On the second and final day of the Pwn2Own 2018 hacking competition on March 15, security researchers were awarded $105,000 in prize money for new zero-day exploits.
The total two-day prize total awarded by Trend Micro's Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) at the event came to $267,000, which is far less than what was available for hackers to win. The original prize pool for Pwn2Own 2018 event was $2 million, but multiple targets, including Google's Chrome, were not tested by researchers. The hacking competition, which took place at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, Canada, awards security researchers for demonstrating working zero-day exploits against fully patched systems.
"The biggest surprise is how many people targeted Apple Safari," Dustin Childs, communications manager for ZDI, told eWEEK. "It's really returning to the roots of Pwn2Own when we saw a lot of individuals targeting macOS."
The 2018 total prize tally was also less than what was awarded during the 2017 Pwn2Own contest, when ZDI awarded $823,000 in prize money to security researchers. The first day of the 2018 event saw ZDI award $162,000 for vulnerabilities in Microsoft Edge, Oracle VirtualBox and Apple Safari. The second day saw researchers take aim at Apple Safari yet again, as well as Mozilla's Firefox web browser.
On the second day of the event, security researcher Richard Zhu earned $50,000 for exploiting Firefox running on Microsoft Windows. Zhu made use of a new zero-day out-of-bounds (OOB) write flaw in Firefox followed by a zero-day integer overflow in the Windows kernel to claim the prize.
There were two attempts against Apple software on the second day, one of which wasn't entirely successful. Security researchers Markus Gaasedelen, Nick Burnett and Patrick Biernat of Ret2 Systems attempted to exploit Apple Safari with a sandbox escape. As part of the Pwn2Own contest rules, researchers have a specific amount of time and a certain number of attempts to get an exploit working.
It took the Ret2 Systems researchers four attempts before getting their exploit to work, and so didn't qualify for a Pwn2Own award. ZDI, however, still bought the bugs from the researchers as part of the regular ZDI program and not as part of the Pwn2Own contest. Outside of Pwn2Own, ZDI is in the business of buying security vulnerabilities, though typically ZDI pays less for them as part of its regular program than it does at Pwn2Own.
"While we can’t give specifics, we can confirm that it was less than the full Pwn2Own payout," Childs said of the Ret2 Systems payout.
A team of researchers from MWR Labs that included Alex Plaskett, Georgi Geshev and Fabi Beterke also took aim at Safari with a sandbox escape. In contrast to the Ret2 Systems team, the MWR Labs team was successful, using a pair of different vulnerabilities to earn a $55,000 award.
The Pwn2Own 2018 event was particularly challenging for multiple reasons, including the fact that operating system and browser vendors have made it increasingly difficult for hackers.
"One thing we learned this year is the importance of giving researchers as much time to build their exploits as possible," Childs said. "We saw some contestants withdraw because they simply didn’t have enough time to complete their chains due to the increased complexity of the targets."
Although browser and operating system software has become more secure in recent years, Pwn2Own 2018 did demonstrate that even fully patched systems can be exploited by the best security researchers.
"Software will always be vulnerable," Childs said. "No matter what patches are released, researchers will continue to find holes in popular enterprise platforms."
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.