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Learn cryptography online

Discover cryptography courses online and explore a career as a cryptographer with edX’s guide.

What is cryptography?

Cryptography, a subset of cybersecurity, is the field of implementing and perfecting data encryption to protect sensitive information. It’s an interdisciplinary practice employed in areas as diverse as government, academia, tech, and finance.

A straightforward cryptography definition is the art of writing and breaking codes. People have been creating codes and translating language into codes for thousands of years. Within the context of modern computing, cryptography is the field of providing security to computer systems by encrypting data. 

How cryptography works depends on which types of cryptography are used. Quantum cryptography, Python cryptography, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography (also called public key cryptography) are just a few cryptography examples.

  • Quantum cryptography uses quantum physics to perform encryption, meaning light particles can be used as a key (password) that grants receivers access to data.1

  • Python cryptography refers to the use of the popular programming language Python as a method of generating keys, encrypting and decrypting data, and more.2

  • Symmetric cryptography involves using a single key for both encryption and decryption.3

  • Asymmetric cryptography, also known as public key cryptography, entails generating one key for encryption and another key for encryption. It’s called public key cryptography because the encryption key is made public by a trusted source, like an employee, while the decryption key is kept private.4 5

Cryptography careers require regular education due to the ever-evolving nature of threats to data security, so there are many options for anyone who wants to take a cryptography course online.

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 Cryptography curriculum 

A cryptography curriculum can cover a lot of the same ground as a curriculum dedicated to cybersecurity. A learner may study computer science, math, networking, programming, and information technology. It may also be useful to study linguistics and additional languages to become more competitive in cryptography careers, particularly for cryptography careers in the military. It is important to note where cybersecurity and cryptography diverge. Cybersecurity is broadly focused in keeping systems secure, while cryptography specifically involves keeping information secure using encryption. 

For individuals wondering how to get into cryptography, the first place to look is online. Anyone who wants to understand how to become a cryptographer can learn cryptography online through articles, videos, podcasts, communities, and other sources. An online cryptography course may provide a general overview of cryptography and cybersecurity; offer an in-depth look into a topic in cryptography or cybersecurity, like the design of secure applications or networks; or be entirely dedicated to one of the many different types of cryptography, like quantum cryptography.

An introductory cybersecurity class can cover cryptography basics, with a focus on encryption and data protection best practices. Whether a learner is taking a cryptography course online or in person, learning how cryptography works may be followed by an in-depth exploration of cryptographic systems and methodologies and their real world applications. For example, learners may study how to determine message integrity, key management and distribution, digital certification, and more. Students may also work on programming projects and tackle open problems, a term that describes known problems in fields such as math and science that are believed to have objective and confirmable answers that have yet to be found. In a cryptography course, students may study open problems dealing with private information retrieval (PIR) or secure multiparty computation (MPC).6

Discover cryptography careers

Cryptography professionals may work in industries such as technology, finance, government, or academia. An evolving field, cryptography careers combine implementation and research. After pursuing education in cryptography, learners may go on to become cryptography engineers, cryptography researchers, cryptography analysts, risk and security engineers, security architectes, and more. Cryptographers can also be found in diverse fields such as machine learning, reverse engineering, and cryptocurrency. 

What do cryptographers do?

Cryptographers build and maintain complex computer systems to protect sensitive data from hackers, misuse, cybercrime, leaks, and more. Cryptographers may work with different types of cryptography, including quantum cryptography, Python cryptography, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography (public key cryptography). Cryptographers also use different methods of threat detection to protect data, and test out and study new cryptography methods to keep up with emerging threats. 

Day-to-day, cryptographers develop encryption techniques and security systems, writing and testing the strength of their code to ensure privacy. Cryptographers are likely to respond to data breaches and security threats as well, and conduct audits of a company’s existing encryption practices. Cryptographers will also have to communicate their work to relevant stakeholders across various levels of their company, whether it be in the form of written or oral presentations.7

How to become a cryptographer 

Those who want to understand how to learn cryptography or how to pursue cryptography careers may start with a bachelor’s in computer science, information technology, mathematics, or cybersecurity, or cybersecurity bootcamps. From there, a learner could narrow their focus to cryptography. A general cryptography online course followed by more targeted study is also an option.

Cryptography is highly collaborative because researchers have to keep up with the latest developments to prevent emerging threats and to maintain security. Cryptographers also consult with experts or resources to work through issues. That means doing research, attending in-person events, and studying how others deal with cryptography problems. As a result, those looking to advance their careers or land particularly desirable jobs can teach a workshop at a conference or an online cryptography course; publish original research in peer-reviewed journals; or rank well enough in competitions or challenges to build social capital within the information security community.