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A & S News

Unlocking Encryption with Math

June 18, 2009

The excerpt below is taken from "Number Sense and Sensibility: Math in a Modern World" by Leslie J. Thompson and originally appeared in the spring issue of the Arts and Sciences Magazine.

When was the last time you made a withdrawal at an ATM? Or had a prescription filled? Perhaps you recently ordered a gift online, or downloaded pictures from your digital camera to your computer.

Most of us take everyday activities like these for granted, giving little thought to the inventions behind them. But all of these scenarios share a common factor: They would not be possible without mathematics.

This is the realm of the professors and students in the Mathematics and Statistical Sciences departments whose mission it is to research complex problems and to devise solutions that become tomorrow's technology breakthroughs. From pharmaceuticals to aeronautics, from electrical engineering to cryptology, Baylor's mathematics and statistics students and instructors are making an impact on the world around us.

Sending Secret Messages

One of the most commonly recognized areas of mathematics in modern society is cryptology, which is the science of creating and reading secret messages. Though historically developed for use by the government and the military, cryptology is now used daily by ordinary citizens in today's technology-driven society.

"If you're sending e-mail, that could be encrypted," notes Dr. David Arnold, the Ralph and Jean Storm Professor of Mathematics at Baylor. "Online purchases, ATM machine transactions, cell phones--you see examples of encryption in all those areas."

Theoretically, cryptology appears simple to understand as a means of creating a secret code to safeguard information. However, because of digital communication, the modern process of cryptology is quite complex. Arnold helps his students understand the mathematics that underlie the solutions to common problems, like sending a wire transfer between banks, safeguarding voters' privacy in electronic voting machines, or preventing high-definition DVDs from being pirated. Using these skills, his students have gone on to work for the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency.