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NICE eNewsletter Spring 2022 Academic Spotlight

Mathematics and the Cybersecurity Profession: An Important Foundation for Many Roles

By Alexis VanderWilt, IT Specialist, Western Area Power Administration

"We all use math every day; to predict weather, to tell time, to handle money. Math is more than formulas or equations; it's logic, it's rationality, it's using your mind to solve the biggest mysteries we know."

This quote is from the crime television show called, Numb3rs, where two brothers rely on math to solve crimes. The mathematical concepts they use range from statistical probabilities to using math to make predictions about criminal activity. 

But how much math is needed to enter the cybersecurity workforce? Doesn’t cybersecurity involve complex math? All too often there is a misconception that a person needs to be a technological guru and have a deep understanding of high-level mathematics. To help answer these questions and in support of April’s Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, let’s take a look at what math is needed for cybersecurity work.

Math Intensity Depends on the Work Role

Some cybersecurity jobs require more complex math than others. Jobs in machine learning, for example, require an understanding of calculus and linear algebra. Machine Learning and AI are very complex fields that utilize graph theory and linear algebra to train systems to give certain outputs based on certain inputs by making small corrections. The work roles for these kinds of positions are very technical and will more than likely require high-level mathematics. 

Jobs in cryptography may require a deep understanding of algebraic concepts like prime factorization. Prime numbers are extremely important in cybersecurity. A prime number is a number that cannot be broken down into any smaller integer components. This concept of breaking down numbers into their prime number components is the basis of modern cryptography. Because only the two people sending information know how their large cryptographic key is factored, that data is secure, but if an efficient method for factoring a number into its prime components ever came to fruition, modern encryption would completely fall apart. Cryptography is at the very core of information security and data confidentiality. The work roles for cryptography positions are fairly technical and might require a background in mathematics.

Rick Durrett at Cornell University developed resources and lesson plans for each show, along with organizing episodes by topic. Similar to crime, math is found just about anywhere, including cybersecurity. 

Another cybersecurity work role that utilizes math is a data analyst. Data analysts use math every day to detect patterns and find anomalies. These work roles typically utilize probability and statistics. Data analysts can take datasets and turn them into usable insights for decision-making. A lot of the mathematical processes used in these work roles have been written into programs that can be used by data analysts. So, while understanding the math behind the calculations might be helpful, it is not necessary to do this job well. So, these work roles are technical but may not require deep mathematics. 

Math is hidden in almost every work role. Software engineers are using math all the time. Computers only know that 0 is off and 1 is on. Everything a computer does is based on numbers. When software engineers write code, they are flipping the 1s and 0s behind the scenes to make the computer do certain things. A lot of this math is abstracted away by modern programming languages, but the math is still there!

Cybersecurity isn’t all technical roles though. Even the legal counsel is using math on a daily basis to track their work hours and do calculations for their invoices. Patent lawyers need even more mathematics, as often they must be able to review scientific claims and translate them into simpler language. Securities lawyers must be able to evaluate the financial position of companies using balance sheets, a variety of disclosure documents, and debt and capital structure. Counsel for health care providers need mathematics skills where statistics and actuaries are necessary for calculating probabilities of negative cybersecurity-related events and obtaining appropriate insurance.

Whether someone works in one of the few intensive mathematical cybersecurity careers or one just applies basic math to everyday cybersecurity-related tasks, cybersecurity has something for everyone. Math is one of those subjects that tends to be challenging for some and therefore may turn them away from considering a career in cybersecurity.  Many work roles, including administrative, supervisory, management, instruction, or communication need only an understanding of basic mathematical competencies such as logical reasoning, analytical thinking, and quantitative calculation. Cybersecurity has career options for everyone, regardless of math or technical background.

NICE eNewsletter Spring 2022

Created April 22, 2022, Updated July 21, 2022