Student code breakers set cyber security challenge

Students at some of the UK’s leading university computer science departments are going head-to head to prove their cyber security skills by battling it out in an online code-breaking challenge.

Cyber Security Challenge UK, which runs a series of national competitions aimed at attracting young people into cyber security careers, will ask students and lecturers at four universities to create complex security puzzles, or “ciphers”, which the other participants will then attempt to crack. The most successful department will be named University Cipher Champion.

The computer science departments taking part are based at Edinburgh Napier University, University College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Birmingham. The four-week virtual tournament begins on 21 January, with a different university’s cipher released each week.

A scoring system has been developed by cyber security professionals at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with each university receiving marks for the ingenuity of their cipher design, their code-cracking success rate, and for the difficulty of their own cipher.

“Partly it’s about encouraging universities to look more closely at ways of teaching [cyber security] that will feed into the employment market,” said Stephanie Daman, chief executive of Cyber Security Challenge UK. “A lot of universities have realised it’s an important subject that needs to be addressed, and this challenge is a way of raising awareness.”

Tom Chothia, a lecturer in computer science at the University of Birmingham, added: “Our online bank accounts, mobile phone voice mails and personal information are all under threat from cyber attacks.

“The Cyber Security Challenge will help us inspire and train the next generation of cyber security experts, who will be our best defence against these kinds of attacks.”

Ms Daman said the UK has a world-class academic base in cyber security, and that there were plans to roll out the competition to more universities.

“We are running this as a pilot with the ambition to encourage more university departments to take part in 2013-14 as we embark on a dedicated education programme featuring university-based cyber camps and a set of competitions specifically designed for students.”

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