Leeds students join the frontline battle against cyber attacks

Students in Leeds are being trained to help tackle the growing cyber threat.
Students in Leeds are being trained to help tackle the growing cyber threat.
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Cyber attacks are a growing threat in the modern world and students at Leeds Beckett University are being primed to help combat them. Chris Bond reports.

SPEAKING last month, George Osborne warned that Daesh, or so-called Islamic State, militants are trying to develop the ability to launch deadly cyber attacks on UK targets such as air traffic control or hospitals.

The Chancellor’s warning came as he announced plans to double UK funding to fight cyber crime to £1.9bn over the next five years.

It followed recent high-profile attacks on phone and broadband provider TalkTalk and adultery website Ashley Madison which suffered a massive breach of its computer systems that led to the outing of millions of its members.

These stories have made headline news in recent months but the war against cyber attacks is now a day to day battle that is requiring ever greater investment and resources in an effort to keep the hackers at bay.

Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, said protecting the UK in cyber space was a “top priority” and pointed to the new skills programme that was recently unveiled as an example of the government’s commitment to tackling the problem.

“The grants we’re announcing will enable universities to develop high quality, innovative teaching and learning, and ensure we have skilled people to address future cyber security challenges,” he said.

Among the latest recruits are students at Leeds Beckett University. Innovative new cyber security software is being developed by researchers at the university, along with those at Birmingham University, after they received an £80,000 grant from the Higher Education Academy (HEA).

The project, led by Dr Z Cliffe Schreuders at Leeds Beckett University and Dr Tom Chothia in Birmingham, will see student intern developers join a team of researchers to develop randomised hacking challenges for students to tackle.

They will work alongside other universities, cyber security educators and industry experts to ensure the students learn the kind of skills they will need for a career in a field that is growing all the time.

Dr Emlyn Butterfield, a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and a colleague of Dr Schreuders, says the need to tackle the cyber threat has never been greater. “You only have to look at the news recently with TalkTalk and Ashley Madison to realise these kind of attacks are occurring. More people are learning how to steal people’s data and we need more security in place to prevent this happening.”

There hasn’t yet been a major cyber terrorist attack, but the fear remains that despite all the sophisticated global security networks at our disposal it’s only a matter of time before one takes place.

“We rely on technology and any kind of disruption, like attack on ATM machines, could cause huge problems. But people in general aren’t aware how big an issue this is.”

Dr Butterfield says the new software will allow students to learn how to attack, defend, design and manage the security of computer systems. “They will learn how to hack into computers and websites and also how to protect them. These different situations replicate what they might face and helps test their skills.”

However, he admits it’s an area where there has been a huge skills shortage. “We’re playing catch up because technology is changing so quickly and we live in a world where we have access to information and data 24/7 and now we need the security to protect that.”

The students in Leeds are being trained to help in the frontline battle against cyber attacks. “Online security has become big business and with companies setting up all the time it’s getting even bigger, not just in the UK but internationally.” It’s a battle that shows no sign of abating.