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IE8 and Safari flaws exposed at hacker contest

Researchers concentrated on exposing security flaws of the leading web browsers, after one hacker took just ten second to crack Safari during a popular hacking contest at the CanSecWest security conference.

Conference organisers had invited attendees to display attacks that targeted previously unknown flaws in browsers or mobile devices in the show's annual Pwn2Own contest. By the end of the first day, Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox had all been hacked, but nobody took a crack at the five mobile devices up for grabs, even though the contest's sponsor, TippingPoint, is paying out $10,000 (£7,000) per mobile bug, twice what it's paying for the browser flaws.

For the attacks to count, hackers had to use the bugs to get code to run on the machine. The bugs uncovered through the contest get vetted by TippingPoint, and are then handed over to the associated software vendors to be patched.

The first browser to go was Apple's Safari browser running on a Macintosh. Last year's contest winner, Charlie Miller, quickly hacked into the Mac using a bug he found while preparing for last year's event. Though Miller's Apple hacking has given him a lot of attention, Safari is an easy target, he said in an interview right after his hack. "There are a lot of bugs out there."

Microsoft's Internet Explorer didn't fare much better, though. Another hacker, who identified himself to organisers only as Nils, had soon hacked Internet Explorer 8. Nils then wowed the hackers in the room by unleashing exploits for Safari and Firefox as well.

Miller said he wasn't surprised to see the mobile phones go without attack. For one thing, the rules governing the mobile phone attacks were strict, requiring that the exploit work with virtually no user interaction. In coming days, these restrictions will loosen, giving hackers more avenues of attack.

Still, Miller says that breaking into mobile devices like the iPhone is "harder" than PC hacking. Though security researchers like Miller may be interested in smart phones right now, to date there hasn't been a lot of research and documentation of how to attack mobile platforms. "They don't make it easy to do research on it," Miller said.

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