Jonathan Millican is a first-year university student from Harrogate, northern England. He says he does not think of himself as a “stereotypical geek,” but having been crowned champion in Britain’s Cyber Security Challenge, the 19-year-old is bound to take some stick from his undergraduate friends at Cambridge.
The competition is not well known, but it is well contested. About 4,000 people applied to take part this year, hundreds were seen by judges and 30 were selected for the final in Bristol, southwest England, on March 10.
After a day of fighting off hackers and identifying viruses in a series of simulations, Millican triumphed, giving him legitimate claim to be the brightest young computer whiz in the UK.
Though he may not recognize it yet, Millican has become a small player in a global game. There is a dotted line that links him to an ideological battle over the future of the Internet and the ways states will use it to prosecute conflicts in the 21st century.
The remaining Cold War superpower, the US, is slowly squaring up to the emerging behemoth, China, in a sphere in which Beijing has a distinct advantage — cyberspace.
Experts estimate China has as many “cyberjedis” as the US has engineers and some of them, with backing from the state, have been systematically hacking into and stealing from governments and companies in the West, taking defense secrets, compromising computer systems, and scanning energy and water plants for potential vulnerabilities.
The scale of what has been going on is only now being recognized and with a discernible sense of panic, the US and the UK are trying to make up lost ground.
One important way of shoring up the West’s defenses involves recruiting a rival army of computer specialists to defend the systems being attacked.
This is why the UK began the Cyber Security Challenge last year, and why Millican and other participants have been discreetly courted by the Government Communications Headquarters, the UK government’s electronic eavesdropping center, which is on the frontline of this new power struggle.
The explosion in Internet use, and the almost complete reliance on computer systems to run and record our daily lives, have opened up endless opportunities for thieves, spies and vandals to exploit the platform.
Though it is still evolving, the push-back has started. The Guardian has spoken to senior officials in the US and UK governments, as well as specialists and independent think tanks in London, Washington and San Francisco, who agree that the West is galvanizing itself to adopt a far more aggressive approach to a problem for which there is no precedent. The stakes have suddenly become very high.
Over the past 18 months, there has been a concerted effort to highlight the relentless nature of day-to-day attacks on businesses and government departments. The administration of US President Barack Obama estimates that 60 percent of small firms that are hacked go broke and billions of US dollars worth of intellectual property have been stolen from industry, including military blueprints from leading defense contractors.
In the political shadows in London and Washington, cyberspace has been moved more formally into the military sphere, so that those responsible for the attacks understand that retaliation is now part of the game.