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Pwn2Own hack contest puts record $645K on prize table

Gregg Keizer | Feb. 3, 2014
New grand prize of $150,000 requires researchers to deal with Microsoft's EMET anti-exploit toolkit

"The #Pwn2own random drawing shit is back this year, a very bad rule that was removed last year where all pwners were allowed to pwn," said Chaouki Bekrar, CEO of French vulnerability research lab and zero-day seller Vupen, in a tweet yesterday.

Actually, Pwn2Own used the drawing in 2013, but during the challenge the prize pool was expanded to give every successful exploit the winning prize money, which resulted in several earning $20,000 each for hacking Java.

Gorenc said the same may happen at this year's contest, depending on how many register for the contest.

Pwn2Own has been dominated in recent years by teams to the detriment of individuals who cannot compete with groups of well-armed collectives, such as the team from Vupen, which walked off with $250,000 in prize money last year for hacking IE10, Firefox, Flash and Java.

"I'm trying to remember, who has won pwn2own by themselves besides me, @dinodaizovi, and @nils?" asked Charlie Miller, a Twitter researcher who has won four times at Pwn2Own, most recently in 2011. "The team aspect takes the fun out if it [in my opinion]."

Another individual winner, Peter Vreugdenhil, who took home $10,000 in 2010, now works for Exodus Intelligence, a firm that includes Aaron Portnoy, who once ran Pwn2Own. Several others individually won prizes last year by hacking Adobe Reader and Oracle's Java.

Gorenc disagreed with Miller, and dismissed the idea that teams, especially large ones like Vupen's, skewed the contest. "Every year, we sit down and think about how to make Pwn2Own more interesting," said Gorenc. "Last year, we thought about [individuals versus teams] but just went forward with one contest. If people want to team up and split the prize money, that's up to them."

The total payout in 2013 was a record $480,000.

Bekrar also criticized the Exploit Unicorn challenge, arguing that the $150,000 prize is inadequate when three different zero-day vulnerabilities are needed to win. "Unicorn prize is useless as it requires to burn 3 0days: IE + sandbox bypass + kernel exploit, while two would be enough," he said on Twitter.

According to Gorenc, there is no three-vulnerability minimum for the grand prize. "If they can make it happen in just two, and followed the rules, we'd be glad to give them the prize," Gorenc said.

TippingPoint and its ZDI bounty program have sponsored or co-sponsored Pwn2Own since its 2007 inception. After researchers hand over the vulnerabilities they used to hack targets -- and their exploit code -- ZDI confirms the results, then passes the information to the pertinent vendors, which often have representatives on-site, ready to jump on patching.


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