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DARPA enlists hacker talent for $2m security bug-swatting challenge

Big money prizes for Capture the Flag code competition

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The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is recruiting members of the hacking community to join its latest Grand Challenge competition: a big-money contest to build software capable of finding and fixing security holes in new code.

"We've looked to the expert community, the computer security community, and the contest that they used to compete and measure skills among themselves – the Capture the Flag circuit," said Mike Walker, DARPA program manager, at a press conference on Friday.

For the last four years, Walker helped devise DEF CON's own competitions, where bands of hackers compete to break and defend systems, and for three of the four years before that he was on the winning team that cracked DEF CON's conundrums. Fellow hacking competition builder Chris Eagle will also be involved in developing the code for DARPA's contest.

According to Walker, automated code cleanup is on the cusp of a major revolution, as systems and software get powerful enough to out-compete human vulnerability scanners. He cited Microsoft's Scalable, Automated, Guided Execution (SAGE) software, which found and cleaned out a third of the bugs in Windows 7 before it shipped, and IBM's progress with Deep Blue and Watson.

Initial team entries for DARPA's competition need to be in by January 14 next year, and the agency will assess the quality of the entries and then hold a series of off-site playoffs to eliminate the weaker ideas. The challenge software will be compiled code "generally built for the C language," and it will be specially written for the competition – DARPA wants to test adaptability, not knowledge of current applications.

That said, the word "compete" is a bit of a misnomer, since there'll be none of the sweaty, caffeine-fueled (and possibly other things) coding that makes the DEF CON tournament such a challenge. DARPA wants a fully automated system that the competitors will simply activate and then stand back.

The big-money stage of the tournament will begin in 2016 at DARPA headquarters, but successful play-off teams might get additional funding if their software looks promising, Walker said. While the winning team might not be 100 per cent perfect, the prize winners will need to show that their applications show enough potential to be developed into a finished product.

The research and development wing of the US military is putting up a $2m cash prize for the team that builds a bug-swatter that can work on code written in C and win the challenge, with $1m to the runners-up and $750,000-worth of consolation for the third-placed team. The agency will also get the rights to license any code at a reasonable rate.

No doubt recruiters from security software firms will also be getting in touch with lucrative job offers for successful players. While some in the security industry have scoffed at the idea of an automated code-checker beating a human one, the competition is going to have a fair few people in the industry watching DARPA's challenge very closely. ®

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