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Child cyber exploration good for the UK, says ex-GCHQ head

Children should be encouraged to spend more time online learning cyber skills to inspire future generations of computer scientists, cyber defenders and engineers, says former GCHQ head

The UK is desperately short of cyber skills, and parents should allow children more opportunities to learn by seeing and doing things online, according to Robert Hannigan, director of UK surveillance agency GCHQ from 2014 to 2017.

“The best thing we can do is focus less on the time they spend on screens at home and more on the nature of the activity,” he wrote in article for the Telegraph. “The key is less passive watching and more inquisitive discovery, whether of the content of the internet or how it works.”

Hannigan, who announced his intention to stand down as the director of GCHQ in January, was responding to recent remarks made by the children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield who urged parents to moderate their children’s use of social media in the same way they limit junk food.

She said very young children are on the internet for more than eight hours a week, while 12 to 15-year-olds spend more than 20 hours a week online, according to Sky News.

Although allowing that there needs to be a balance of risk and children need some protection because there are “bad things and bad people” online, Hannigan said young people need to be encouraged to explore the digital world to teach themselves the broader cyber skills the UK needs to keep pace with its competitors.

“If we are to capitalise on the explosion of data that will come through the internet of things [IoT], and the arrival of artificial intelligence and machine learning, we need young people who have been allowed to behave like engineers: to explore, break things and put them together,” he wrote.

According to Hannigan, the failure to nurture an inquisitive engineering mindset in the past has resulted in the fact that currently only 9% of UK engineering graduates are women, compared with 18% in Germany and 36% in Denmark.

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In March 2017, he called on every UK organisation to do more to encourage women into the information security profession in the face of a growing skill shortage.

“If we are not tapping into women, we are depriving ourselves of a massive talent pool,” he told the CyberUK conference in Liverpool.

In the UK, the proportion of women in cyber security stands at just 8%, and men earn an average of 15.5%, or around £11,000, more than women, according to the latest Global information security workforce study (GISWS) by information security certification consortium body (ISC)2.

GCHQ is pursuing various initiatives to encourage more women to work in computer science and cyber security, such as a competition exclusively for girls aged 13 to 15 that attracted around 8,000 participants competing in teams from more than 2,000 schools.

He also said a lot of GCHQ recruitment is based on aptitude rather than science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) qualifications as well as through apprenticeships for school-leavers.

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