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Leeds Beckett’s ethical hacking platform wins Innovate UK backing

An ethical hacking and cyber education platform developed at Leeds Beckett University has received a major funding boost to help it launch commercially

A new ethical hacking and cyber security education platform, designed and developed at the Cybercrime and Security Innovation Centre at Leeds Beckett University, is to receive a £32,000 funding boost from the Innovate UK Cyber Academic Startup Accelerator Programme (CyberASAP) as it moves towards a full commercial launch.

The Hacktivity Cyber Labs platform was designed by Z Cliff Schreuders, Leeds Beckett reader in computer security and director of the university’s security innovation centre, and took him nine years of academic research and development (R&D) to bring to fruition.

“Creating hacking challenges for our students helps them to put theory into practice,” said Schreuders. “We want to make it fun and engaging to learn cyber security – so we have been developing a lot of our own software and techniques.”

The platform is a virtual lab environment that is used by computing students to log into virtual machines (VMs) and receive randomly generated, automated security or ethical hacking challenges, personalised to each user. Paul Doney, head of subject for computing at Leeds Beckett, said this element of the platform was a key selling point.

“Most hacking challenges involve manually setting up a challenge which you would use once, and each student would have the exact same challenge,” he said. “Our software creates and automates that process and makes it interesting by randomising it – so that each student has a uniquely configured system and problem and a unique experience.”

Besides hands-on tasks, Hacktivity also includes capture-the-flag games, league tables, progress monitoring, and a chatbot element to provide instant feedback and issue further challenges. This is backed by an extensive content library that maps to the Cyber Security Body of Knowledge (CyBOK) – the UK’s national body of knowledge that informs and underpins education and training in security, and uses this to challenge students’ skills in areas such as systems security, defensive controls, web and network security, ethical hacking and penetration testing, malware analysis, software exploitation, and incident response and investigation.

The funding injection will go towards training Schreuders’ team to develop a value proposition, conduct market research, and further investigate how to ready Hacktivity for public sale. They will then be able to pitch for further funding stages and, through the CyberASAP programme, begin to work with partner organisations on future R&D.

“CyberASAP is a great opportunity to learn from experts how we can commercialise our state-of-the-art platform, grow its user-base outside of the university, and fund its continued growth – including further technical development and content creation,” said Schreuders.

“Hacktivity is a unique and useful resource and has had a great impact on our students. Our open source framework, SecGen, is already used by many internationally, and there is potential for so many more people to gain from what we have developed – from security professionals to other universities and employers.”

Leeds Beckett is one of only nine universities in the UK to have had its cyber security undergraduate degree course accredited by the National Cyber Security Centre, the others being Cardiff Metropolitan University, Edinburgh Napier University, Oxford Brookes University, Royal Holloway University of London, University of Greenwich, University of South Wales and University of Warwick.

Its postgraduate masters course is similarly acknowledged by the NCSC’s scheme, which ultimately seeks to enable both students and employers to make better informed choices about their career paths and hiring choices.

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