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Google offers $20,000 prize in annual hack-off

Pwn2Own lets Chrome in, after all

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The annual Pwn2Own hacking contest has been so merciless at thrashing the security of popular computing products that most vendors groan when they learn their wares will be entered.

Not Google.

When the search company recently learned that its Chrome browser wasn't going to be included in this year's competition, which is scheduled for next month, it asked organizers to reconsider – and even offered $20,000 in prize money – on top of the $15,000 already promised – to any contestant who successfully exploits the open-source browser. Chrome was originally going to be excluded because it is based on the same Webkit engine that runs another Pwn2Own entry, Apple's Safari browser.

“It shows a mature attitude to the problem because they (Google) know that the actual release of the information is something that just makes the thing stronger,” Dragos Ruiu, organizer of the CanSecWest security conference, which hosts the contest. “It gets rid of vulnerabilities. Most of the vendors I talk to are like, 'Well, do you have to put that in?'”

At last year's event, Chrome was the only browser entered that didn't take a stomping. By contrast, Safari, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and Mozilla's Firefox all succumbed to exploits that allowed them to be remotely commandeered.

It will be interesting to see how Chrome fares this time around, which will be Pwn2Own's fifth year. Last year, researchers said the security sandboxing buttressing the Google browser was so hard to defeat that successful exploits were worth much more than the $10,000 available for each browser hack. Since then, Google has also paid more than $14,000 in bounties to researchers who uncovered security bugs in the browser.

But in the 12 months that have intervened, the technology has become a lot less exotic, as software makers such as Adobe have added sandboxing to the repeatedly-abused Reader app and researchers have figured out ways to bypass the protection.

“Honestly, I can't see them not getting hacked,” Ruiu said, referring to Google. “A lot or people have a stake in taking the time and looking at what it takes to trampoline out of a VM-like environment. There are more techniques and people are more willing to discuss those techniques.”

Last year's contest paid $10,000 to the first contestant to successfully hack any one of the eligible browsers, which included IE, Firefox, Safari and Chrome. It also paid $15,000 for attacks on any one of four major smartphones. This year's contest rules will be roughly the same, except that a phone running the Symbian operating system has been replaced with one running Windows Phone 7. Prizes for browser hacks have also been increased to $15,000.

Contestants will also have the benefit of using a radio frequency isolation booth so they can more directly target the phones' baseband processors, which are used to send and receive radio signals as the devices communicate over cellular networks. By contrast, most exploits to date have attacked the CPUs that run a phone's apps.

Baseband exploits require the attacker to mimic a cellular network, a feat that's become easy to carry out over the past few years, but often runs afoul of wiretapping laws. The isolation booth is like a condom that allows an attacker to set up his own cellular network inside a small perimeter without affecting the airwaves outside.

On hand will be Ralf-Philipp Weinmann, a University of Luxembourg research associate who recently demonstrated baseband attacks against a variety of smartphones, including iPhones and devices running Google's Android OS.

“I know for a fact he's going to be there and he's going to be one of the contestants, so you can expect a few things there,“ Ruiu said. ®

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