A grim day for browser security at hacker contest

Safari, IE and Firefox all down for the count


CanSecWest Internet browser security took a beating during Day 1 of an annual hacking competition, with Apple's Safari, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox all being felled in a matter of hours.

The uncontested champion of the contest was a University of Oldenburg, master's candidate, who managed to fell Safari, IE 8 and Firefox at the Pwn2Own contest at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. He joined security researcher Charlie Miller, who was able to successfully hack Safari with a separate remote-execution exploit.

"It's not as easy as a few years ago," said Nils, the University of Oldenburg student, referring to the difficulty of piercing the many built-in protections of Safari, IE and Firefox. "Still, browsers have a lot of problems. It's really a lot of codes that are exposed to the internet." The computer science student declined to give his last name.

The Pwn2Own contest has thrived at proving to the world that with the proper financial incentive, virtually any internet-facing software can be proven vulnerable to real-world exploits. Amid the awe that took hold as four exploits materialized before spectators' very eyes was this sad realization: Despite the formidable resources of the world's biggest software organizations, browser users remain susceptible to drive-by attacks that can install keylogging software, rootkits and other software parasites with little or no warning.

Perhaps more remarkable than watching hackers in one room make mince meat of three of the world's most popular browsers was the realization that they were willing to do so for well under the going rate. According to some researchers, a reliably exploitable IE vulnerability now fetches $100,000 on the black market. Yet Nils was willing to accept just $5,000 and a new Sony Vaio for his attack.

The contest is sponsored by security firm TippingPoint, which for several years now has paid a bounty to researchers for exploits that target commonly used programs.

"If this competition hadn't existed, I never would have found this bug," said Miller, who is principal analyst at Independent Security Evaluators, referring to the Safari flaw he exploited this year. He exploited a separate vulnerability last year that allowed him to pwn a brand new Mac Book Air running a fully patched version of Leopard. The challenge was enough to motivate him to dust off a separate Safari bug he had been sitting on for more than 12 months for this year's competition.

"If it wasn't for the competition, there'd still be these two bugs from this year and last year," he added. "Apple gets free bugs, I get money and people's computers get fixed." ®

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