CanSecWest reportLeading browsers easily felled at hacker contest

Published 19 March 2009

Students at a hacker convention easily breach the protections built into Safari, IE 8, and Firefox; contestants do so in front of appreciative spectators and in a matter of hours

The CanSecWest event is underway in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Dan Goodin reports that Internet browser security took a beating during Day 1 of the annual hacking competition, with Apple’s Safari, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s Firefox all being unceremoniously felled in a matter of hours.


The uncontested champion of the contest was a master’s candidate from the University of Oldenburg, who managed to fell Safari, IE 8, and Firefox at the Pwn2Own contest. He joined security researcher Charlie Miller, who was able successfully to hack Safari with a separate remote-execution exploit.

“It’s not as easy as a few years ago,” said Nils, the University of Oldenburg student, referring to the difficulty of piercing the many built-in protections of Safari, IE, and Firefox. “Still, browsers have a lot of problems. It’s really a lot of codes that are exposed to the Internet.” The computer science student declined to give his last name.


The Pwn2Own contest has thrived at proving to the world that with the proper financial incentive, virtually any Internet-facing software can be proven vulnerable to real-world exploits. Amid the awe that took hold as four exploits materialized before spectators’ very eyes was this sad realization: Despite the formidable resources of the world’s biggest software organizations, browser users remain susceptible to drive-by attacks that can install keylogging software, rootkits, and other software parasites with little or no warning.


Goodin writes that more remarkable than watching hackers in one room make mince meat of three of the world’s most popular browsers was the realization that they were willing to do so for well under the going rate. According to some researchers, a reliably exploitable IE vulnerability now fetches $100,000 on the black market. Yet Nils was willing to accept just $5,000 and a new Sony Vaio for his attack.


The contest is sponsored by Austin, Texas-based security firm TippingPoint, which for several years now has paid a bounty to researchers for exploits that target commonly used programs. “If this competition hadn’t existed, I never would have found this bug,” said Miller, who is principal analyst at Independent Security Evaluators, referring to the Safari flaw he exploited this year. He exploited a separate vulnerability last year that allowed him to pwn a brand new Mac Book Air running a fully patched version of Leopard. The challenge was enough to motivate him to dust off a separate Safari bug he had been sitting on for more than twelve months for this year’s competition.


If it wasn’t for the competition, there’d still be these two bugs from this year and last year,” he added. “Apple gets free bugs, I get money and people’s computers get fixed.”