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Team With Carnegie Mellon Roots Wins Machine Hacking Contest

'Mayhem' takes home $2 million prize in historic DARPA machine-to-machine hacking challenge.

DEF CON 24--Las Vegas--History was made here last night as DARPA held the world’s first all-machine hacking tournament.

Even though its system crashed more than halfway into the tournament, ForAllSecure and its Mayhem cyber reasoning system (CRS) machine won the contest after holding the lead for most of the tournament. The ForAllSecure team grew out of more than a decade of research at Carnegie Mellon University. Mayhem uses symbolic execution to generate deep paths in the program, searching for flaws.

One of the highlights of the DARPA hacking tournament was the challenges where the CRSes had to patch notable bugs and worms. The goal was to see that if the CRS capability had existed at the time of the attack, it could have detected a vulnerability and then patched it.

The results were promising: Six of the seven teams patched SQL Slammer and six of the seven uncovered proof of vulnerability (POV). SQL Slammer was the infamous worm that took out 75,000 systems in under 10 minutes in 2003.

In another promising result, six of the seven team patched the Heartbleed bug and one team had a POV. The patches and POVs were completed in minutes.

“This is a huge deal,” said "Visi," a white hat hacker who helped man the play-by-play anchor desk during the competition. “In the past, patching these vulnerabilities took humans days and weeks of doing the work by hand.

TechX, the team that combined engineers from GrammaTech and hackers from the University of Virginia took second place. The team’s Xandra CRS draws from GrammaTech’s expertise in symbolic execution and the University of Virginia’s ability to take programs and modify them.

Third place went to Shellphish, a team that largely consists of students from the University of California-Santa Barbara. Shellphish’s ARS was Mechanical Phish, which uses Angr, a software toolbox that analyzes binary software and seeks to stop it in its tracks.

ForAllSecure received $2 million; TechX, $1 million; and Shellphish, $750,000.

Alex Rebert, co-founder of ForAllSecure and team lead on the Cyber Grand Challenge project, said that company is largely self-funded and would use the prize money to continue its operations and research into autonomous computing.

WWF Meets The NFL

The contest itself was an attempt by DARPA to bring some star power into the world of hacking. The intros of the team was a cross between a World Wrestling Federation contest with bright flashing lights and a booming announcer and an important professional sports contest like the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals.

Hakeem Oluseyi, a professor of physics and space sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology and prominent hackers Visi and HJ, short for Hawaii John, provided the color commentary. Visi was on the anchor desk with Oluseyi, who did the play-by-play, and HJ stayed with the teams and conducted interviews as results came in. 

Visi said he was impressed that even though ForAllSecure won by a considerable margin, the teams were all very close.

“This doesn’t always happen in human capture-the-flag tournements,” he said. “Very often teams build up big leads and play Guitar Hero to taunt their competitors.”

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Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio

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