Do You Need Math for Cybersecurity?

Math is a topic that is a challenge for a lot of people, and therefore a topic that may scare away some who might be interested in getting into cyber security, because they may assume that cyber security requires a lot of math.  Let’s take a look at how much math you can be expected to know if you pursue a career in cyber security.

So, do you need math for cyber security?  Entry level cyber security careers generally only require basic math concepts that are used in binary, cryptography or programming tasks.  Higher level math concepts such as calculus are not required in most cyber security positions, but may be a requirement in certain cyber security degree programs or advanced level careers.  

Now that you know that advanced math concepts such as calculus will probably not be a part of your job requirements for quite a while, let’s take a look at just how much of those basic math concepts we may see in our cyber security careers.

Binary math – the basis of computer data

A lot of the math you’ll be required to know in entry level cyber security or support positions will relate to binary math, since binary is how computer operations are computed and in a more practical way, how we determine important things like IP addresses and networks.

So, what is binary math?  Binary math is simply the conversion from any piece of data into a group of ones and zeros.  We have to make this conversion because computers can only process this binary data. You’ve probably seen something like the before, where a computer can read a string of numbers made of ones and zeros, such as 100011011001010, which it understands to be some other value, such as a number, text or picture, for example.  In fact, every piece of data on the internet or on any computer device, including tablets and cell phones, is at its core just a bunch of binary.

Math is a topic that is a challenge for a lot of people, and therefore a topic that may scare away some who might be interested in getting into cyber security, because they may assume that cyber security requires a lot of math.  Let’s take a look at how much math you can be expected to know if you pursue a career in cyber security.

So, do you need math for cyber security?  Entry level cyber security careers generally only require basic math concepts that are used in binary, cryptography or programming tasks.  Higher level math concepts such as calculus are not required in most cyber security positions, but may be a requirement in certain cyber security degree programs or advanced level careers.  

Now that you know that advanced math concepts such as calculus will probably not be a part of your job requirements for quite a while, let’s take a look at just how much of those basic math concepts we may see in our cyber security careers.

Binary math – the basis of computer data

A lot of the math you’ll be required to know in entry level cyber security or support positions will relate to binary math, since binary is how computer operations are computed and in a more practical way, how we determine important things like IP addresses and networks.

So, what is binary math?  Binary math is simply the conversion from any piece of data into a group of ones and zeros.  We have to make this conversion because computers can only process this binary data. You’ve probably seen something like the before, where a computer can read a string of numbers made of ones and zeros, such as 100011011001010, which it understands to be some other value, such as a number, text or picture, for example.  In fact, every piece of data on the internet or on any computer device, including tablets and cell phones, is at its core just a bunch of binary.

To work with this binary math, you’ll need to understand some basic algebra based on the power of two, which gives us values like 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and so on.  After you become familiar with how binary works, you’ll start to understand things like how the number 12 is written in binary as 1100, for example. Let’s take a closer look:

In a basic binary string of four digits, we can expect that the first digit has the value of 8, followed by the value of 4, then 2 and finally 1, like this:  8,4,2,1. When a binary number is set to a one, that means that the bit is on, or is to be counted. So a binary string of 1,1,0,0 turns on or adds the 8 value and the 4 value, totaling 12.  When we write the binary, we do not include the commas shown in the example, so we end up with 1100 signaling a value of 12.

Hexadecimal math – Another way to represent data

With binary math, you know that we had two options for each character, being either a one or a zero.  Hexadecimal is another common math-based concept in cyber security, which is based on the idea that we can count up to any one of 16 different options.  We count these options from 0 to 15, giving us those sixteen total choices. Since our one digit numbers only range from 0 to a 9 (10 takes up two digits), we have to represent everything from 10 up to 15 as something else, in this case using the letters A through F, like this:

10 = A

11 = B

12 = C

13 = D

14 = E

15 = F

With that in mind, we can see that if we want to tell the computer we mean the number 12, we would type the letter “C”.  So if you’re following along, you may have picked up that the number 12 can be shown in binary as 1100 or in hexadecimal as C.

Of course, the next step would be to string several of these characters together to get larger numbers, but what we’re looking at here is the basis for how hexadecimal works.  The point here is that with a little bit of study, anyone can get the hang of binary and hexadecimal, and you won’t even need to complete Calculus III to do it.

Math required for computer programming

Most entry level cyber security jobs will require minimal computer coding or programming, but if you do have to code something, there will be some math involved.  A lot of this math has to do with programming concepts like constraints, variables, and programming logic. For example, you may see basic computer code like this:

IF value < 0 THEN
 PRINT “less than zero”
ELSEIF value > 0 THEN
 PRINT “more than zero”
ELSE
 PRINT “exactly zero”
END IF

Obviously this is a very basic example of computer code, but from this you can see that you’ll need to have an understanding of mathematical logic and how a computer will interpret information like this.  Because computer code can get a good bit more complex, many computer science degree programs that focus on programming do require higher level math classes. Again, this doesn’t always apply to cyber security degree programs, but some programming degrees that dabble in both cyber security and computer science will require some higher level math coursework.

Math in Cryptography

Cryptography is the science of codes and encryption, which is obviously a big part of cyber security and keeping our data safe.  The math used in cryptography can range anywhere from the very basic to highly advanced, all based on what it’s being used for. Just like in the math examples above, the level and difficulty of the math that you’ll have to work with will depend on how far you decide to go in your career.  Some basic cryptography may look something like this:

A = A

B = B

C = C

Then we can apply a cryptography concept such as ROT, which stands for rotation.  Perhaps we use ROT2, which just means that everything rotates or shifts by 2, giving us:

A = C

B = D

C = E

In this example, someone would have to know that you’re using a rotation of 2 to decrypt the data.  Again, the math can get much more detailed, but generally it isn’t as challenging as what might be seen in other fields, such as computer programming or engineering.

Is math on certification exams?

Most of the entry level cyber security certification exams require only the basic math concepts that are discussed in this article.  If you decide to pursue any of the basic CompTIA certifications, such as A+, Network+ and Security+, than you’ll need to be familiar with hexadecimal and binary and how they work within a secure network environment.  The same would be true for other certifications, such as the Cisco CCENT or CCNA or Microsoft’s MCP.

Related Questions

Do I have to get a college degree to get into cyber security?  You don’t need to have a degree in cyber security to get a job, but you’ll need to find another way to acquire those skills and demonstrate them to an employer.  Also, your long term career options will probably be limited if you don’t pursue a college degree.

What things should I look for in a college cyber security program?  Any college cyber security program that offers a feasible schedule at a reasonable price and provide hands on lab practice opportunities where you can learn the skills is worth looking into.  Overly expensive exam cram programs or boot camps, or those programs that only accept full-time enrollment may not be the best option for most people.

Matt Day

Matt Day

Matt Day is a cybersecurity professional with over twenty years of experience in the IT, cybersecurity and technology training fields. He has a degree in Computer Information Science and CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+, Server+, CySA+, and Cisco CCNA certifications. Matt is the author of the book CCENT Troubleshooting Guide.