What is Cryptography?

Cryptography or cryptology (from Greek kryptós, “hidden, secret”; and graphein “to write”)  is the practice and study of techniques for secure communication in the presence of third parties called adversaries. More generally, cryptography is about constructing and analyzing protocols that prevent third parties or the public from reading private messages. Various aspects of information security such as data confidentiality, data integrity, and authentication are central to modern cryptography. Mathematical theory and computer science practice is the basis of modern cryptography.

It is the art of protecting information by transforming it (encrypting it) into an unreadable format- called cipher text. Only those who possess a secret key can decipher (or decrypt) the message into plain text. Infrequently, cryptanalysis, also called codebreaking breaks encrypted messages. However, modern cryptography techniques are virtually unbreakable.

Who uses it?

Governments, online retailers, banks, credit card companies, ATMs, and more use encryption. When you connect your computer to the Internet to browse, to e-mail, or login onto your favorite social network, that connection is secured by TLS (Transport Layer Security). The TLS protocol uses strong cryptography to prevent eavesdropping, tampering, and message forgery. It’s not only your personal computer that uses encryption. When shopping at a physical store, you scan your credit card to complete your purchase. The retailer uses cryptography to protect your personal data.


You will need, at the minimum, a bachelor’s degree in one of these fields:

  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science
  • Computer Programming
  • Computer Engineering

As stated above, modern cryptography involves the combination of mathematical theory and computer science. Some modern cryptographic techniques can only keep their keys secret if certain mathematical problems cannot be manipulated, such as the integer factorization or the discrete logarithm problems, so there are deep connections with abstract mathematics. Therefore, this premise supports the need for either a mathematics or computer science degree, for starters.

Candidates wishing to pursue a career in cryptography need to have a thorough knowledge of computer security. Coursework should cover network security, information security, Windows security, cybersecurity. Computer science courses will focus on the aspects of computational complexity, algorithm design, and theory of computation.

Therefore, earning your undergraduate degree in one of the aforementioned subjects will start you on the path towards a career in this field.  Depending on what area of cryptography pursued, cryptologists may also consider studying a foreign language, such as Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Russian or Persian, so that they can translate, analyze, and decipher communications. There is more specialization at the master’s level.


Master’s Degree

A Master of Science specialization in cyber security that also studies cryptology seems like the ideal program. Offered within the Computer Science department, the coursework includes cryptographic methods, data and information security, fault-tolerant computing, network security, privacy and anonymity, software safety, and system security. This particular program studies four areas:

  • Theory: Algorithms, Complexity Theory, Probability in Computing
  • Systems: Architecture, Operating Systems, Adv. Operating Systems, Advanced Computer Networks, Computer Networks, and Performance Analysis of Computer Systems
  • Software: Object-Oriented Software Principles, Formal Methods, Programming Languages, and Compilers
  • Applications: Cryptography, Machine Learning, Advanced Cryptography, Network Security, Algorithmic Aspects of Computer Networks, Advanced Databases, Data Mining, Advanced Computer Graphics, Image and Video Computing, Artificial Intelligence, and Databases

Graduate Certificate

An alternative to a master’s degree is a graduate certificate in cryptography. There few choices offered and those that do only have a select number of courses related to the subject. For example, the study plan might only have an introduction to the basic theory and practice of cryptographic techniques. Many more graduate certificates are available in cyber security, information security, computer science, and information systems engineering. Anyone of these would be of benefit.


While attending school, you can gain insight into the profession by applying for a summer internship. The job site, SimplyHired, lists several, though they may not be near your current place of residence. One example is a Security Engineer Intern for summer 2018 in Sunnyvale, California. As a Security Engineer Intern, you help protect network boundaries, keep computer systems and network devices hardened against attacks, and provide security services to protect highly sensitive data like passwords and customer information. A second posting seeks a Cyber Security Intern in Chantilly, Virginia. You’ll work alongside experts in the field and tackle some of the nation’s most critical problems in the areas of cyber security, computer forensics, software engineering, and cryptography. Duties may range from developing novel solutions to challenging tasks to conducting research in the area of malware and device analysis to building and testing analytic tools.


This is a highly specialized field. Therefore, employment prospects could be limited. But with a degree in computer science, cyber security, computer engineering, or information security will ensure you job placement. Jobs in the tech and healthcare industry are in demand right now because the industries are growing and expanding. In June 2016, two computing organizations published an open letter announcing there were 500,000 open computer positions in every sector such as manufacturing or banking. However, there were only 50,000-computer science graduates. On LinkedIn in February 2017, there were 8,916 open positions for data scientists, and 72,800 open positions for software engineers.