The 37 contestants of the competition
The 37 contestants of the competition

In an effort to attract more women into the cyber-security profession, the National Cyber Security Centre has formed the CyberFirst Girls competition, the winners of which have been praised for their security skills after impressing judges with their code-cracking abilities at a UK final.

A total of 37 girls representing 10 teams travelled to London from all over the country, and gathered at the historic Lancaster House in the heart of Westminster to pit their technological wits against girls from other schools.

The competition saw more than 8000 young women aged 13-15 from across the UK enter online heats in teams of three or four. The contest was created to raise more awareness of careers in cyber-security amongst girls, since only seven percent of the global workforce is female.

For the final, Lancaster House was transformed into a live-action cyber-centre to test the girls' security skills through a series of challenging scenarios.

By reaching the final, the schools finished in the top 0.5 percent of entrants, and took part in a full day of digital investigation to unravel a fictional mystery that had seen the fictional Paddock Hill School website hacked.

As they worked their way through the challenges to find clues to unravel the hack, they were supported by tech industry champions Miriam González (Inspiring Girls International's founder), Dido Harding (TalkTalk's chief executive), Sian John (Symantec's chief strategist), Dr Nicola Hodson (Microsoft's general manager of marketing and operations) and Jacqueline de Rojas (TechUK's president).

They then presented their findings to a panel of Industry Champions, featuring Dido Harding, Miriam González and NCSC directors Alison Whitney and Chris Ensor, where the Lancaster Girls' Grammar School were the eventual winners, after finding a total of 28 cyber clues about the hackers' identity.

Before the winner was announced, Miriam González said: “We have so few women in the STEM sector, and seeing what I have this afternoon that is impossible to understand. Everybody here is good enough to work in the sector. Please stick to it – whether it's in cyber-security or something similar. Stick to it. You couldn't have been any more impressive, it was incredibly professional. I was truly impressed by the talent of the girls who have taken part of the competition and I do hope that many of them pursue a career in the technology field.”

The winning team took home individual prizes and their school will receive IT equipment to the value of £1000 which were presented with the prizes by Miriam González, founder of Inspiring Girls International and a partner in the law firm Dechert.

Emily Shackleton (15), one of the winning pupils from Lancaster Girls Grammar School, said: “The thing we enjoyed most about the competition was the ability to see our progress. There was nothing that could be improved about the contest, and the aesthetic on the website was fantastic. We were also quite pleased to find out the final was being held in somewhere called Lancaster House!”

Alison Whitney, the deputy director for digital services at the NCSC, said: “All of the girls were very worthy finalists – the standard of work was incredibly high and we were very impressed with their work. Having worked in cyber-security for over a decade I would recommend working in cyber-security to any young woman hoping to make a positive impact on the world. Cyber-security is increasingly important to help people live and work online, and we hope CyberFirst Girls will help young women develop skills that could lead to a dynamic and rewarding career.”

The government is fully committed to defending against cyber-threats and address the cyber-skills gap to develop and grow talent. A five year National Cyber Security Strategy (NCSS) was announced in November 2016, supported by £1.9 billion of transformational investment.

The NCSC was opened by the Queen in February 2017 and provides a single, central body for cyber-security at a national level. It manages national cyber-security incidents, carries out real-time threat analysis and provides tailored sectoral advice.