Spy Agency GCHQ Launches New Code-Making App

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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UK spy organisation GCHQ has launched Cryptoy, a free educational app about cryptography designed for use by school pupils and their teachers.

The app enables users to understand basic encryption techniques, learn about their history and then have a go at creating their own encoded messages. These can then be shared with friends via social media or more traditional means and the recipients can use the app to try to decipher the messages.

Cryptography education

The app is mainly directed at secondary students but can be used by anyone with an interest in learning about or teaching cryptography.

students using computersCryptoy was designed by students on an industrial year placement at GCHQ. It was created as part of a project to demonstrate encryption techniques at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and has since been used at several other outreach events. The app proved to be popular, and GCHQ received interest from teachers who wanted to use it as a teaching aid.

GCHQ says it is committed to helping to increase the uptake of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects at schools through its outreach programme and its work with industry and academia. The agency also believes it is also critical that the UK builds a knowledge base of cyber security skills. Learning about encryption and the associated academic disciplines are key parts of both of these.

Even though the examples of cryptography demonstrated by Cryptoy are from an earlier era, the design principles that their inventors used are the same as those of modern cryptographic designers. It is this similarity in mindset that all cryptographic designers need, whether they were working two thousand years ago or today.

As well as explaining the challenges of designing good cryptography to pupils, the app demonstrates how much fun it can be to try to break the cryptographic design that someone else thought was secure.

Director GCHQ trialling CryptoyRobert Hannigan, director GCHQ, said, “Building maths and cyber skills in the younger generation is essential for maintaining the cyber security of the UK and growing a vibrant digital economy. That is why I am keen for GCHQ to give something back through its work with school and universities.

“In particular, the Cryptoy app is a colourful, interactive way for students and their teachers to explore the fascinating world of cryptography. The app was developed by GCHQ’s industrial placement students and trialled at a number of science fairs. I hope it will inspire further study of this key topic, which has played such an important part in our past and is an invaluable part of our future.”

Launching the app at the third anniversary of the UK Cyber Security Strategy, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude MP said: “Famously, the government recruited winners of a Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword competition to work at Bletchley Park. Today, I’m pleased to announce a similarly creative solution in the hunt for expertise, but with a 21st century spin.”

Brian Higgins, Schools Programme Manager for the Cyber Security Challenge, has seen the app in use with students at first hand.

He commented: “The new Cryptoy app from GCHQ is an awesome piece of kit. It merges historic cryptographic tools with contemporary devices and interactive delivery, and the result is an excellent app that can be adapted for all manner of use. From direct learning to inclusion in games and competitions, applications are only limited by the imagination of the user.

“I will definitely be incorporating Cryptoy into the Cyber Security Challenge Schools Programme as well as its ‘Cyber Games’ competition stage, and would gladly endorse the app to Code Clubs, TechFuture Girls and all the other resources currently available to the next generation of cyber security professionals in the UK.”

The Cryptoy app is currently available for download free-of-charge to Android tablets only. It is hoped that an iOS version for iPads will be available in 2015.

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