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Mathematics of cybersecurity course

Bristol will become only the second university in the UK to offer masters students the opportunity to study the mathematics of cybersecurity. The uni says that mathematics plays a key role in preventing and modelling such security breaches as the NHS ransomware attack, hacking of the Macron campaign and ongoing Fancy Bears leaks of doping records.

The value of underpinning mathematics to cybersecurity is exemplified in GCHQ’s investment in the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research (HIMR), a national institute based in Bristol since 2005. The design of the course has been motivated by discussions with industry, to ensure that graduates from this MSc will have skills that will make them attractive to industry.

Jeremy Ward, Chief Technology Officer of the defence and security product firm QinetiQ, said: “This is a set of topics that will provide a sound grounding with topics covering areas that will be of interest to potential employers. Topics such as machine learning are of immediate interest to QinetiQ and the elective topics, such as quantum computing, will prepare students for the future. I particularly commend the blend of mathematical rigour and the practical side of cybersecurity.”

The strength of most modern cryptographic schemes is underpinned by deep theoretical ideas from areas of pure mathematics such as number theory and combinatorics, relating to topics such as elliptic curves and discrete logarithms. A complementary strand of ideas based on data science and statistics allows intrusion, data exfiltration and other anomalous events in a network to be rapidly and accurately detected. Many cryptographic protocols are likely to be based on ideas from quantum information and quantum computation.

Bristol describes this MSc as research-led and dealing with modern approaches to problems, informed by current real-world practice. Graduates will be able not just to implement existing solutions, but to understand the necessary background, and to know how to develop solutions to problems, the uni said.

The Programme Director, Prof Oliver Johnson from the School of Mathematics, said: “By training mathematicians in cybersecurity, we will create graduates with a sense of rigour and the ability to prove validity of their solutions under a range of conditions. Our discussions with employers in a range of sectors (including defence, technology and financial services companies) indicates that they recognise the value of our approach.”

Although there are Masters’ courses in cybersecurity, they are nearly all based in Computer Science departments, and aimed at Computer Science graduates. Only four other universities provide cybersecurity courses which mention mathematics graduates in their intake, and only one of these is based in a School of Mathematics.

Prof Johnson added: “By recruiting an intake of students with a mathematical background we will ensure that our course has a distinctive focus and skillset, offering an approach which allows our students to gain an in-depth specialism in relevant mathematical techniques that will be valued by employers across the globe.”


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