Microsoft kicks off $250,000 security contest

Rejects bug bounties, wants to shut down entire class of Windows exploits

Microsoft today launched a $250,000 contest for researchers who develop defensive security technologies that deal with entire classes of exploits.

The total cash awards for Microsoft's "BlueHat Prize" contest easily dwarfs any bug bounty that's been given by rivals.

Google, for instance, which pays for Chrome vulnerability reports, has spent just over $110,000 so far this year, putting it on a pace to hand out about $190,000 in 2011.

Microsoft said the competition is an effort to tap researchers' brains for something bigger than a vulnerability here, a bug there.

"We want to make it more costly and difficult for criminals to exploit vulnerabilities," said Katie Moussouris, a senior security strategist lead at Microsoft, in a news conference today. "We want to inspire researchers to focus their expertise on defensive security technologies."

The company announced the contest as this year's Black Hat security conference got under way today in Las Vegas.

Moussouris said that Microsoft rejected the idea of a bug bounty program, and instead came up with the contest, which kicks off today and runs through April 1, 2012. Winners will be announced at next year's Black Hat security conference.

"Overall, it seemed to us that to take an approach to block entire classes was the best way to engage with the research community and protect customers," said Moussouris when asked by Computerworld why the company did not institute a bug bounty program instead.

Moussouris cited statistics today that showed Microsoft does not need a bug bounty program similar to the one that Google operates for its Chrome browser, or that HP TippingPoint runs to acquire vulnerabilities on multiple operating systems, including Windows and Mac OS X, or Microsoft or third-party applications.

According to Moussouris, 90% of security researchers who privately report vulnerabilities to Microsoft do so directly rather than submitting them to a bug broker such as TippingPoint.

She also argued that bounties -- which for Google max out at just over $3,000 -- are a far cry from the money to be made by selling them on the black market.

Andrew Storms, the director of security operations at nCircle Security, called the contest "a fabulous idea" as he agreed with Moussouris. "Historically, most of the bugs are coming directly to them, so a bug bounty wouldn't be the best use of their money at the moment," said Storms.

And he applauded Microsoft for thinking outside the box.

"They're taking a forward-looking thought process here, and putting money behind it," said Storms. "I'm bullish on this because it's something new and different, and the security industry needs more new and different. We're sort of in a hamster cage right now with bugs."

The BlueHat Prize will award $200,000 to the first-place winner, $50,000 for second place, and a subscription to Microsoft's developer network as the third-place award. The three winners will be flown to next year's Black Hat by Microsoft, which will announce the contest results then.

Microsoft has posted contest details on its website, where it said it was hoping researchers would come up with "a novel runtime mitigation technology designed to prevent the exploitation of memory safety vulnerabilities."

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