iPhone, IE, Firefox, Safari get stomped at hacker contest

Ashes, ashes all fall down


CanSecWest It was another grim day for internet security at the annual Pwn2Own hacker contest Wednesday, with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari and iPhone succumbing to exploits that allowed them to be remotely commandeered.

Like dominoes falling in rapid succession, the platforms were felled in the fourth year of the contest, which has come to underscore the alarming insecurity of most internet-facing software. To qualify for the big-money prizes, the exploits had to attack previously undocumented vulnerabilities to expose sensitive system data or allow the remote execution of malicious code.

The exploits were all the more impressive because they bypassed state-of-the-art security mitigations the software makers have spent years implementing in an attempt to harden their wares. That included DEP, or data execution prevention, and ASLR, or address space layout randomization and in the case of the iPhone, code signing to prevent unauthorized applications from running on the device.

"Code signing by Apple is tough, though I'm not sure if they do it for security or just to lock people into their platform," said Halvar Flake, a security researcher for Germany-based Zynamics. He compromised the iPhone using an exploit written by his colleague Vincenzo Iozzo. University of Luxemburg student Ralf-Philipp Weinmann was also instrumental in developing the attack.

The iPhone's code signing mechanism requires code loaded into memory to carry a valid digital signature before it can be executed. To get around it, the researchers used a technique known as return-oriented programming, which takes pieces of valid code and rearranges them to form the malicious payload.

As a result, the hackers were able to create a website that when visited by the Apple smartphone forced it to spill a copy of its SMS database. The file includes a list of contacts as well as complete copies of messages that have been sent and received. The database also contains deleted messages unless a user has gone through the trouble of manually erasing them.

The hacks came on day one of the contest, which offers a total of $100,000 in prizes and coincides with the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver. It comes three months after criminal hackers pierced the defenses of Google, Adobe and about 33 other large companies using similar vulnerabilities in an older version of IE. The relative ease contestants had in exploiting other platforms suggested that they are susceptible to the same types of attacks when there is the financial incentive to develop them.

DEP and ASLR, which Microsoft began implementing with the release of Service Pack 3 for Windows XP, didn't fare much better. Peter Vreugdenhil, a researcher with Netherlands-based Vreugdenhil Research, was able to hijack a laptop running IE 8 running on Windows 7, a combination widely considered by white hat hackers as among the hardest to compromise.

Unlike previous DEP- and ASLR-busting techniques, Vreugdenhil's exploit didn't use Adobe Flash, or any other third-party software to accomplish the feat. Rather, it relied on an information-disclosure exploit that allowed him to identify the memory location of a core module that was loaded by the Microsoft browser.

"I used that knowledge to create a DEP bypass by reusing code in that module to change the protection," he said a few minutes after causing Windows 7 to spontaneously open a calculator program. "The vulnerability that I found allowed me to lay out the heap exactly as I wanted to, which is not always possible."

A pdf with additional details of the IE 8 exploit is here.

Firefox running on Windows 7 was also smitten. The author of that exploit was Nils, the same hacker who successfully compromised machines running IE, Firefox and Safari at last year's Pwn2Own contest. As was the case then, he asked that his last name not be printed, but this time the 26-year-old said he is the head of research at MWR InfoSecurity, a security consultancy in Basingstoke, UK.

Microsoft researchers, who were present en masse at the contest, are investigating the report and will issue a patch if their findings warrant it, said Pete LePage, a senior product manager for IE. He said Microsoft isn't aware of attacks in the wild that target the vulnerability.

Safari was also part of the spoils, making this the third consecutive year contestant Charlie Miller has compromised the Apple browser. Miller, 36, who is principal security analyst at Independent Security Evaluators, said he came to this year's contest armed with close to 20 working attacks that in virtually every case allow him to seize control of the Mac running the program.

He said he found all of them using the same rudimentary, five-line script written in Python, raising the very legitimate question: If he can find them, why haven't people working on Apple's security team found them, too?

"Tomorrow, I'm going to describe exactly how I found them, so hopefully that means Apple will replicate what I did and they'll find my 20 [bugs] and probably a lot more," Miller said. "Hopefully, they'll keep doing that and improve their mechanisms of finding bugs as opposed to just slapping band-aids every time I send them email about what bug I have."

The iPhone hack fetched $15,000 and the browser exploits were awarded $10,000 each.

The genius of a contest like Pwn2Own is that it exposes the insecurity of software that rarely gets exploited by criminals. Plenty of Linux and Mac fans cite the absence of real-world exploits on those platforms as proof positive that they are inherently safer than the prevailing Microsoft operating system. It's an argument that carried little weight in Vancouver.

"The problem Microsoft has is they have a big market share," said Vreugdenhil, the hacker who attacked IE. "I use Opera, but that's basically because it has a tiny market share and as far as I know, nobody is really interested in creating a drive-by download for Opera. The web at the moment is pretty scary, actually." ®


Other stories you might like

  • VMware claims 'bare-metal' performance on virtualized GPUs
    Is... is that why Broadcom wants to buy it?

    The future of high-performance computing will be virtualized, VMware's Uday Kurkure has told The Register.

    Kurkure, the lead engineer for VMware's performance engineering team, has spent the past five years working on ways to virtualize machine-learning workloads running on accelerators. Earlier this month his team reported "near or better than bare-metal performance" for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) and Mask R-CNN — two popular machine-learning workloads — running on virtualized GPUs (vGPU) connected using Nvidia's NVLink interconnect.

    NVLink enables compute and memory resources to be shared across up to four GPUs over a high-bandwidth mesh fabric operating at 6.25GB/s per lane compared to PCIe 4.0's 2.5GB/s. The interconnect enabled Kurkure's team to pool 160GB of GPU memory from the Dell PowerEdge system's four 40GB Nvidia A100 SXM GPUs.

    Continue reading
  • Nvidia promises annual updates across CPU, GPU, and DPU lines
    Arm one year, x86 the next, and always faster than a certain chip shop that still can't ship even one standalone GPU

    Computex Nvidia's push deeper into enterprise computing will see its practice of introducing a new GPU architecture every two years brought to its CPUs and data processing units (DPUs, aka SmartNICs).

    Speaking on the company's pre-recorded keynote released to coincide with the Computex exhibition in Taiwan this week, senior vice president for hardware engineering Brian Kelleher spoke of the company's "reputation for unmatched execution on silicon." That's language that needs to be considered in the context of Intel, an Nvidia rival, again delaying a planned entry to the discrete GPU market.

    "We will extend our execution excellence and give each of our chip architectures a two-year rhythm," Kelleher added.

    Continue reading
  • Amazon puts 'creepy' AI cameras in UK delivery vans
    Big Bezos is watching you

    Amazon is reportedly installing AI-powered cameras in delivery vans to keep tabs on its drivers in the UK.

    The technology was first deployed, with numerous errors that reportedly denied drivers' bonuses after malfunctions, in the US. Last year, the internet giant produced a corporate video detailing how the cameras monitor drivers' driving behavior for safety reasons. The same system is now apparently being rolled out to vehicles in the UK. 

    Multiple camera lenses are placed under the front mirror. One is directed at the person behind the wheel, one is facing the road, and two are located on either side to provide a wider view. The cameras are monitored by software built by Netradyne, a computer-vision startup focused on driver safety. This code uses machine-learning algorithms to figure out what's going on in and around the vehicle.

    Continue reading
  • AWS puts latest homebrew ‘Graviton 3’ Arm CPU in production
    Just one instance type for now, but cheaper than third-gen Xeons or EPYCs

    Amazon Web Services has made its latest homebrew CPU, the Graviton3, available to rent in its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) infrastructure-as-a-service offering.

    The cloud colossus launched Graviton3 at its late 2021 re:Invent conference, revealing that the 55-billion-transistor device includes 64 cores, runs at 2.6GHz clock speed, can address DDR5 RAM and 300GB/sec max memory bandwidth, and employs 256-bit Scalable Vector Extensions.

    The chips were offered as a tech preview to select customers. And on Monday, AWS made them available to all comers in a single instance type named C7g.

    Continue reading
  • Beijing reverses ban on tech companies listing offshore
    Announcement comes as Chinese ride-hailing DiDi Chuxing delists from NYSE under pressure

    The Chinese government has announced that it will again allow "platform companies" – Beijing's term for tech giants – to list on overseas stock markets, marking a loosening of restrictions on the sector.

    "Platform companies will be encouraged to list on domestic and overseas markets in accordance with laws and regulations," announced premier Li Keqiang at an executive meeting of China's State Council – a body akin to cabinet in the USA or parliamentary democracies.

    The statement comes a week after vice premier Liu He advocated technology and government cooperation and a digital economy that supports an opening to "the outside world" to around 100 members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC).

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022