Dan Galbraith was only eight when he first hacked his dad's computer. Upon trying to install a piece of software he'd gotten from some kind of ‘horrible histories' promotion, the young Dan was confronted with a password screen. He promptly looked up how to get around the screen and downloaded the much-coveted Horrible Histories software.
Dan likes to explore. “Let's poke it with a stick and see if it moves,” he says, which is the driving instinct behind his interest in cyber-security.
It was that instinct that led him to hack into his school's computer network, for which he was later given work in their IT department. It was that instinct, at the tender age of 17, that put him on a London stage today, showcasing his contribution to a new game, the first of its kind, meant to train and test the aspiring cyber-security professionals of the future.
Cyber Security Challenge UK is a government-backed scheme to help close the gaping skills gulf in UK cyber-security by encouraging young people to pursue careers in the field.
It describes the game, Cyphinx, as “a 3D virtual skyscraper that acts as a gateway to a host of cyber-security games, competitions and ciphers - as well as recruitment opportunities.”
Modelled in part on the immensely popular massive multiplayer online games (MMOs), such as the teenager-enthralling World of Warcraft, Cyphinx was developed in partnership with ProCheckUp and Clearswift as well as talented young aspirants as young as 12.
Users create a character, putting them into ‘the skyscraper' and from there, it serves as a portal to a number of other games to test and train various users in cyber-security disciplines including network defence, ethics, forensic analysis and risk analysis.
The skyscraper is in its early stages and might not appear to be the next World of Warcraft at first glance, but that will change. This was “a beta for me”, says Jay Abbott, the creator of Cyphinx and the founder of JustASC, a cyber-security consultancy, who has big plans for its future.
Currently, users have to play the various games in different tabs linked from the central skyscraper, but Abbott wants to see a more fully integrated game. This is the “day one victory,” but moving forward Abbott wants Cyphinx to become more and more like the MMOs that have proved so popular with young people.
He wants to see more “role-based, story-based” games where users are immersed in the experience and “learn along the way” as well as expand the number of games which users can play.
Cyphinx has made a start. The game that Dan made sets up users with a scenario where they have to find malware using knowledge of, among other things, cryptography.
Earlier in the morning, Abbott presented the attendees with an example of their forensic analysis game. Players were given the task of finding a potentially threatening hacker by searching the internet through social media accounts and other online tools for a series of clues that led to the culprit.
“I grew up gaming,” says Abbott, adding that now “we have a whole generation that grew up gaming.”
Many of the skills “we're looking for in cyber are the same as in games”, Abbott added. Providing a hook with which to harness skills players might not even know they had is central to Cyphinx.
Cyphinx also mobilises Minecraft, the much beloved construction game, which Abbott plays with his nine-year old daughter.
The strength of the platform is twofold. While providing interested young people with a means of training and testing themselves towards a possible future in cyber-security, it also helps to fill the widening skills gap in British cyber-security.
"Amidst the chronic shortage of cyber professionals, there is a wealth of talent which is still untapped,” said Stephanie Daman, CEO of the Cyber Security Challenge. "This is the next logical step to inspire an audience who may not yet even know that cyber is the career for them.”
Sponsored by an array of large companies, all looking to the horizon for talent to help protect them against the cyber-threats of the future, Cyphinx provides a conveyor belt for training and employing that talent.
“As they work their way through the games, players' scores are entered onto leader boards for cyber-security related disciplines,” a press release from Cyber Security Challenge explains, “showcasing their individual cyber-skills and creating a digital CV in the process.”
Among the sponsors of the project are the leading lights of the UK security industry including PWC, GCHQ, BAE systems, Airbus, the National Crime Agency, Airbus and the SANS Institute.
With this “host of Challenge sponsors supporting the development of Cyphinx as the natural evolution of UK cyber gaming, players are almost guaranteed to cross paths with some of the cyber security industry's most prominent employers,” the release continues.
ProCheckUp has already employed one lucky young employee, and expects to take on more. Dan's interest in cyber-security came because he was curious; that curiosity can become unexpectedly lucrative for those who started out of mere interest.“Before you know it, someone's offering you an 80 grand job,” says Abbott. Who knows? Turning that curiosity into skill and contribution to the UK's information security, might just be what Cyphinx gives us.