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$1m hacking contest planned

Expensive publicity stunt. If they pay up

A Canadian start-up firm is planning a hacking competition that will offer a prize of a cool $1 million to anyone who can crack its security product.

Saafnet believes its forthcoming AlphaShield 2000 technology provides immunity from cyberattack for home users and small business with always on broadband connections.

To test these claims Saafnet 24-year-old founder and chief executive officer, Vikash Sami, has stated that he's prepared to pay $1 million - in cash - to anyone who can prove him wrong during a five day contest this Summer.

AlphaShield 2000, which will be available to consumers in summer 2001, is described as a stand-alone hardware device that sits between a user's computer and modem. It works by disconnecting an always-on Internet connection when no activity is detected while allowing a user to immediately establish a connection, by maintaining a session.

This "Gap Technology" principle sounds suspiciously like unplugging a connection, but the firm assured us it was nothing like as crude as that and, for the sake of argument, we're quiet prepared to accept its word that Alphashield is clever technology. We'd like to see a better technical explanation on how it works though.

AlphaShield will be positioned as an alternative to personal firewall products, and the hacking challenge will be timed to coincide with its release in July or August.

Participants will be invited to go to Saafnet's Web site and get an Internet protocol address of a target computer.

Anyone who brings back a piece of code or password that Saafnet places on the computer will win the prize.

Paddy Moore of Saafnet told The Register if AlphaShield 2000 were breached during the contest "it would be an important learning experience" which would not threaten the future of the 12-worker start-up.

He said the contest "would create awareness and we're prepared to risk $1m to do that"

Moore added the firm is prepared to risk the flak that followed Argus Systems when crackers puzzled its Pit Bull technology during a similar (though far less lucrative) hacking challenge at Infosecurity last week.

We asked Moore how the firm intended to stop people simply bribing someone in order to discover the password, which he said was a good point and something the firm would need to consider in drawing up details for the competition.

He denied the contest was a PR stunt (and yes we're aware of the irony in here, but the contest has thus far only been covered in a Canadian paper called the Globe and Mail).

If the challenge goes ahead (and we're not entirely convinced on this point) it would be the most lucrative hacker contest ever.

That said the idea isn't a new one (what is?). Last year the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) invited hackers to crack several proposed encryption methods designed to protect the copying of digital music files.

The contest ended in confusion after a people claimed to have successfully broken the codes used, something fierecly disputed by SDMI itself.

Noted encryption guru Bruce Schneier has questioned the whole basis of such hacking contests by correctly pointing out that even if a technology isn't hacked during a contest, it doesn't prove that it's secure.

If you doubt this sound philosophical argument remember that Argus Systems had to pay out $50,000 when Last Stage of Delirium won its FOURTH hacking challenge... ®

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