Jonathan Millican is a walking advertisement for the benefits of a misspent youth.
Growing up in Harrogate, the former St Aidan’s School pupil was fascinated with computers from an early age, but while other friends were spending hours taking their virtual team to the top of the FIFA Football Manager rankings and perfecting their performance on Guitar Hero, Jonathan was busy building his own websites.
While many bemoan the amount of time teenagers spend in the virtual world, it was Jonathan’s obsession with technology, coupled with some impressive A-Level results, which secured him a place at Cambridge University to study computer science and which recently has seen him named the UK’s Cyber Security Champion.
“Computers have been part of my life since as long as I can remember. Both my mum and sister are what you’d probably call computer illiterate, but my dad’s pretty technologically savvy so I guess I’ve followed in his footsteps. I’m not quite sure why, but computer games never really interested me as much as experimenting with different websites. I know a lot of people are put off by technology and think it’s not for them, but it’s part of everyday life these days and I’ve always just found it really fascinating.”
It was while at university that Jonathan spotted the advert for this year’s Cyber Security Challenge. The competition was launched last year in a response to increasing threats to the country’s computer networks from hackers and viruses.
Backed by the Cabinet Office, the idea was to find talented amateurs whose skills might prove vital in the ongoing fight against cybercrime. Latest estimates put the cost to the UK at £27bn a year and every second 19 people across the world become a victim of online crime.
Aside from the letters from Nigeria promising untold riches in return and the unsolicited offers from Russian women, individual companies are often specifically targeted by hackers who can easily exploit systems where security is lax.
“Even though I’m studying computer science I honestly wasn’t aware what a huge problem cybercrime was until I took part in the competition. It’s quite frightening really. People don’t realise that if you’re sat in a coffee shop and logging onto the internet on your phone or laptop, if there is a hacker sat on the next table they can pretty much watch everything you are doing.
“A few years ago when social networking was still in its infancy it wasn’t so much of a problem, but now people have become so used to posting everything they do on line that they often don’t think about the consequences.
“It’s not just individuals, companies are becoming more reliant on the internet, but if they don’t have the right security in place, their entire network could come crashing down. It’s not about scaremongering, but it is about raising awareness.
“I read an article the other day that said hackers have infiltrated all of America’s main networks. Everything from our water to our electricity supply is dependent on computer technology and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how those could be compromised by sophisticated hackers.”
While everyone agrees that cybercrime is a major threat, there has actually been a 50 per cent drop in the number of young people entering the IT industry during the last five years.
The Cyber Security Challenge was set up in a response to the decline and saw Jonathan compete against thousands of other candidates. After completing an online test, 30 of the best were invited down to take part in the finals in Bristol which replicated a real-life scenario.
“The first thing we had to do when we got down there was sit a psychometric test,” says Jonathan. “I find those things a bit disconcerting. I always think I’m a pretty well-rounded individual, but you do wonder what subconscious personality traits they’ll uncover.
“After making it through the first round, for the final challenge we were given a fictional set-up and basically had to find the flaws in the computer system and then put a security system in place.
“To be honest when the network started coming under attack from all these different bugs I had no idea what was going on. Everything happened so quickly, but I guess that’s what it’s like in the real world. The night before the winner was announced one of the judges asked me how I’d thought it had gone and I said, ‘Honestly? I thought I was the weakest link in the team’. No-one could have been more surprised than me when my name was read out.”
Jonathan’s win makes it two out of two for Yorkshire. Last year, the very first challenge was won by Wakefield postman Dan Summers. While the 33-year-old had a background in IT, he’d left the industry to set up his own business. When that venture didn’t take off, he took a casual delivery job with the Royal Mail.
A year on, he’s swapped the daily round for a desk job and is now one of a team of people who are dedicated to protecting the Royal Mail from cyber attacks.
With two years of his degree still to go, Jonathan has no plans to become a professional cyber crime fighter just yet, but winning the competition has guaranteed him a place at numerous conferences as well as a bursary which will fund a specialist course at Royal Holloway University.
To prepare for future public speaking, he recently went back to his old school to talk to pupils.
“I know people think that anyone who works in computers is a bit of a nerd,” says Jonathan.
“I’m sure there are people who spend their every waking moment hunched over a computer and don’t see daylight for weeks, but honestly we’re not all like that. I’m sure some people might tell you otherwise, but I like to think that I’m a pretty normal 19-year-old.”