None of the major Web browsers are impervious to focused hacker teams. All four were successfully hacked in the Pwn2Own contest that took place this past week in Vancouver.
The two-day hackathon, which concluded Thursday, is backed by Hewlett-Packard and run by its Zero-Day Initiative. The contest organizers offered up to $1.085 million in prizes; $82,500 of that money went to charity and the rest to eight research teams.
The objects of the hackers' attention: Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, Microsoft 's Internet Explorer, and Mozilla's Firefox desktop browsers, plus Adobe's Reader and Flash plug-in. The Google, Microsoft and Flash entries had all been refreshed with security updates right before the contest.
Team Winnings of $400,000
Chaouki Bekrar, Chief Executive and Chief Researcher at Vulpen Security, told news media that the big takeaway from the contest was that "even the most secure software can be compromised by a team of researchers with enough resources." His team took home the most ever won by a Pwn2Own team -- $400,000.
The security vulnerabilities are reported to the software's maker, which can then close that particular barn door. Additionally, software makers watch for others' vulnerabilities, to make sure their products are not similarly susceptible.
Software makers are also reducing the time it takes them to patch reported issues. As recently as 2012, the average time for a security bug fix to be released was 180 days, but now that's been cut by a third to about 120.
Additionally, the number of submitted exploits by research teams this year was a record-setting 16. One team, the Keen Team from China, received $65,000 for successfully breaking into Safari and Flash. Members of that team have committed to donating some of their prize money to a Chinese charity set up for families of passengers on the missing Malaysian Airlines plane.
Google's Pwnium Shows Chromebooks Also Vulnerable
A team from Google, which is co-sponsoring the contest, took down Safari and won $32,500. The contest organizer, Zero-Day Initiative, nabbed Explorer and brought home $50,000. The teams donated their winnings to the Red Cross in Canada.
While many teams successfully reached their targets, a white whale still swims out there in hackerland. A grand prize of $150,000 was offered but not won for a hack appropriately called the Exploit Unicorn. It requires system-level code execution on a Windows 8.1 x 64 machine, in Explorer 11 x 64 and with an Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit bypass.
Google also held its own Pwnium security hackathon in Vancouver on Wednesday, awarding $2.7 million in prizes. The highlight of that competition was a successful exploit of the HP Chromebook 11, which netted a $150,000 prize for well-known researcher George Hotz. He also received $50,000 for one of the Firefox hacks in Pwn2Own.
The technology giant must have had mixed feelings though, since it has been promoting the security of Chromebooks as being "built to be secure from the ground up." In a post on the Google Chrome Developers blog, the company noted that, in the past two years of the Pwnium contest, it has invited hackers to target the Chromebook. And this week, they did just that -- successfully.