Cryptography is a way to keep messages and other data secret. Cryptography
is the art of writing or solving ciphers.
What's a cipher? It's a "secret or disguised way of writing," says the
Concise Oxford Dictionary. In the business world, cryptography refers to mathematically
based encryption methods that keep data away from the prying eyes of criminals
or enemy governments.
Today's businesses and governments use what is called "strong" encryption.
This type of encryption is created using applied mathematics. Strong encryption
was once used solely for military purposes, but in today's information society,
encryption is needed for all kinds of uses.
If you're shopping on the Internet, there's a good chance you're using
encryption technology. Kurt Stammberger has set up encryption systems for
online music stores.
"Say you want to buy a CD," he says. "The storefront is set up to secure
sessions automatically. You've probably seen this in the corner of your screen:
a broken key becomes a whole key. This is good, because if you're typing in
your credit card number you want to ensure that number is protected."
There is a wide variety of projects that require the services of a cryptographer.
For example, cryptographer Jim Reed is working on a new way to encrypt cellular
phone signals so criminals can't steal phone time. "Working through the details
of that has occupied a large part of my time over the last couple of years,"
Cryptography provides privacy for people and corporations. It encourages
trust between businesses. It keeps hackers out of important data systems --
as much as possible. Of course, electronic commerce has provided a big boost
Most cryptography is done by computer software and specialized hardware
devices. It's not the cryptographer who sits there figuring out a cipher one
word at a time.
To understand just what a cryptographer does, there are a few terms you
should know. Suppose you had a message to send over the Internet that you
didn't want someone else to read. In cryptographic terminology, the message
is called plaintext or cleartext, explains the Introduction to Cryptography
Encoding a message so that its contents are hidden from outsiders is called
encryption. Once the message is encrypted, it is called ciphertext. Turning
a message from ciphertext back into plaintext is called decryption. Governing
both processes is something called a key -- and it's the key that's based
on mathematical algorithms.
Cryptographers figure out different ways to encrypt information. Those
who decipher information from encrypted messages without knowing the original
key are called cryptanalysts.
Cryptography is a field where people who enjoy working alone or in small
groups can do very well, says Stammberger. "It's not how sparkling your personality
is. It's your papers and your work."
Cryptograhic consultant Paul Kocher says he can't imagine a more fun computer
job. "I get to work on many projects simultaneously and I have the flexibility
to work on the coolest ones around."
People with certain kinds of physical needs may still be able to do this
job. For example, braille and other related resources can help the visually
impaired overcome some of the challenges related to the task.
The most important requirements for cryptographers are a mind for math
and the ability to sit for long hours at a computer crunching numbers and
Use math to keep secret messages secret