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Psst.. Know how to hack a mobe by radio wave? There's $70k+ in it for you

This year's Mobile Pwn2Own prize money laid out on the table

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A second Mobile Pwn2Own hacking competition, in which experts discover and exploit security flaws in handhelds for prizes, will take place at the PacSec 2013 conference in Japan in November.

For many years, the original Pwn2Own contest has been held at the CanSecWest get-together in Vancouver every March. Like its older sibling, Mobile Pwn2Own is also partially backed by funds from HP's Zero Day Initiative: $300,000 in prize money is up for grabs. Google’s Android Security Team and BlackBerry are also sponsoring the mobile shoot-out.

The competition later this year in Japan will focus on exploiting vulnerabilities in smartphones and tablets - unlike the original which most recently has restricted itself to assaulting web browsers, Adobe Flash, Java and similar software on PCs running Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

The Mobile Pwn2Own prize money is divided up by attack type: exactly how contestants manage to digitally break into the devices matters rather than the model or platform. Hacks relying on physical proximity - for example, by exploiting Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB or NFC holes - stand to win $50k. A successful attack "must require little or no user interaction", so attacks that involve tricking recipients into clicking on OK to install dodgy apps won't cut it in this category.

Winning clever hacks that skewer gear via a web browser are worth up to $40k. Victory can be secured by crafting code that silently makes a long-distance phone call, eavesdrops on a conversation or extracts and uploads data to a remote server.

Mobile application or operating system hacks are eligible for a contest with a prize of $40k. Attacks on this category have to work against fully patched smartphones that aren't running third-party apps.

More money, a prize of $70k, is offered for successful attacks on messaging services, such as SMS and MMS. Limited user interaction is allowed in this category so having a user open a message for an attack to activate will probably fit within this rule. Attempts to trick users into following a link to a dodgy website are almost certainly offside.

The most financially rewarding competition - with a tasty $100K in offer - is reserved for hacks against the baseband system of a smartphone: the actual electronics that do all the heavy lifting involved in the radio communications between the mobe and the network. Hacking a phone by sending it a string of signals that confuses or compromises the baseband chipset and software is ideal, for example.

"The value of this prize presumably reflects the comparative difficulty of coming up with a method to break in via the mobile network itself, rather than via USB cable or over the internet," notes security market watcher Paul Ducklin in a post on Sophos's Naked Security blog.

(Of course, the sums on offer here are not much compared to the amounts of cash highly sought-after zero-days vulnerabilities fetch on private exploit markets.)

Smartphones and tablets waiting to be pwned in this year's competition include a Nokia Lumia 1020 handset running Windows Phone 8, a Microsoft Surface RT slab running the Windows 8 kernel, a Samsung Galaxy S4 running Android, an Apple iPhone 5 and an Apple iPad Mini running iOS, a Google Nexus 10 tab running Android, and a BlackBerry Z10 phone running BlackBerry OS 10.

There's a draw for who gets to attack the targeted platform first. Entrants have 30 minutes to compromise the chosen device via their chosen method.

The first to succeed in each category wins that category's prize as well as the kit they successfully hacked. With five categories and nine devices it'll be interesting to see which platform is the most thrashed and which remains unscathed.

"What we may never know, if there's a device (or an operating system) that no-one chooses for any attack, is whether it was avoided due to a lack of interest, or due to its recognised strength," Ducklin adds. "Pwn2Own, like many security tests, is good at telling you if a product has a security weakness, but doesn't say much about each product's strengths."

The competition, limited to conference delegates, will run at the PacSec 2013 Conference in Tokyo between 11 and 13 November. ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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