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Vulnerabilities / Threats

1/23/2012
01:44 PM
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Famed Hacking Contest Gets Facelift

'Pwn2Own' will up the ante with more prolonged contest, fewer targets, more payout for first-, second-, third-place winners -- plus an extra Google bounty for cracking Chrome

The high-profile, high-stakes Pwn2Own annual hacking competition will look more like a long-distance race than a sprint this year: Sponsor HP/TippingPoint DVLabs has revamped the prestigious contest by raising the bar and upping the potential purse.

There are just four targets in this year’s contest, and they are all browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari. Unlike years past, it won’t be a race to zero-day, but instead a points-based system with a few specific challenges along the way, and first-, second-, and third-place prizes totaling $105,000 for the three winning contestants or teams.

Google also is offering a side bounty of two prizes for full- and partial hacks of Chrome, according to Aaron Portnoy, director of ZDI. Full hack means using bugs in Chrome conduct "un-sandboxed" code execution. "You would get $20,000 for [each] unique way of doing that,” Portnoy says. Using a bug in Chrome as well as the underlying operating system brings in $10,000 per set of bugs, he says.

And that’s basically icing: “If you pop Chrome in the contest, you get a point-value association with Chrome from us as well,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest change to the March 7 to 9 contest at the ConSecWest conference will be its length and breadth: No longer will it be literally “game over” when a contestant finds a zero-day bug in the targeted software. Winners will be based on a point system, and there will be no more mobile-device hacking this year.

“We were trying to get away from the headlines, [such as] ‘Mac Hacked In Three Seconds,’” says Aaron Portnoy, director of ZDI. “Unlike in prior years, if someone finds a zero-day, the target is not removed from the contest anymore and you can go after anything you want ... and continually attack anything.”

And ZDI will throw in another new element for the contestants to crack: patched vulnerabilities in which the researchers at ZDI have discovered holes. “On the first day of the contest, we will announce two patched vulnerabilities per target that my team has confirmed are exploitable. We will give out a virtual machine with the targeted browser, and the proof-of-concept that triggers it, but not the exploit,” he says.

Contestants have three days to write an exploit that works against the target, he says. If a contestant is able to crack that on the first day, it’s worth 10 points; on the second day it's worth nine points, and on the third day it's worth eight points. These vulnerabilities will require bypassing Data Execution Prevention (DEP), but not any sandbox escapes or bypassing ASLR, he says.

"The contest now rewards exploit development almost as well as vulnerability discovery, highlighting the difficulty of reliable exploit development against modern browsers," says HD Moore, CSO at Rapid7 and chief architect of Metasploit.

A zero-day find is worth 32 points per individual or team; to come in first place overall, the winner has to find at least one zero-day. The top contestant overall will take home $60,000 for first place; the second place finisher, $30,000; and the third place finisher, $15,000. If they hack Chrome as well, then they also can get bonus money from Google based on its criteria.

Why all of the new twists this year? “Pwn2Own traditionally has always been about 0day. At any given time, a zero-day can happen,” Portnoy says. “And the value of vulnerabilities is going up every year, so we wanted to make sure [contestants] get enough money for signing over their IP [intellectual property] to ZDI and giving to vendors [as part of the contest].”

It’s basically similar to a capture-the-flag contest. Portnoy says he expects more team entries this year because contestants will realize they have a better chance of winning as a team and will still come out with a good payout after splitting the bigger cash prizes. “I think the additional prize money will attract more people,” Portnoy says.

Mobile hacking is off of the agenda this year for several reasons, including the problem of contestants being able to Google a vulnerability using PCs to hack a smartphone. “There’s no skill there,” he says.

The mobile hacking contest also kept some contestants away: “You have to have that mobile device, and everyone’s is different, so you have to do a lot of development on it. Browsers are pretty universal,” he says.

As before, all affected vendors in the contest will get reports on any newly discovered vulnerabilities, and the winners will get shiny new laptops in addition to their cash prizes.

What does the industry think of the new format? “There’s been mixed response. I think people know why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Portnoy says.

ZDI has posted a full description of the rules here.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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