What Does a Cryptographer/Cryptanalyst Do?
What is a Cryptographer/Cryptanalyst?
A Cryptographer develops algorithms, ciphers and security systems to encrypt sensitive information. A Cryptanalyst analyzes and decrypts any type of hidden information (e.g. encrypted data, cipher texts, telecommunications protocols, etc.) in cryptographic security systems. They are code makers and code breakers, professionals who ensure that private data regarding finance, national security and other important spheres are hidden from marauding cyber-terrorists.
It’s a job that blends computer science, engineering and applied mathematics. As such, cryptographers and cryptanalysts often have a wide range of responsibilities, including designing codes & systems, testing & probing for vulnerabilities, and coming up with “out of the box” solutions. Hard skills and relevant work experience will help prepare you for many positions. But once you’re there, expect the unexpected!
Cryptographer/Cryptanalyst Job Responsibilities
As the white knight of data, you may be required to:
- Protect important information from interception, copying, modification and/or deletion
- Evaluate, analyze and target weaknesses in cryptographic security systems and algorithms
- Design robust security systems to prevent vulnerabilities
- Develop statistical and mathematical models to analyze data and solve security problems
- Test computational models for reliability and accuracy
- Investigate, research and test new cryptology theories and applications
- Probe for weaknesses in communication lines (e.g. wireless network, secure telephone, cellphones, email, etc.)
- Ensure financial data (e.g. credit card, inter-bank, ATM, online transactions, etc.) are securely encrypted and accessible only to authorized users
- Ensure message transmission data (e.g. wireless network, secure telephone, cellphones, email, etc.) are not illegally accessed or altered in transit
- Decode cryptic messages and coding systems for military, political and/or law enforcement agencies
- Develop and update methods for efficient handling of cryptic processes
- Provide technical support to government, businesses and industry to solve security-related issues
- Advise colleagues and research staff on cryptical/mathematical methods and applications
Keep in mind that responsibilities will vary according to the job. Work for the NSA or the FBI could differ wildly from work for an insurance company. Cryptographers and cryptanalysts build successful careers throughout the public and private sectors.
Cryptographer/Cryptanalyst Career Paths
Cryptographers and cryptanalysts come from all walks of life. You will often be able to begin your career straight out of university. Once you have amassed enough experience (and possibly a doctoral degree), you have the option to become a:
- University Professor
- Financial Consultant
- Security Consultant
A Cryptographer/Cryptanalyst can also be known as a:
- Signals Analyst
- Message Decoder
- Data Decoder
- Encryption Expert
Since Cryptographers and Cryptanalysts are lumped with Mathematicians in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, salary numbers can be tricky to pinpoint. Here are some ballpark numbers:
- Salary Expert harvests data on cryptography and cryptanalysis jobs in major cities. Average salary numbers range from $82,000-$146,500 (2019 figures).
- By scanning all job listings for the term “cryptography”, SimplyHired has calculated the average salary as $71,500 (2019 figures).
- All Star Jobs suggests that Junior Cryptanalyst salaries begin around $40,000; Senior Cryptanalysts can earn well over $100,000 per year.
Cryptographer/Cryptanalyst Job Requirements
Job descriptions for Cryptographers and Cryptanalysts share some common traits, especially when it comes to degrees and hard skills. A bachelor’s degree in a relevant field is good (e.g. math or comp sci), but an MS or PhD may be even better. For intermediate-level positions, training credentials and work experience are highly valued. But some junior-level positions may be open to new graduates. It’s worth doing a little bit of career research.
You can start by talking to qualified professors and adjuncts who are involved in real-world projects. Computer science and math departments often include bios of—and contact info for—their resident cryptography & cryptanalysis experts. These folks will often be able to point you in the right direction (e.g. how to find work in the private sector). You may also want to look into bootcamps, MOOCs, and other non-academic programs to hone your skills. In this section, we’ve highlighted a couple of training options where you can get your feet wet.
Employers will be looking for a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, Computer Science, Computer Engineering or a related discipline. If you don’t have a technical degree, you may be able to get away with extensive training and work experience. The NSA is willing to consider candidates with majors in both technical and non-technical degrees.
An MS is strongly suggested unless your bachelor’s degree is a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science. To expand your job opportunities, you could also consider a doctorate in Mathematics or Computer Science with a focus on cryptography.
This is a tough one to call. A job description for a Cryptographer at MIT might ask for a technical PhD or an MS with 5+ years of experience. Other employers may be satisfied with 3+ years of experience in security engineering/administration. Junior Cryptanalysts may be able to go straight into employment with no prior work experience. It will depend on the position.
Cryptography and cryptanalysis are built on the three pillars of computer science, engineering and applied mathematics. As you start your career, look at acquiring technical skills in:
- Computer architecture, data structures and algorithms
- Linear/matrix algebra and/or discrete mathematics
- Probability theory, information theory, complexity theory and number theory
- C, C++, Python, Java and similar programming languages
- Principles of symmetric cryptography (e.g. symmetric encryption, hash functions, message authentication codes (MAC), etc.)
- Principles of asymmetric cryptography (asymmetric encryption, key exchange, digital signatures, etc.)
Cryptographers and Cryptanalysts are intelligent, analytical and outstandingly creative. Like any great code breaker, they are willing to take on the most complex mathematical challenges. They have a strong ethical core and a passion for solving puzzles.
Above all, they are trustworthy enough to handle incredibly sensitive data. Because you will often be working with classified information, employers will also want to see evidence of your honesty and good judgment.
Certifications for Cryptographers/Cryptanalysts
Unlike more established fields, cryptography and cryptanalysis are relative newcomers to the world of security accreditation. EC-Council has developed one certification that specifically deals with encryption: CES: Certified Encryption Specialist.