Late last month, I joined a Sky TV crew, national journalists and a troupe of Britain’s finest amateur cyber defenders inside QinetiQ’s UK headquarters to get an insight into how those at the cutting edge of technology are helping incubate the future skills needed to create a safer UK cyber space.
We had been invited into “The Portal”, a 6,000 square foot experimentation centre where the battlefield innovations of the future come to life on an enormous real-time Analysis, Modelling and Simulation screen, a giant window into the military technology of tomorrow.
We were about to be transported onto the front line of cyber-crime, as the facility morphed into the setting for a simulated cyber-attack pitting 20 amateur ‘ethical hackers’ against a terrorist group under the watchful eye of assessors from GCHQ, BT and the National Crime Agency. It was all part of the Cyber Security Challenge UK, an ambitious national cyber talent search backed by Government and industry giants.
At 10:00am, 20 candidates huddled together to get the brief from QinetiQ’s Chief Technology Officer Bryan Lilley; their first mission is to scour the networks of a multinational publishing giant for vulnerabilities which hackers might exploit. This is a demonstration of ‘ethical hacking’ where cyber professionals attempt to break into an organisation’s defences and sniff out chinks in their security armoury, to pre-empt a potential cyber-attack. The idea is that you need to be able to think and act like the enemy in order to stay one step ahead of them.
The air is filled with excitement and a tinge of nerves as contestants enter ‘The Portal’, where they will face a realistic cyber-terror attack modelled on real-world events, with all the action tracked on a big-screen and captured by a Sky News film crew. As the lights dim, a masked hacker group flashes up on screen threatening an attack on the UK, and the race to prevent cyber-disaster begins.
Amidst the worried faces, complex wiring and scrolling code, the presence of talent scouts from police and intelligence agencies is a stark reminder that this virtual world is the new front line in the war on crime, a new battle without rules or borders in which the enemy is invisible.
The National Crime Agency’s Kevin Williams explains to a Sky presenter that organised crime is increasingly moving into cyberspace, thrusting law enforcement professionals into new territory where criminals operate across borders, concealed behind virtual masks. Interestingly, he says the skills police require to hunt the new breed of criminal are similar to those used by old-school detectives; online criminals leave a digital footprint just as burglars leave a DNA trail, so that the keyboard will become the future Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass.
And today’s precocious amateurs display the same inquisitive minds and problem-solving nous as experienced detectives, gradually piecing together digital clues into a coherent picture of their online nemesis. As law enforcement and counter-terrorism migrate online, it is also opening paths into the profession for a new kind of professional. Cyber security may once have been confined to techies, but it is now a diverse discipline attracting psychologists, law graduates and people with many goals and ideals. One national journalist asked an IT student why he chose to turn his IT skills to cyber security instead of ‘glamorous’ graphic design job, and he replied that cyber security had a uniquely ethical dimension and was as much about protecting people as solving riddles.
As the profession is increasingly tasked with defending life and liberty, it may help to attract a new generation of ‘ethical hackers’ who express their idealism through their keyboards.
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