The skills behind the screens

Senior reporter

If there’s anything I’ve learnt from Spooks, it’s that hackers come in all shapes and sizes. Shielded by a computer screen, their identity is reduced to a set of numbers, and their motives can be just as mysterious.

Even so, I was surprised to meet the ethical hackers at Qinetiq’s Network Defence Competition – a group of teenagers, a former hard house DJ and a professional actor – all identified as being amongst the UK’s top cyber security experts.

The competition was launched as part of the Cyber Security Challenge designed to seek out hidden talent. Four teams were pitted against QinetiQ’s own security professionals. Their aim was to secure IT networks against a series of ‘real life’ live challenges posed by the company’s group of penetration testers and security specialists.

Meeting on the eve of the competition, Team Glitch and Team DFEY were understandably nervous. From a lighthearted game they had completed in their living rooms, they now found themselves in Qinetiq’s high-security complex surrounded by dark suits and endless white corridors.

‘It is a little bit daunting,’ said Tim Dobson from Team DFEY. ‘We did this for a bit of fun. I never really expected to get here… Initially I wasn’t interested in cyber code breaking, in fact I failed my college course in IT. I guess there is a certain irony there. We just didn’t have teachers with the right skill-set.’

This seemed to be a common theme throughout the day. Both the competition entrants and Qinetiq’s own cyber experts said that they never considered cyber security as a career. Often it was a hobby developed in their own time rather than something they took seriously. The education system discouraged rather than nurtured their interest.

But with cyber attacks now listed as one of the greatest threats to Britain’s national security, the government needs to change this quickly. A recent report by UMTS Forum predicts the global existence of one billion consumer electronics devices that will be connected to mobile broadband networks by 2016.

While this is great for modern society, it also makes us extremely vulnerable. The message the industry is giving is clear; our infrastructure could collapse within seconds if the issues of cyber security are not addressed.

The government is now on the lookout for new talent, and 78,000 jobs in the UK are expected to be created within the next four years. Another Cyber Security Challenge will take place later this year.

If you think you’ve got the makings of a cyber security expert, test your skills against public ciphers here. You never know, you could be one of Britain’s most valuable security assets.