The Cryptology Profession: Its Evolution, Growth, Skill Set and Career Prospects

"Cryptology is as old as mankind itself and dates from antiquity," says Patrick Weaden, curator at the National Cryptology Museum. People very early on realized that they needed to share certain information with certain people, so they developed devices to protect that information. Cryptology is the art and science of making and breaking codes.

William Friedman was the father of American cryptology, and his work still significantly shapes the business today. Friedman realized in the 1920's that the future of cryptology rested not just on linguistics, but on statistical analysis and mathematical skills as well, which was needed in breaking and making codes. "Perhaps Friedman's greatest achievements were with introducing the mathematical and scientific method into cryptology and producing training materials used by several generations of crypto students and professionals," Weaden says. His work greatly improved and affected both signals intelligence and information systems security.

There has been an enormous change in the cryptology profession over the past 30 years, especially with the wide use of internet and ecommerce, says Ed Dawson, vice president of the International Association of Cryptologic Research (IACR). Previously, cryptology was an area reserved mainly for government organizations such as NSA. "Now there has been wide use of cryptology in the commercial area, especially within technology and vendor companies such as RSA and PGP, who are building cryptology into their products," says Gary C. Kessler, Ed.S., CCE, CISSP, associate professor and program director in M.S. Digital Investigation Management at Champlain College. Cryptology has developed into one of the fundamental research areas in information technology today.

"Data encryption and security is a huge and growing field today," Rainer Steinwandt, associate director and co-editor of the Journal of Mathematical Cryptology, says. "New companies pop up daily that need to have data encrypted; they do that with software and "keys" developed by cryptologists using mathematics".

Skill Set and Background required for Crypto Professionals

What's it take to make it in cryptology today? We polled our panel of experts, who suggest:

  • Grounded Academic Background -- An undergraduate degree with major studies in mathematics and computer science, followed by a postgraduate research degree (Master degree or PhD) in cryptology, is recommended by most experts. "Today, cryptology professionals need to be gifted in both mathematical concepts and statistical analysis, coupled with a strong background in technology, to be able to make a career in this field," Weaden says.

  • Linguistics -- Learning different languages has always been a challenge, and individuals wanting to succeed as crypto professionals need to master the language of nations that are specific threat countries to the US, Weaden says.

  • Subject Matter Expertise -- Professionals need to have a dogged determination and be willing to look at things from different perspectives. They need to be extremely well informed on the subject, which is a critical factor, and have a reservoir of creativity and balance to do well as crypto experts. "A practitioner has a very important role to make sure cryptology is used in the correct way. Otherwise, there are many amateurs who make serious errors in implementing and designing security systems" Dawson says.

  • Research Abilities -- Crypto professionals more than often are required to come up with new mathematical concepts and methodologies that are challenging and ensure additional security of mechanisms and products, Kessler maintains. Therefore, they need to be geared toward analysis and research.

Roles and Career Paths for Crypto Professionals

Kessler mentions that the role for this field basically falls under two main categories:

Crypto Practitioners are engaged in building additional mechanisms and products that are meant to be more secure via cryptology methods. This role is not just focused on restricting information and keeping it a secret, but more on keeping up with the upcoming technologies and creatively using these mathematical concepts to safe guard assets.

Crypto Analysts usually play a research role and come up with new mathematical concepts, models and methodologies, which these practitioners can use in building secure products and mechanisms.

"It is difficult to predict the career path for crypto practitioners, since so many changes are taking place, making it hard to predict. But a growing field is digital forensics, where there is a strong usage and need for crypto professionals," says Kessler.

Crypto FAQ's
Among the common questions about careers in cryptology:

Where are the Jobs? -- In today's world, crypto professionals are in great demand both within the government and private sector. NSA, FBI, CIA, think tanks and other federal government and defense and intelligence contractors are always on the look out to hire these individuals. Educational institutions and universities are always on the look out for crypto research professionals. Within the private sector, demand is high within vendor companies like RSA and PGP. Companies offering encryption, digital data services and authentication tools are heavy in hiring crypto and security practitioners, Steinwandt says.

Where to Study Cryptography? -- Here is a list of academic institutions which are selected and approved by the NSA as centers of academic excellence (CAE) in the information assurance program. Students can go to any of these universities to pursue courses in Cryptography. Usually, cryptography is offered as specific courses within the computer science, information security or applied mathematics major. An undergraduate program is for four years and graduate programs range between one-to-two years, depending on the program structure and courses taken per semester.

What Can One Earn? -- Starting pay for cryptology professionals is anywhere from $35,000-$50,000 within the government. With private research companies and vendors, the pay is from $45,000-$60,000 annually. Professionals who get into high end encryption and digital data services demand above $80,000 and are absorbed by software product vendors, government contractors and very specialized technology companies.


About the Author

Upasana Gupta

Upasana Gupta

Contributing Editor, CareersInfoSecurity

Upasana Gupta oversees CareersInfoSecurity and shepherds career and leadership coverage for all Information Security Media Group's media properties. She regularly writes on career topics and speaks to senior executives on a wide-range of subjects, including security leadership, privacy, risk management, application security and fraud. She also helps produce podcasts and is instrumental in the global expansion of ISMG websites by recruiting international information security and risk experts to contribute content, including blogs. Upasana previously served as a resource manager focusing on hiring, recruiting and human resources at Icons Inc., an IT security advisory firm affiliated with ISMG. She holds an MBA in human resources from Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa.




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