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Rival hacking contests kick off today with $1.1M at stake

HP TippingPoint argues Google's 'Pwnium' money is safe because Chrome sandbox-escape exploits are worth more than Google's paying

March 7, 2012 11:40 AM ET

Computerworld - Two hacking contests kicked off in Canada today, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money up for grabs.

HP TippingPoint's Pwn2Own and Pwnium, Google's offshoot, both begin today at CanSecWest, a security conference that runs March 7-9 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Just a week ago, there was to be only Pwn2Own, now in its fifth year, with both TippingPoint's Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), the company's bug bounty program, and Google promising to pitch in prize money.

For its part, ZDI committed $105,000 that would award $60,000 for the top score in a three-day event combining zero-day bug exploits with on-site hacking challenges.

Google, meanwhile, said it would pay up to $20,000 for any exploit of its own Chrome browser.

But on Feb. 27, Google withdrew from Pwn2Own, saying the contest did not require participants to hand over their exploits or divulge all the bugs they used to hack Chrome.

Instead, Google announced Pwnium, a separate event that will pay up to $60,000 for any exploit that leverages only bugs in Chrome. Google pledged to pay out as much as $1 million if several researchers stepped forward with Chrome-only "zero-day," or previously unknown, vulnerabilities and their exploits.

"Pwnium" is a play on Chromium, the name of the open-source project that feeds code to Chrome, and like its rival contest, uses "pwn," hacker-speak for "own," as in to seize control of a computer.

In a lengthy blog post last week, ZDI gave its side of the disagreement that had led Google to pull out of Pwn2Own.

ZDI argued that its goal was to get researchers to reveal bugs -- TippingPoint then adds blockers for those vulnerabilities to its enterprise-grade security appliances -- and wasn't necessarily interested in the exploit details.

But exploits are what Google wants to examine, said a pair of its engineers last week.

The dispute over vulnerabilities versus exploits, said ZDI, centered around "sandbox escapes," attacks that let a hacker break out of the isolating anti-exploit sandbox used by Chrome to keep malware in the browser and out of the operating system or other applications.

"Pwn2Own has never required that contestants give up such sandbox escapes. We do require that they demonstrate them, in order to verify that they did indeed 'hack' the target, but we have never required they disclose the escape to us or the vendor," said ZDI [emphasis in original].

It's done that, said ZDI, because it believes that prize money -- even the top $60,000 it will award this year and the identical amount Google plans on paying -- isn't enough to shake loose the very rare sandbox-escape vulnerabilities and ensuing exploits.

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