographers must be comfortable working with large amounts of data at high speeds. They also need excellent logical reasoning and problem-solving abilities. A creative mindset can help these security experts find novel ways to apply cryptography techniques.
Some days can be very long. Other days can involve critical decisions made under pressure. Cryptographers face complicated mathematics, unclear security protocols, gaps in the code they create, and attacks from hackers . Despite its challenges, this profession is thriving.
Job openings are growing rapidly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 33% for mathematicians, including cryptographers, from 2020-2030. Cryptographers can specialize in areas like healthcare data security or cybercrime investigation to target high-level roles in those sectors.
How to Prepare for a Career as a Cryptographer
Future cryptographers should prepare for a period of intense learning. Along with a strong background in math or computer science, the field demands great precision. Creating flawed code can be extremely costly for businesses, and uncovering weaknesses can lead to multi-million dollar lawsuits. The stakes are high, and cryptographers need to be ready.
Most cryptography roles require a master's degree. Some entry-level jobs may accept a bachelor's in computer science or a mathematics-related field.
People with a bachelor's degree in another field may find a cybersecurity bootcamp offers the training they need to enter the field. Aspiring cryptographers may also benefit from earning a professional certification such as a certified information systems security professional.
Learn More About Cryptographers
What Is a Cryptographer?
Salary and Career Outlook for Cryptographers
How to Become a Cryptographer
Certifications for Cryptographers
Frequently Asked Questions About Cryptographers
What does a cryptographer do on a daily basis?
Cryptographers spend most of their time taking steps to safeguard applications and data. Encryption plays an important role in protecting information as it passes through applications.
How many hours does a cryptographer work?
A cryptographer’s work hours depend on several factors. Some cryptographers work full time. Others freelance and maintain flexible schedules that allow them to balance their time between personal projects and other jobs.
Is the day to day of a cryptographer stressful?
The life of a cryptographer isn’t always stressful. Not every day involves deciphering complex codes and responding to emergencies. Day to day, a cryptographer spends most of their time analyzing data and making sure that information can’t be read by those who don’t have access to it.
What industries employ cryptographers?
Cryptographers work across a variety of industries, including finance, technology, and government. Many cryptographers help protect U.S. national security by working for the Department of Defense. Others serve the public by protecting financial and personal data at private companies such as Amazon.
Featured Image: Halfpoint Images / Moment / Getty Images
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