13 Aug 2011

Cyber warfare: teens fighting for national security

Channel 4 News has been granted unprecedented access to the cyber security firm Qinetiq and spoken to the teenagers who are helping protect the UK Government from cyber attacks.

Qinetiq provides critical cyber security services to the UK government.

Formerly an elite unit in the Ministry of Defence, the now privatised Qinetiq provides critical security services to the Government and large businesses.

The company also sponsors a programme to find the next generation of cyber defenders by organising exercises which require applicants to shield a network from an attack.

18-year-old Lucy Robson, who was recruited by Qinetiq through the programme, says the work is “challenging and different”.

“It is important to understand the anatomy of an attack because then you can pre-empt the sort of things that are going to happen – damage limitation, that sort of thing.

It is important to understand the anatomy of an attack because then you can preempt the sort of things that are going to happen. Lucy Robson, Qinetiq worker

“There is an element of unpredictability there too. You can never be sure what’s going to happen next or what someone’s motivations are for doing it,” she said.

In films like the James Bond franchise, being a Government IT expert is portrayed as being sexy and well paid, but in reality, the head of the Government listening station, GCHQ, told a Parliamentary committee held in secret that he struggles to recruit and retain the brightest and best.

Conservative MP Mark Field, from the Intelligence and Security Select Committee, warned that cyber defenders often leave jobs that defend national security for more lucrative salaries with commercial corporations.

“Once you have a good couple of years in the field, and state-of-the-art experience, your skills are like gold dust.

“Very easily you can get snapped up by large players in the commercial world, partiularly in defence or the technology industry,” Mr Field said.

State-led threats

Although groups Anonymous and LulzSec have dominated headlines for their recent hacking exploits, Qinetiq remains more concerned about the threat by sophisticated state-led attacks.

Millions of pounds are being spent on defending national security against cyber-warfare.

One of Iran’s nuclear reactors was disrupted by the Stuxnet virus in July last year. The attack is believed to have been sanctioned at state level, possibly by Israel.

Last year, Google accused Chinese hackers of stealing some of the company’s source code. But Beijing has strongly denied working with professional hackers and insists the Chinese government has been targeted.