Microsoft Offers $250,000 in BlueHat Prizes for Security Technology

Microsoft announced the Blue Hat contest to encourage researchers to develop runtime mitigation technologies to prevent attackers from exploiting memory vulnerabilities.

Microsoft announced a contest to encourage security researchers to think about defensive security technology.

Dubbed the Blue Hat contest, researchers would submit the "most effective ways to prevent the use of memory safety vulnerabilities," Microsoft said Aug. 3 at the annual Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. The Microsoft BlueHat Prize contest will award $250,000 in cash prizes for the best "innovations in runtime mitigation technologies," according to Microsoft.

Microsoft wants to encourage security experts to think about "ways to reduce threats to computing devices," Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist lead for the Microsoft Security Response Center said at the press conference announcing the contest. BlueHat was a way to "capture" their imagination and energies to focus on "tough industry problems" instead of on black hat activities, Moussouris told eWEEK.

Contest submissions must be a runtime mitigation technology capable of preventing the exploitation of memory safety vulnerabilities, according to the official contest rules. Those kinds of vulnerabilities, such as return-oriented programming and just-in-time spraying, are often exploited as buffer overflows by attackers.

With the increase in criminal attacks on private and government computer systems, Microsoft wants to focus research in defensive technology, Moussouris said. The cash prize may encourage security experts to think about ways to "reduce threats to computing devices," she said.

"This is another example of Microsoft leading the pack when it comes to information security milestones," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle, noting the company is already known for Address space layout randomization (ASLR) and Data Execution Prevention (DEP).

BlueHat is different from bug bounty programs offered by Google, Mozilla and Facebook in that Microsoft doesn't want to hear about vulnerabilities, but wants to get researchers involved in coming up with ways to fix the issues, Moussouris said.

"Money always talks, so this contest should rally the base of security researchers," Storms said.

Security was a "cat and mouse" game as attackers find new holes and defenders close them, Moussouris said, acknowledging that once a winner was announced, attackers will be focusing on the new technology to try to find new vulnerabilities. Despite the fact that attackers are finding holes in ASLR and DEP, overall, these two mitigation technologies have made modern operating systems more secure.

Since there will "always" be bugs in software, the ideal scenario is one where "even if a bug is found, it cannot be used as an attack vector because defensive security technologies prevent it from being used that way," Storms said. BlueHat would move the industry closer to that scenario, he said.

Microsoft will accept submissions from Aug. 3 to April 1, 2012. The winners will be announced at Black Hat 2012, Microsoft said. Judges will rate the submissions on practicality (30 percent), robustness (30 percent) and impact (40 percent), the company said. Judges will come from security researchers within Microsoft who are experts in the kinds of threats that could exploit the vulnerabilities, Moussouris said.

The grand prize winner will receive $200,000 and the second place $50,000. The third place winner will receive a Universal Subscription to Microsoft Developer Network platform, valued at $10,000. The inventor retails ownership of the intellectual property and grants Microsoft a license to the technology. Researchers who don't win still own their intellectual property.

The prize "should attract plenty of industry talent and will bring valuable outside, creative approaches to Windows security," said Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys.