How Safari Hacker Finds Bugs

Multiple vulnerabilities in the mainstream browsers and other widely installed software came to light at the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver.
Multiple vulnerabilities in the mainstream browsers and other widely installed software came to light at the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver.At the PWN2OWN contest held at this week's conference by TippingPoint's ZDI, the industry's top security researchers had no problem taking control over the presented target machines. The machines were running fully updated versions of Safari/Mac OS X, IE8/Windows 7, and Firefox 3.6/Windows 7. Most of the researchers said it took them between one or two weeks to find a vulnerability and prepare for the contest to assure that attacks would work reliably.

In a related presentation, Charlie Miller, the winner of the Safari/Mac OS X target machine, gave some insight into the technique he uses to find application vulnerabilities: He has a program feed the target application corrupted data files and logs the instances when the applications crashes. The crashes are then analyzed automatically and triaged for exploitability. This simple, automated mechanism led to the discovery of roughly 100 vulnerabilities in four applications tested -- a negative showing that surprised the researcher. Certainly his technical expertise and experience in the security field help to speed up the process, but it is clear that a talented person with sufficient incentive can master these techniques.

We know that an underground market for vulnerabilities exists where high caliber exploits can fetch six figures. This clearly gives malicious attackers the incentive to invest their time into investigating these common applications.

A defense against these attacks has no single solution, so IT administrators need to involve multiple layers:
  • Accurate map of all machines in the network and a complete inventory of installed software
  • Fast patching for the operating system and included applications, but also for all installed third-party programs
  • Network defenses that have timely and accurate information on attack sites
  • Education activities that show users how to minimize risky behavior
The tools to support IT administrators in these tasks exist. We now need to acknowledge the problem and rise to the challenge.

-- As the CTO for Qualys, Wolfgang Kandek is responsible for product direction and all operational aspects of the QualysGuard platform and its infrastructure. Wolfgang has more than 20 years of experience in developing and managing information systems. His focus has been on Unix-based server architectures and application delivery through the Internet. Wolfgang provides the latest commentary on his blog: and also publishes his Patch Tuesday commentary to the QualysGuard channel: He is a frequent source in business and trade media and speaks at industry conferences around the world, most recently at RSA 2010.