Teenage girls are being targeted as the next generation of UK spies

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Moya Crockett
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In recent weeks and months, the normally shadowy world of cybersecurity – and secret agents – has been thrust into the spotlight. Whether it’s reports of Russian hacking interfering with the US election, or the news that a British former M16 officer was behind a recently published dossier of shocking (and unverified) claims about Donald Trump, the world of James Bond suddenly doesn’t seem especially far-fetched.

But the thing about James Bond is that he’s middle-aged and white – and, you know, a man. Now, in a bid to shake off the image of secret agents as “male, pale and stale”, security services in the UK are targeting a new group for recruitment: teenage girls.

The Telegraph reports that Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) are set to launch a nationwide competition for schoolgirls aged 13 to 15, in a bid to recruit more female cyber spies – like Alicia Vikander’s character Heather Lee in Jason Bourne (above).

The initiative is part of CyberFirst, GCHQ’s TeachFirst-style graduate training scheme. Cybersecurity is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, with tech skills essential for modern-day security service officials.

Spy chiefs hope that thousands of girls from across the UK will apply for the competition when it launches in February, as it is remotely accessible at schools around the country.

A spokesperson for GCHQ says that the competition is a quest “to find the best and brightest candidates to protect the nation from future cyberattacks.”

“Only 10 per cent of the global cyber workforce are female, meaning millions of British women may be missing out on a career they could excel in.”

After signing up to the competition in groups of four, the girls will be sent online tests and challenges in cybersecurity which they can take on their school computers. Questions will be on logic, coding and cryptography (the art of writing or solving codes).

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The 10 highest-scoring teams will then be invited to a national final in London, where they will be given a complex cybersecurity threat to investigate before presenting their findings to a panel of spy chiefs. The prize will be £1,000-worth of IT equipment for the winning team’s school.

“The CyberFirst Girls Competition allows teams of young women a glimpse of this exciting new world and provides a great opportunity to use new skills,” says Robert Hannigan, the director of GCHQ. He adds: “I work alongside some truly brilliant women who help protect the UK from all manner of online threats.”

And Alan Smethers, head of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University, points out that some of the skills needed to excel in cybersecurity will be second nature to teenage girls, who’ve grown up with technology at their fingertips.

“Teenagers use sophisticated technology as an everyday part of their social life and so it is odd that girls shouldn’t think of using these skills in their future careers,” he says. “Girls will see that it isn’t something mysterious but a natural extension of what they do every day through social media.”

Images: Rex Features