Java, Browsers, Windows Security Defeated At Pwn2Own

How secure are the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox and IE10? All were successfully exploited on the first day of the annual Pwn2Own contest.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

March 7, 2013

5 Min Read

Anonymous: 10 Things We Have Learned In 2013

Anonymous: 10 Things We Have Learned In 2013

Anonymous: 10 Things We Have Learned In 2013 (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The annual Pwn2Own hacking contest has proven once again that not even the latest bug-proofed versions of Java 7, Internet Explorer 10, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox can withstand determined hackers motivated by greed, in this case $280,000 in prize money.

Security researchers demonstrated exploits in all of those high-profile programs Wednesday at the CanSecWest 2013 conference in Vancouver as part of the annual Pwn2Own competition hosted by HP's DVLabs Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), and which continues Thursday and Friday.

"VUPEN pwned Mozilla Firefox using a UaF [use-after-free vulnerability] plus a new Windows 7 ASLR/DEP bypass technique then pwned Oracle Java with a heap overflow," read a tweet from the Zero Day Initiative (ZDI). French vulnerability seller Vupen also exploited IE10 running on Windows 8, while researchers James Forshaw and Joshua Drake each demonstrated a different exploit against Java 7, and "Nils & Jon" took down Chrome.

[ Are China and U.S. hacking each other? China Targets U.S. In Hacking Blame Game. ]

Preregistered contestants for Thursday include Vupen, which said it will demonstrate a new Flash exploit. Also, George Hotz plans to own Adobe Reader, while Pham Toan will take down IE10 running on Windows 8.

The contest offers prizes for exploiting Google Chrome on Windows 7 ($100,000), IE 10 on Windows 8 ($100,000), IE 9 on Windows 7 ($75,000), Mozilla Firefox on Windows 7 ($60,000) and Apple Safari on OS X Mountain Lion ($65,000). Also offered are prizes for exploiting Adobe Reader XI ($70,000), Adobe Flash ($70,000) or Oracle Java ($20,000).

In the run-up to Pwn2Own, browser developers typically push a flurry of last-minute updates to fix every last possible vulnerability they can get their hands on, because contestants must exploit the latest versions of any targeted application or operating system: "The targets will be running on the latest, fully patched version of the Windows 7, 8, and OS X Mountain Lion. All targets will be installed in their default configurations, as this is how a majority of users will have them configured," say the contest rules. "As always, the vulnerabilities utilized in the attack must be unknown and not previously reported to the vendor. If a sandbox is present, a full sandbox escape is required to win. A given vulnerability may only be used once across all categories."

This year, ZDI expanded the contest to not just reward browser exploits but also exploits of browser plug-ins. It said the change reflects the speed with which attackers and exploit kits now attack not just browser flaws, but also bugs in browser plug-ins.

ZDI also altered the contest rules surrounding disclosure, saying that awarding prize money would be contingent on it being allowed to purchase "all successful vulnerabilities and exploits from pre-registered contestants." To make that attractive to participants -- given the bounties that zero-day bugs and exploits can fetch on the open market -- ZDI upped the total prize money to over half a million dollars.

But the prize money on offer is reportedly still a fraction of what a top-notch exploit commands on the open market. Accordingly, why bother participating?

SecurityWeek's Ryan Naraine put that question to Chaouki Bekrar, CEO of Vupen, which fielded employees who successfully exploited the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer 10 running on Windows 8, using an exploit that silently bypassed all built-in attack-mitigation techniques, including DEP and ASLR, as well as the IE10 sandbox. Bekrar replied that his goal was to advertise his business's skill at creating "weaponized exploits."

"The aim for us by coming here to Pwn2Own is to show that even the newest technologies, the newest operating systems, the newest browsers, can get pwned," he said.

In previous years, the prize money associated with Pwn2Own wouldn't have made financial sense, he said, but the increase in prize money this year made the firm reconsider. "We don't usually accept to share techniques, we can accept to share zero days," Bekrar told SecurityWeek, noting that once an attack technique was shared, it would be of no more use to the company, since vendors would update their software to defend against it.

But Bekrar said that Vupen extensively searches for new exploits, saying that developing the IE10 exploit for Windows 8 took one or two full-time employees between two and three months of work. In the case of Windows 8, furthermore, Vupen began looking for vulnerabilities when the preview version was released about nine months ago, and Bekrar said the company now has related exploits to burn. "With IE10 and Windows 8, we have many vulnerabilities, so in fact even if we give this exploit and these techniques, we still have other things."

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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