Encoding Secrets in Mathematics: Junior hired as an intern at the NSA

Univ. Communications – Not many people are able to make it through the whole application process of becoming an intern at the Director’s Summer Program at the National Security Agency. It starts with hundreds of applicants who have superb math backgrounds — a tenth of the pool are offered a conditional acceptance, out of which a third will be hired. These candidates face hours of background checks and security clearances. In-person interviews to judge personality traits and on-the-spot math are taken, as well as polygraph and psychiatric tests. Just 24 students are offered a position.

Sean Al-Gattas ’13 is one of them. A junior majoring in mathematics, he was recently hired to spend the summer working at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The National Security Agency is responsible for providing intelligence services to the Department of Defense, the CIA, and various industry partners. In conflicts, it processes strategic and tactical information to war planners. It is the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians, who figure out ways to protect sensitive domestic information and intercept foreign communications.

Al-Gattas will be working on a daily basis on a project with other NSA mathematicians. It will be confidential and rigorous, and at the end of the summer he is expected to deliver a presentation to the director of the NSA. It not only requires advanced mathematical reasoning, but also the ability to work in a discrete environment.

Much of the work involves cryptography, an ancient science that intersects the disciplines of mathematics, engineering, and in modern times, computer science. “I think of cryptography as the mathematics of keeping secrets,” says Al-Gattas. More than an exclusive language, it’s the technique of keeping a secret in plain sight. Early forms of keeping secrets often involved ciphers, like the scytale, a device used by Spartans involving a message on a strip of parchment that can only be read when wound on a stick. Cryptography is often most important in wartime: World War II saw a massive rise in the numbers of codebreakers devoted to understanding the communications of the other side. In modern times, cryptography has reached into the life of ordinary Americans, providing security for computer passwords and ATM cards.

Although he has sat in on Professor Amanda Beeson’s class, MTH 233: Cryptography, Al-Gattas has never formally received credit for cryptography. As a freshman coming to Rochester from Syracuse N.Y., he intended to major in physics before settling on mathematics. One of his favorite topics is Graph Theory, and he spent the last semester at Penn State studying Ramsey Theory; both require heavy use of abstract reasoning and mathematical modeling. These skills will be useful when Al-Gattas starts working on developing cryptography and related mathematics.

Al-Gattas loves this kind of work, and his enthusiasm for both advanced mathematics and NSA experience is hard to miss. “I’m really excited to do work with the other students in the program. It’s going to be incredible to be working with really talented students and scholars who are among the best at what they do.” Al-Gattas is also active in the campus community. He has been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, works as a TA for various math classes, and plays tuba in Brass Choir. Paul Fili, one of the math professors at Rochester who wrote a recommendation for Al-Gattas for the NSA says that Sean “is both a friendly person and a talented young mathematician with a sharp mind. I’m very pleased to hear he received this opportunity and I’m sure he will do an excellent job.”

Does he have any advice for other undergraduates? “Do your research, and use Google to your advantage. Nobody told me about working at the NSA before, and I sort-of just stumbled on it. It’s a really weird thing that I was able to get this opportunity, but it just goes to show that plenty of things are possible if you try.”

Do you have an interesting internship or job offer this summer? Tell the Rochester community by emailing the editor of The Buzz at thebuzz@rochester.edu.

Article written by Dan Wang, a sophomore at Rochester, who studies philosophy and economics. Photo courtesy of Sean Al-Gattas.