At the heart of a police operation to defend Britain from attack by cybercriminals, a 14-year-old boy was honing his skills to thwart hackers linked to a rogue state.
Ben Abrahmason was among a group who on Friday gathered at a military base in Wiltshire, England, to counter fictional, but sophisticated cyberattacks.
British police chiefs and intelligence officers hope young people like Ben will become the latest recruits in the rapidly evolving war.
“A lot of it is like normal forensics. There are fingerprints, DNA, except it’s digital,” said Ben, from Leicestershire, England. “You examine phones, laptops, hard drives: The data on them can help you solve crimes.”
He had passed rigorous online tests to be selected to spend the day being tutored by experts from the British National Crime Agency.
Police have said it is important for them to woo talented hackers who might be tempted, out of boredom or greed, to target companies or even work for criminals.
“They might be phenomenally talented, but not old enough for us to offer them anything, so we have to keep them interested and prevent them going to the dark side,” said Colin Lobley, chief executive of Cyber Security Challenge UK, which organizes a series of national competitions to identify the best potential “cyberdefenders.”
He was referring to the network of cybercriminals that Europol has said is responsible for launching 4,000 ransom attacks a day and whose technological capability threatens critical parts of the financial sector.
The British government’s National Cyber Security Centre in its annual review last year revealed that it had responded to 590 significant incidents, including attacks on key national institutions such as the UK National Health Service, and the British and Scottish parliaments.
Christopher Williams, 18, from south London, is another who wants to help defend the UK’s critical infrastructure from cyberattack.
“Anyone who’s a good citizen wants to help their country. It’s exciting to know you can still help protect your community and your country, to defend the UK using forensic skills to provide support for British troops overseas and the likes of MI6,” Williams said.
There was another pressing reason for Friday’s event: A gaping skills shortage threatens the rapidly expanding cybersecurity sector.
Robert Hannigan, the former head of GCHQ, the intelligence and security agency, has predicted a “huge skills shortage” by 2025.
Craig Jones, head of preparing cybercapability at the crime agency, said that if the UK failed to recruit top-level talent, it would not be able to keep pace with criminals.
“It’s simple: We are going to struggle. We need the best people to progress, though we also need to recognize that people are not going to stay for a 30-year career in law enforcement,” Jones said.
One area where recruitment must improve is in attracting more women to the sector.
On Friday, only three of the 30 contestants were women, a ratio that broadly mirrors the UK sector as a whole.
Only about 8 percent of UK jobs in cybersecurity are filled by women, compared with 11 percent globally.
Del Rattenbury joined the crime agency in 2014 and said that becoming a cybersecurity investigator could make the difference between life and death.
She said that one of her operations had helped reduce deaths from the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, which had been linked to particular drug producers in China and suppliers on the dark Web.
Other investigations had identified women who had been trafficked.
“You are protecting some of the most vulnerable people in society, saving lives,” she said.
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