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So what's the easiest box to hack - Vista, Ubuntu or OS X?

CanSecWest's Pwn2Own contest returns

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This story was updated to correct the maximum prize amount available.

Tired of all the knee-jerk banter from fanboys about whose operating system is the most secure? So are the organizers of the CanSecWest security conference, which will be held in Vancouver later this month. And with a contest awarding as much as $20,000 worth of prizes, they're likely to breathe fresh life into a stale debate.

This year's Pwn2Own competition will place three brand-new, fully patched laptops side by side: a Fujitsu U810 running Vista Ultimate, a Vaio VGN-TZ37Cn running Ubuntu 7.10 and a MacBook Air running Leopard. The first person to remotely run code on each one gets to take the machine home, and is can be entered into the running for an award potentially worth $20,000 from TippingPoint, whose Zero Day Initiative pays bounties to researchers for responsibly disclosing vulnerabilities.

At last year's Pwn2Own contest, conference organizers challenged attendees to hack into one of two fully patched MacBookPros to claim the machine and a $10,000 bounty from TippingPoint. Security guru Dino Dai Zovi, spent less than 12 hours doing just that, crafting a QuickTime exploit that allowed him to take complete control of the machine.

CanSecWest's Pwn2Own contests are useful because they allow us to isolate the technical strengths and weaknesses of a given platform from its popularity. Acrimonious debate has fomented for years about whether the high number of real-world Windows exploits - compared to those of OS X, Linux and other operating systems - is a natural consequence of having a 90-percent chunk of the market or the result of sloppy and insecure coding practices at Microsoft.

There's at least some merit to the argument that organized cyber crime gangs - just like makers of popular games Half-Life 2 and Crysis - don't write for the Mac and Linux because the smaller market shares make it impossible to get a return on the investment. The Pwn2Own contest, by offering a considerable incentive for exploits of these platforms, helps to neutralize the economic variable.

"These computers are REAL and FULLY patched," conference organizer Dragos Ruiu wrote in an email announcing the rules. "All third party software is widely used. There are no imitation vulnerabilities. Any exploit successfully used in this contest would also compromise a significant percentage of the internet connected hosts."

The rules for this year's contest include:

  • Limit one laptop per contestant
  • The same vulnerability can't be used against more than one box
  • Attacks will be performed using a cross-over cable (with the attacker controlling the default route) or using radio-frequency by special arrangement.
  • Winning exploits must target a previously unknown vulnerability; vulns that have already been reported to the affected software maker or a third party are not eligible.

Each of the machines will include widely deployed applications, including web browsers (Internet Explorer, Safari, Konqueror and Firefox), instant messengers (AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Adium, Skype and Pigdin) and email clients (Outlook, Mail.app, Thunderbird, kmail, mutt).

El Reg will be attending CanSecWest, which runs from March 26-29. We are willing to trade beer for scoops or livers. ®

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