If the thought of decoding mysterious messages or building puzzles that remain ambiguous to most individuals, gives you a thrill, then a career in cryptography might just be the right choice for you.
The name cryptography comes from the Greek words ‘kryptos’ which means hidden and ‘graphia’ which means writing. A cryptosystem or cipher system is a method of disguising messages so that only certain people can see through the disguise. Cryptography is the art of creating and using cryptosystems. Or simply put, it is the art of secret writing.
Cryptography can also be defined as the science of making messages illegible to unintended recipients. There are actually two terms – cryptography and cryptanalysis. The latter consists of techniques for breaking cryptographic codes. Together it is called cryptology.
Cryptologists before the 80s were primarily depicted as spy agents involved in deciphering and configuring coded messages to gain momentum against enemy activities. However, with the upsurge of information technology and the increasing dependence on electronic data processing, the range of activities a cryptologist is involved in has expanded. The vast digital data that is stored and processed in large computer bases and transmitted through complex communication networks is susceptible to unauthorized interception and interpretation and hence, needs to be protected through encrypted remote access or passwords. Our commercial transactions (credit card numbers and bank data), our medical data (which may soon be stored on smart cards), mobile communication and other secret diplomatic information can be traced by hackers. To prevent such data theft, we need cryptographers to write stronger codes. In fact, currently, cryptography has broadened greatly from the study of secret writing to the study of information security.
The field also includes decoding patterns and symbols, integrity checks, authenticating digital signature and predicting the possibility of certain outcomes by preparing mathematical models. The work of a cryptologist includes designing and analyzing various robust and strong algorithms, implementation of such algorithms on various platforms and interfaces to other input/ output media. They can also analyze existing algorithms for weaknesses, solve known mathematical problems on which many cryptographic algorithms are based and find weaknesses and/or patch vulnerabilities in existing implementations.
Cryptologists are in demand in the military forces, government agencies, technology companies, banking and financial organizations, law enforcement agencies, universities and research institutes. Depending on the profile of the organization one is involved with, the area of functioning varies. Cryptologists can work with mathematical topics such as number theory, algebra, information theory, combinatorics, probability, etc and also computer science topics such as algorithms, hardware interfaces, compression, software programming and other areas including image processing, communication theory, complexity theory, and so on.
For instance, the cryptographers of banking companies try to make their systems secure so that all the transactions over the internet can be made safely. On the other hand, cryptographers in the defense arena or intelligence organizations will try to break codes transmitted between two suspected enemies.
So what does it take to enter this enchanting world of secret messages? It is primarily a research-based subject and hence a PhD in cryptography is the best possible solution. Alternatively, a master’s degree in mathematics or computer science is also useful. It is however important to have excellent problem solving abilities, familiarity with mathematical and programming tools and some expertise in hacking.
Moreover, to be successful in this field, one should be able to juggle numbers at ease, analyze data effectively and be alert at all times. Just like any other professional, the willingness to learn and work hard is a key element in this field. In India, the main sectors where cryptographers are in high demand are the defense and government sectors. Multinationals and financial institutions also find them useful. The salary is generally at par with any computer science and engineering graduate.
For a fresher, salaries vary with the organization they work for and the degrees they have obtained. Approximately, a graduate can expect anything around Rs 3.6 lakh per annum and for a PhD holder it begins at Rs 6 lakh per annum.
In India there are several institutes that have research opportunities and other specialized courses in cryptography. Tech institutes such as the IITs, IISc, NITs and other mathematical and statistical institutes such as ISI, University of Calcutta have opportunities for cryptographic research.
However, students can also opt to go abroad for higher studies in this field. Cryptography is a growing discipline. Many universities have a separate department for cryptography. Students can opt for a master’s degree in computer science with major in cryptography.