IN A hot and noisy bunker room a stone’s throw from Downing Street, dozens of people battle a cyber-attack. Programmers huddle around screens, tracking down a virus that has frozen cash machines, online payments and stock flotations. A red-faced man in a suit harangues one sweating coder: “What can I tell the PM?”
This simulation is one of a dozen or so run each year by the Cyber Security Challenge, an outfit funded by government and business that aims to spot whizz kids not yet working in cyber-defence. Global demand for cyber-sentinels will grow about 10% a year to 2017, according to Frost Sullivan, a consultancy. Yet poor training in schools and universities means that British firms are struggling to find skilled staff, says Stephanie Daman, the competition’s boss.
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That threatens the government’s ambition to increase cyber-security exports from £850m ($1.4 billion) in 2012 to £2 billion in 2016. It also makes the country vulnerable. Four-fifths of large businesses and two-thirds of small ones suffered a cyber-attack in 2013, according to a government survey published on April 29th by PwC, an accountancy firm (these range from acts of vandalism to thefts of customer details or commercial information). David Willetts, the universities and science minister, told a gathering of geeks in London that the costs of these breaches has doubled in a year.
The coalition has set up research centres at a dozen universities, promises cyber classes in schools and is bankrolling a free online course for the curious. Last year the Ministry of Defence invited boffins to join a part-time cyber-defence force, which is modelled on conventional army reserves.
It is also spurring drills such as the one beneath Westminster. Last year the government ran exercises designed to educate staff at airports, energy firms and other potential targets. In November techy types in the City of London took part in their own afternoon of cyberwar games. This year a new band of government geeks, the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-UK), is tasked with planning many more.
Yet the cyber-strategy’s overall funding—£860m over six years—looks woeful in comparison with the billions China and America have lavished on their cyber-defences. And about three quarters of the moolah is snaffled by spooks and soldiers, who need not detail what they do with it (in March the army admitted abandoning an anti-hacking system it had spent £46m to produce). Some fear the cash is doing more to boost cyber-weapons and online snooping than aiding Britain’s businesses. That would be a true system error.
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