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Lancaster Uni’s ‘hackathon’ tests cyber experts of the future

Lancaster University has teamed up with the National Cyber Force (NCF) to deliver a trailblazing ‘hackathon’ event for cyber experts of the future.

The event, the first of its kind delivered by the NCF, saw some of the North West’s brightest young cyber talent put to the test.

Held within cutting-edge computer labs at Lancaster University on Friday, April 12, the hackathon is one of the first major initiatives held by the NCF ahead of the Force’s move to its new home at Samlesbury, Lancashire in 2025.

A high-quality event for young aspiring cyber experts, the hackathon is a result of collaboration between the NCF, Lancaster University and alumni of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) CyberFirst programme – an initiative created by the NCSC to help inspire and develop future cyber professionals.

Providing a series of rapid computer engineering challenges, the hackathon’s participants worked quickly in teams to create new software and hardware while supported by CyberFirst alumni experts.

These activities were designed to teach participants about a range of emerging technologies, how they work and how they can be exploited by cyber criminals – invaluable knowledge to help detect and defend against cyber-attacks.

The challenges included:

· A wearable technology challenge – this saw participants challenged to programme a tiny computer that could fit inside the rim of a hat, but which could also connect to the Internet and communicate with other devices.

· An Internet of Things challenge – IoT is the term given to everyday objects now having computing devices embedded in them, which can pose new risks to data security. This activity saw the students learn how security cameras work and how to control and take screenshots from them.

· Data insights challenge – recent years have seen the rise and proliferation of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, such as large language models. These technologies give rise to potential threats such as mass-disinformation which could impact democratic process around the world. This challenge provided an opportunity for students to understand ethical approaches to using new machine learning models.

Around 40 young people attended the event. Attendees were selected undergraduate students from the North West region who are participating in the CyberFirst programme.

In addition to the challenges, attendees heard from inspirational speakers and received insights into what it is like to work for the NCF as well as the rewarding range of cyber careers on offer to them.

Support for the hackathon was also provided by the Ministry of Defence’s Cyber Specialist Unit, part of the Joint Cyber Reserve Force, who helped to develop the challenges and facilitate the day.

Tabitha, a Hackathon student participant, said: “I’m considering a career in cyber because I want to be at the forefront of technological innovation, as well as helping to protect within this new age of possibilities.

‘’I want to put the skills I’ve learnt to a good purpose and this community has really supported me towards those goals.

Air Vice-Marshal Tim Neal-Hopes OBE, Commander of the National Cyber Force, said: “NCF is committed to nurturing the interests of young people, particularly in the realms of digital and STEM subjects. Our first hackathon, supported by Lancaster University, forms part of a range of activities we are sponsoring in the North West.

‘’These are aimed at higher and further education students as well as graduates, to give them an insight into real world challenges and fulfilling career opportunities, and support employability and digital skills development. We look forward to building on our engagement activity in the county in the run up to 2025 and our arrival in Samlesbury.”

Daniel Prince, Professor in Cyber Security at Lancaster University, said: “This inaugural hackathon is a brilliant experience for highly talented and motivated aspiring cyber experts from our region who want to get an insight into working for the National Cyber Force.

‘’The hackathon challenges provide relevant experience of emerging and developing technologies and threats that cyber experts are grappling with in the real world.

“It is great to work alongside the National Cyber Force to help develop the skills pipeline of young cyber professionals that will be key to ensure the future security of the UK.

“Cyber skills are in high demand and it’s wonderful to see, through this event and other activities Lancaster University is engaged in, that there are so many talented people from the North West developing their skills and exploring cyber as a career.”

Established in 2020, the NCF is a partnership between defence and intelligence comprising GCHQ, the Ministry of Defence, Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). NCF carries out cyber operations to counter and contest those who would do harm to the UK or its allies, to keep the country safe, and to protect and promote the UK’s interests at home and abroad.

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