Security companies criticize Defcon virus contest

Published 29 April 2008

Hackers’ event, Defcon, will hold a contest to see who can develop the best virus to beat antivirus software; prizes range from “Most elegant obfuscation” to “Most deserving of beer”; antivirus vendors upset

There will be a new contest at the Defcon hacker conference this August, one that antivirus vendors already hate. Called Race to Zero, the contest will invite Defcon hackers to find new ways to beat antivirus software. Contestants will get some sample virus code that they must modify and try to sneak past the antivirus products. Awards will be given for “Most elegant obfuscation,” “Dirtiest hack of an obfuscation,” “Comedy value,” and “Most deserving of beer,” contest organizers said. The contest was announced Friday. Security vendors began panning it immediately, saying it will simply help the bad guys learn some new tricks. Computerworld’s Robert McMillan quotes Paul Ferguson, a researcher at antivirus vendor TrendMicro, to say that “It will do more harm than good. Responsible disclosure is one thing, but now actually encouraging people to do this as a contest is a little over the top.” Some compared the contest to a controversial 2006 Consumer Reports review of antivirus software. In that article, the magazine created 5,500 new virus samples based on existing malware, and it was roundly criticized by antivirus vendors for contributing to the rapidly expanding list of known malware. McMillan writes that security companies are already having difficulty keeping up with the torrent of new malware. With antivirus vendors already processing some 30,000 samples each day, there is no need for any more samples, said Roger Thompson, chief research officer at AVG Technologies. “It’s hard to see an upside for encouraging people to write more viruses,” he said via instant message. “It’s a dumb idea.”

Contest organizers say that they are trying to help computer users understand just how much effort is required to skirt antivirus products. “The point behind the contest is to illustrate that antivirus [technology] alone is not a complete defense against malware,” said one of the contest’s organizers, who identified himself only as “Rich,” in an e-mail message he sent McMillan. The Race to Zero sponsors hope to present the contest results during Defcon, Rich said. The contest is not organized by Defcon, but is one of the unofficial events that the show’s organizers have encouraged attendees to arrange. Defcon will run 8-10 August at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.