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Monday, 12 April 2021 10:12

Anger as woman researcher walks away empty-handed from hacking contest

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Anger as woman researcher walks away empty-handed from hacking contest Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The first woman to participate in the Pwn2Own hacking competition as an independent researchers has walked away empty-handed despite her attempt at hacking the Parallels Desktop in the virtualisation category succeeding.

Russian researcher Alisa Shevchenko, who is also known Alisa Esage, was awarded a partial win in her attempt, with the organisers, the Zero Day Initiative which is owned by security vendor Trend Micro, saying: "Despite the great demonstration (replete with ASCII art), the bug used by Alisa had been reported to the ZDI prior to the contest, making this a partial win.

"It's still great work, and we're thrilled she broke ground as the 1st woman to participate as an independent researcher in Pwn2Own history. Her efforts do result in two points towards Maser of Pwn."

However, some researchers were not happy with this decision, in particular Katie Moussouris, the owner of Luta Security and a well-known figure in the infosec community, who felt that Esage should have been paid the full bounty due.

"Alisa won & should get paid full prize," she tweeted. "The rules around bug collisions within vs outside the contest should be clarified. Contests & bug bounties are different."

Moussouris offered to pay the bounty for Esage. She was somewhat agitated over what had happened, saying: "Douche noodles who demand to know why I’m not offering to pay for male partial wins in Pwn2own: I don’t owe you a debate. If someone supports a cause, is it cool to angrily demand they support all other causes equally? I’ve witnessed a partial win for a male get paid more."

And she went on: "In a hacking contest, it doesn’t need to be complicated to pay fairly & transparently. If you hack into a fully patched system, you win. Like the real world Prize payment contingent upon whether every bug in an exploit is already privately known to the vendor just breeds distrust.

"Since it’s entirely up to them [meaning ZDI] to pay or not, they could just pay for anything that’s not a dupe with other contestants, & offer 50% for IN-CONTEST dupes with the ability for ppl to get the full prize if they submit a new PoC with dupes replaced later. How much later? WHO CARES."

Last year, Moussouris set up a Pay Equity Now foundation which "emerged out of a pursuit to inspire and support efforts to close the gender and racial pay gaps, and a desire for actions to speak louder than words".

tweet deletedShe deleted some of her later tweets, one of which is on the right.

Participants in the Pwn2Own contest are faced with a standard, patched vanilla configuration of the system they are targeting. The hardware is not known to them and they have 20 minutes to attack the target during the competition.

Another well-known researcher, Charlie Miller, said: "When did pwn2own rules change to 'the vendor can’t know about it'? When I was participating, there were some crazy rules, but when I got a shell, I knew I won. It didn’t matter what the vendor knew. In fact, I think they knew about one of my bugs and I still got paid..."

This year's contest had 23 separate entries targeting 10 different products in the categories of Web browsers, virtualisation, servers, local escalation of privilege and enterprise communications.

A total of US$1.21 million (A$1.58 million) was paid out as bounties in all.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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