Pwn2Own Hacking Contest Bounties Exceed $500,000

The bi-annual Pwn2Own competition offers more money for undiscovered vulnerabilities in browsers and plugins, but requires researchers to turn over a working exploit.

Hewlett-Packard's TippingPoint announced on Jan. 17 that it will be offering security researchers more than $500,000 in prize money for successfully attacking the four major browsers and three common plugins during its bi-annual Pwn2Own competition, but will require the researchers to turn over working exploits.

The company published the rules for the competition, which challenges contestants to compromise Windows and Mac OS X systems by exploiting new, and unreported, vulnerabilities in the systems. With up to $100,000 awarded to researchers that successfully break into a system, the contest has posted the largest bounties yet for a white-market rewards program.

A total of $560,000 is up for grabs in the competition, a sum that is aimed at attracting as many participants as possible, said Brian Gorenc, manager of vulnerability research at TippingPoint's vulnerability research group, DVLabs.

"We want to see all the targets tested and have active participation for all the categories," Gorenc said. "We wouldn't put up that sort of money except to have all the categories tested. When it comes down to it, we want to give away all the prize money."

The winners of the competition are required to give HP's TippingPoint details of the vulnerability, which the company delivers to the affected software vendor. Unlike previous competitions, winners must give up the actual exploits used to attack the systems as well, a stipulation that caused some concern among security researchers worried about giving up their techniques.

"If the full exploit (and) technique are shared with the vendor, we will probably not enter or we have to use some tricks," Chaouki Bekrar, CEO of offensive-security provider VUPEN, which won Pwn2Own 2012, said in a statement on Twitter.

While VUPEN won $60,000 in that competition by successfully compromising the most browsers, researchers have the potential to collect a lot more money this year. Breaking into a system using a flaw in the latest version of Google's Chrome or Internet Explorer 10 could net a researcher $100,000, while infecting a system using vulnerabilities in Apple's Safari garners a $65,000 reward. Mozilla's Firefox on Windows 7 awards $60,000, the smallest bounty among the browsers. Finding exploitable vulnerabilities in either the Adobe Reader or Flash plugin is worth $70,000, while successfully attacking Oracle's Java browser plugin garners $20,000.

"Over the last several years, we have seen browser plug-in vulnerabilities become increasingly popular in exploit kits and malware," TippingPoint said in its post online. "These vulnerabilities affect a large percentage of the Internet community and are quickly weaponized by attackers."

The value of vulnerabilities has quickly increased over the past few years, driven up by the successful use of zero-day vulnerabilities in cyber operations attributed to nation-states or state-sponsored attackers. Government purchases of exploitable vulnerabilities have become a lucrative gray marketplace for many researchers.

The addition of plugins to the list of acceptable targets is a response to the increasing focus of exploit kits—software toolkits that aid cybercriminals' efforts to compromise victims' computers—on the common plugins, such as Oracle's Java and Adobe Reader.

"You see a lot of exploit kits using those plugins to gain remote execution on victim's boxes," Gorenc said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...