How do cybersecurity and mathematics work together? While cybersecurity is typically seen as a computer science, it is very dependent on mathematics, at its foundation. A thorough understanding of higher mathematics and the binary code is vital to being successful in a cybersecurity career. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a math whiz in order to do well in cybersecurity, however. Quantitative skills that are necessary for mathematics are also important in cybersecurity. It is true that having a fondness for math can help you along the way in completing a cyber education and fulfilling your dreams of starting a cybersecurity career.
The Science of Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity is included within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines. We all know how important STEM has become in our daily lives, and the emphasis that education has placed on encouraging more students to seek out STEM disciplines. STEM has been recognized globally as a critical ingredient in competitiveness and success – not just of individuals, but of entire nations.
Employment in STEM occupations has increased by 79 percent since 1990, per research done by the Pew Research Center. STEM workers have an advantage when it comes to annual pay, earning an average of 26 percent higher salaries than non-STEM workers. Although STEM workers are highly educated, up to a third of them have not completed a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-six percent of STEM workers have a bachelor’s degree, but not a graduate-level degree.
Women have traditionally been underrepresented in the STEM occupations, and cybersecurity is no different. While women make up three-quarters of the health care workforce, they make up just 47 percent of the life science workforce, 14 percent of the engineering workforce, 25 percent of the computer workforce, and 39 percent of physical science jobs.
Cybersecurity, in fact, takes something from each of the STEM disciplines. It is definitely a science, as cybersecurity falls in the category of “computer science.” We know that cybersecurity is also technology, as it deals strictly with the safeguarding and protecting of technologies, and the resulting data, that fuel our daily lives.
Cybersecurity is also closely tied with engineering. In fact, some cybersecurity degrees including engineering education, as this is such a vital part of its understanding. Finally, cybersecurity is heavily reliant on mathematics. Numbers drive computer science and, specifically, cybersecurity. We will examine this further below.
A person who is planning to work in cybersecurity should hold some proficiency in science, engineering, technology and mathematics. Contrary to popular belief, you can still be a creative or artistic person, however, and have mathematical aptitude. Those who enjoy analytical thinking, problem solving and figuring out complex puzzles typically enjoy math and will therefore enjoy working in cybersecurity.
Why Math Goes Hand-in-Hand with Cybersecurity
Mathematics is the foundation of computer science. It only follows, then, that cybersecurity would be heavily reliant on mathematics as well. There are a few mathematical terms and concepts that are central to understanding, and working in, cybersecurity:
- Binary Mathematics – Computer operations are computed using binary math, in things ranging from network routing to establishing IP addresses. Binary numbers are made up of bits (binary digits), each with a value of 0 or 1. A bit is the smallest unit of data, with eight bits making up a byte. Binary math runs all computer operations, including software and machine language.
- Boolean Algebra – This branch of mathematics, invented by George Boole, is used by some computers and programming languages today, including Python – a favorite and oft-used language in cybersecurity
- Hexadecimal Mathematics – This branch of math is based on the idea of 16 different options, not just two as in binary math.
- Computer Coding – An understanding of computer coding is necessary to cybersecurity, and is also based upon math and a grasp of mathematical logic.
- Cryptography – Cybersecurity relies heavily on mathematics in cryptography, which involves the encryption of sensitive data. It secures data against “eavesdropping,” or hacking. Cryptology is like a puzzle, with each number standing for a letter of the alphabet.
- Plaintext: This is what unencrypted data is called
- Cyphertext: This is the term for encrypted data
- Keys: Used in cryptography to encrypt and unencrypt data
- Complex Numbers – This branch of algebra is also called Imaginary Numbers. The letter “i,” which stands for the square root of -1, is used here. Cybersecurity uses complex numbers extensively.
- Algorithms – These are calculable patterns of clear directions that can be implemented by a computer, used to solve problems or complete computations. They are vital to cybersecurity and computer science.
If You Like Math, You Have the Traits Necessary for a Cybersecurity Career
If you love working with numbers, you should have a natural affinity for cybersecurity. A career in cybersecurity emphasizes logic, problem solving, analytical thinking, and decision making. These are all number-based ideas that are often gained through studying mathematics. People who love mathematics and numbers typically show the following traits, which all lend themselves well to a career in cybersecurity:
- You can visualize abstract concepts, spatial connections and quantitative relationships
- You can understand, communicate and model using numbers and symbols
- You can reverse-engineer a problem to find a solution
- You can think analytically without involving feelings
- You can identify and categorize relationships and patterns
- You can use numbers as reasons to justify taking risks
- You can track and follow details
- You are very precise in your work
- You have patience to wait while large, complex problems are being worked out
Using Math in Cybersecurity
Even though an understanding of mathematics can be beneficial to a cybersecurity career, math is not considered to be a skill that is used on a daily basis in cybersecurity. Especially if you wish to advance past an entry-level cybersecurity position into a more advanced job, mathematics can help. Cybersecurity is based upon the idea of risk calculation, which is a mathematical exercise in itself. Sometimes this is a subconscious exercise that cybersecurity professionals undertake. Cybersecurity professionals must often analyze security alerts and make quick risk assessments often to calculate what should be done when an incident does occur. Writing, examining and understanding of computer software code, which is also a skill many cybersecurity professionals must have, requires a good mathematical foundation.
Math Education Required in Cybersecurity
Although mathematics is part of the foundation of cybersecurity, the curricula of most cybersecurity degree programs does not include heavy, intensive high-level math courses. Likewise, the certification examination for one of the most popular cybersecurity certifications, the CompTIA Cybersecurity CSA+ exam, has no mathematical questions at all (although one question refers to regression analysis, which is a mathematical concept).
Examples of math courses that are often seen in undergraduate cybersecurity programs include:
- College Algebra
- Probability and Statistics
- Discrete Mathematics Applications
Most graduate level cybersecurity programs don’t require you to take any math courses (unless they contain a specialization of some sort).
Many certification exams that are common for cybersecurity professionals do, however, ask questions pertaining to mathematics. They include (but are not limited to):
- CompTIA A+
- CompTIA Network+
- CompTIA Security+
- Cisco CCENT (Certified Entry Networking Technician)
- Cisco CCNA (Certified Network Associate)
- Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)
What if I’m Weak in Math But Want to Enter Cybersecurity?
If you aren’t a math lover, don’t fear. Depending upon the stage of your educational level, you can still work on your math skills to bring them up to par with what is necessary in order to become a cybersecurity professional. Tutoring is always a good option, if you need help in math skills. Free or low-cost online tutoring is also available through programs like KhanAcademy.org and Chegg.com.
You can also work on cyber skills online through programs such as Hack the Box, which will give you an idea of your weaknesses in math and other areas, if they exist. Joining cyber clubs at school or online can also help you to determine what, if anything, you still need to learn about math in order to succeed in cybersecurity.
The basis of cybersecurity is mathematics. As cyber breaches continue to occur, the need to improve the quality of computer software and security policies and practices and to remain ahead of the capabilities of cyber criminals increases. To effectively do so, one must understand the role of mathematics in cybersecurity. Networks have a complex behavior that results from the interconnection of simple components – which is the definition of a complex system.
Cybersecurity professionals who understand how to model large-scale networks, discover and detect cyber threats, and understand network dynamics must rely on a comprehension of mathematics and its involvement in information security. Those who are comfortable with and have a working knowledge of mathematics will excel in their cybersecurity careers and in protecting our sensitive data from hackers.