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Enigma codebreaking site to become elite UK cyber defense school

Bletchley Park, where British codebreakers famously cracked Nazi Germany’s Enigma cypher, is to become home to the country’s future cyber defenders.

An elite school for talented teen hackers is planned for the site, to open in 2018.

During World War II the mansion house in Buckinghamshire, England, was home to the British government’s Code and Cypher School, whose critical but top secret work has become well known through books and movies like the Oscar-winning “The Imitation Game.”

BLETCHLEY, ENGLAND - JUNE 03: A general view of The National Museum of Computing, formerly known as Block H during World War II, Bletchley Park on June 3, 2016 in Bletchley, England. During World War II British codebreakers helped decypher the German Army's Lorenz cypher using the Colossus computer and Tunny machine at the Government Code and Cypher School's (GC&CS) main codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The machines at Bletchley Park's Block H, the world's first purpose-built computer centre, helped gather crucial intelligence for the British military during the war. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

BLETCHLEY, ENGLAND – JUNE 03: A general view of The National Museum of Computing, formerly known as Block H during World War II, Bletchley Park on June 3, 2016 in Bletchley, England. During World War II British codebreakers helped decypher the German Army’s Lorenz cypher using the Colossus computer and Tunny machine at the Government Code and Cypher School’s (GC&CS) main codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The machines at Bletchley Park’s Block H, the world’s first purpose-built computer centre, helped gather crucial intelligence for the British military during the war. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

It was here that codebreakers like Alan Turing successfully cracked Germany’s Enigma encryption system, allowing them to intercept the enemy’s communications and hastening the end of the war.

Now the site is to become home to the UK’s first National College of Cyber Security, to open once a £5 million ($6.2 million) restoration project is complete.

The school, with capacity for up to 500 students ages 16 to 19, is part of a plan to strengthen the UK’s defenses against what experts say are growing cyber threats.

Alastair MacWillson, chair of Qufaro, the cybersecurity group behind the project, said he expects the site’s distinguished history to be an inspiration to students.

“It’s a rich story. We’re leveraging the legacy and heritage,” he said. “The government says cyber security and the measures to defend the country are the new codes and cyphers. So where better to do this?”

Gaps in education system

MacWillson said the initiative will harness the expertise in Britain’s young hacker community and put them on a pathway to safeguarding the country’s cyber security.

“There is some real talent out there, people with extraordinary capabilities in this area, and its usually youngsters that are good at gaming theory and hacking systems,” he said.

However, while there are centers of excellence for this specialization at the university level, gaps in the education system currently allow talent to slip through the cracks at the high school level, MacWillson said.

BLETCHLEY, ENGLAND - JUNE 03: Operations Director at The National Museum of Computing Victoria Alexander demonstrates how the Tunny Machine was used during World War II at Block H, Bletchley Park on June 3, 2016 in Bletchley, England. During World War II British codebreakers helped decypher the German Army's Lorenz cypher using the Colossus computer and Tunny machine at the Government Code and Cypher School's (GC&CS) main codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The machines at Bletchley Park's Block H, the world's first purpose-built computer centre, helped gather crucial intelligence for the British military during the war. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

BLETCHLEY, ENGLAND – JUNE 03: Operations Director at The National Museum of Computing Victoria Alexander demonstrates how the Tunny Machine was used during World War II at Block H, Bletchley Park on June 3, 2016 in Bletchley, England. During World War II British codebreakers helped decypher the German Army’s Lorenz cypher using the Colossus computer and Tunny machine at the Government Code and Cypher School’s (GC&CS) main codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The machines at Bletchley Park’s Block H, the world’s first purpose-built computer centre, helped gather crucial intelligence for the British military during the war. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

“The government was concerned on two fronts — that the country isn’t capturing raw talent, but also that it’s maybe letting raw talent err onto the dark side,” he said.

The school will be a so-called “genius college” for prodigiously talented students, with 40% of the curriculum devoted to cyber learning and the rest to STEM subjects such as math and engineering.

The school would also take advantage of an existing incubator for tech companies based at Bletchley Park to provide internships for students.

Growing cyber threat

Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), as the former Government Code and Cypher School is now known, has applauded the plan, saying it “welcomes initiatives that promote and develop skills in cyber security.”

A GCHQ spokeswoman said the concept was “interesting, especially if it can provide a pathway for talented students from schools that are not able to provide the support they need.”

The head of MI5, Britain’s security and counterintelligence agency, warned last month that the country faced a growing covert threat from Russia, involving “high-volume activity out of sight with the cyber-threat.”

The Kremlin rejected the claims.

Earlier this month the British government unveiled its National Cyber Security Strategy, aimed at tackling cyber threats facing the country and making the UK one of the safest places in the world to do business online.