Image: Jonathan Millican
Raphael Satter  /  AP
Cambridge University student Jonathan Millican, the champion of the UK Cyber Security Challenge, shows off his trophy at the Science Museum in Bristol on Sunday.
updated 3/11/2012 4:50:54 PM ET 2012-03-11T20:50:54

Amateur cybersleuths have been hunting malware, raising firewalls and fending off mock hack attacks in a series of simulations supported in part by Britain's eavesdropping agency.

The games are intended to pull badly needed talent into the country's burgeoning cybersecurity sector, according to former Security Minister Pauline Neville-Jones, who spoke at a closing ceremony held Sunday at the Science Museum in the English port city of Bristol.

"The flow of people we have at the moment is wholly inadequate," she said, warning of a skills gap "which threatens the economic future of this country."

The exercises, dubbed the Cyber Security Challenge, are intended to help bridge that gap, drawing thousands of participants who spent weeks shoring up vulnerable home networks, cracking weak codes and combing through corrupted hard drives in a series of tests designed by companies such as British defense contractor QinetiQ and data security firm Sophos.

The competition was closed to cybersecurity professionals, and many of the 4,000-odd participants — such as the 19-year-old winner, Cambridge University student Jonathan Millican — were aspiring computer scientists. Others were engineers or simple hobbyists.

The challenge was supported in part by British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and Scotland Yard's e-crimes unit — a sign of the government's concern with supporting a rapidly developing field.

Senior GCHQ official Jonathan Hoyle made a brief speech Sunday, inviting Millican and other prize-winners to come visit the secretive organization's headquarters in Chelthenham, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) northwest of London.

Millican was excited by the prospect, saying: "It's not somewhere many people just go."

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