To mathematicians and those interested in the science of encryption, the job of a cryptographer is an interesting one.
Basically, cryptographers work on implementing encryption. This definition from Career Explorer says it well: “A cryptographer is someone who develops algorithms, ciphers and security systems to encrypt sensitive information and provide privacy for people and corporations.” (Read Encryption Vs. Decryption: What's the Difference?)
First, let's look at some of the basic things that cryptographers might be involved in. (Read Cryptography: Understanding Its Not-So-Secret Importance to Your Business.)
One such activity is the implementation of hash functions.
As we've reported before, hash cryptography involves linking the contents of some data structure to a shorter key that shows whether or not data has been changed or tampered with. The key that is ‘hashed’ from the data set is the encryption. This technique is used quite a bit in the cryptography world, and companies hiring these professionals will often ask about their expertise with hash functions.
Elliptic Curve Cryptography
Here's another part of what cryptographers may be involved in — a concept called “elliptic curve cryptography” uses the algebraic structure of elliptic curves to create public key cryptography results that are useful for digital signatures and in other parts of the encryption world — (it seems likely that this cryptography intern job ad actually spelled the designation wrong).
So what else does the job of a cryptographer look like? Here's what we found out from some professionals in the field.
From Book Ciphers to Mathematical and Algorithmic Encryption
Part of understanding what a modern cryptographer does involves contrasting today's cryptography with the disciplines that came before it. In the old days, cryptographers used simple ciphers to encode messages, for example, a letter shift that simply made each letter of the alphabet into another, or alternately, into a particular rune or symbol.
These encryptions, by modern standards, are laughably easy to decode. A few years ago, something called PGP or Pretty Good Privacy was a gold standard — these types of cryptography are much more elaborate and resistant to cracking than the old ciphers.
“Encryption has come a long way from simply moving each letter over a few places in the alphabet,” said Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris. “Creating these complicated and highly secure algorithms is one job of a cryptographer. Another is analyzing encrypted data for law enforcement and military organizations to attempt to break certain encryption algorithms.”
Both Builders and Breakers
Dr. Yehuda Lindell, CEO and co-founder of Unbound Tech, said it well in responding to our questions about cryptography.
“In some areas, the cryptanalysts are the ones with the best understanding of how to build secure schemes as well, and so that they are both builders and breakers,” Lindell said. “Primarily, this is in the area of symmetric cryptography: stream ciphers, block ciphers, hash functions, and the like. However, in the area of asymmetric (public-key) cryptography, schemes are typically based on hard problems from number-theory and algebra.
As in the symmetric world, these researchers are also the most qualified to propose new hard problems. However, their skill set is usually completely different from those doing symmetric cryptanalysis. Those working in the asymmetric setting typically have very deep math background. Having said that, I would argue that almost all cryptographers are pretty good at math.”
Lindell’s co-founder Nigel Smart expounded on this idea: “One can sub-divide cryptographers into those that work on breaking schemes, those that work on creating symmetric key schemes; those that work on public key schemes; those that work on basic protocols like key agreement; those that work on more advanced protocols like MPC; those that work on efficient implementations; those that work on secure implementations which avoid side-channels; those that work on software; and those that work on hardware.”
Working on Bitcoin and Other Coins
Here's another big application of cryptography in today's fintech industry.
“Bitcoin and other decentralized forms of payment depend on the work of cryptographers,” says Anna Tatelman, a consultant for Pelicoin. “Unlike with traditional financial institutions, all Bitcoin transactions are pseudonymous. This means that all personal information such as names, addresses, and social security numbers cannot be accessed even by Bitcoin’s creators. This is thanks to diligent cryptographers who hide all users’ personal data to greatly reduce the potential of both internal and external fraud.”
From the above input, and in looking at resources showing what today's cryptographers do, we see that although the job role is pretty clearly defined, there's a diversity of techniques and strategies that cryptographers will use to secure data.
Whether it's the Bitcoin in your digital wallet, the big databases that retailers use to keep sensitive customer data, or protected secrets in government networks, cryptographers do the tough job of staying ahead of those who would crack or break the systems to get the sensitive data inside.
It's a big job, but one that builds on a long tradition of encoding and decoding, one that’s in some ways intuitive to our human intelligence. Now, we harness the incredible logical power of computers to make encryptions ever stronger — in search of the best protection from hackers and malicious intruders.
Cryptography is a game that everyone has to play — and it’s still evolving in the age of quantum computing and AI. (Read Quantum Cryptography Vs. Quantum Hacking: A Cat and Mouse Game.)