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Microsoft covers Brit who penetrated Windows 8.1 with GOLD

A thin sheet of gold, anyway, worth $100k

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A UK security researcher has secured the first Microsoft $100,000 bounty after uncovering ways to get around security defences built into Windows 8.1 Preview, the latest version of Redmond's operating system.

James Forshaw, head of vulnerability research at Context Information Security, scooped the award for a new mitigation bypass technique.

Redmond debuted three bounty programmes in June that rewarded researchers for:

  • techniques that bypass built-in OS mitigations and protections,
  • defences that stop those bypasses and
  • the discovery of vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer 11 Preview.

Earlier this week Microsoft announced payouts totalling $28,000 to six security researchers who collectively reported 15 different bugs in the preview release of Internet Explorer 11.

Forshaw has already benefited from discovering design level bugs during the IE11 Preview Bug Bounty, taking his total bounty earnings to $109,400.

Microsoft is not providing details of the new mitigation bypass technique uncovered by Forshaw until it can come up with a security fix. Microsoft does, however, praise Forshaw's research in a post on its Blue Hat blog.

Redmond explains that payouts for new mitigation techniques are far more generous than come for fingering flaws in Internet Explorer because learning about new mitigation bypass techniques helps it develop defences against entire classes of attack.

Strengthening platform-wide mitigations makes it harder for attackers to exploit bugs in all software running on the Microsoft platform and not just Microsoft applications, Redmond said.

Coincidentally, Microsoft engineer Thomas Garnier found a variant of this class of attack uncovered by Forshaw but this doesn't detract from Forshaw's research or prevent him from claiming his well-earned reward.

Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist lead, Microsoft Trustworthy Computing, said: "We’re thrilled to receive this qualifying Mitigation Bypass Bounty submission within the first three months of our bounty offering. James [Forshaw’s] entry will help us improve our platform-wide defences and ultimately improve security for customers, as it allows us to identify and protect against an entire class of issues."

Forshaw explained that he is driven the intellectual challenge of finding bugs rather than scoring prizes.

"Over the past decade working in secure development and research, I have discovered many interesting security vulnerabilities with a heavy focus of complex logic bugs," Forshaw said in a statement. "I’m keenly interested in the intellectual puzzle of finding novel exploitation techniques and the creativity it requires.

"To find my winning entry I studied the mitigations available today and after brainstorming I identified a few potential angles. Not all were viable but after some persistence I was finally successful," he added.

Redmond's bug bounty programme is one of numerous schemes across the industry designed to reward researchers for reporting flaws to vendors, rather than selling details of bugs to TippingPoint's Zero Day Initiative or hawking them through exploit brokers or vulnerability marketplaces.

"Microsoft’s Mitigation Bypass Bounty is very important to help shift the focus of bounty programs from offence to defence," Forshaw explained. "It incentivises researchers like me to commit time and effort to security in depth rather than just striving for the total vulnerability count."

Forshaw is due to speak at the Hack in the Box conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, later this month. ®

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