Firefox likely to win race to fix PWN2OWN contest bug

Unless Microsoft and Apple deliver bug patches by April 1, Mozilla will fix its flaw first.

Unless its two biggest rivals take extraordinary steps, Mozilla Corp. will be the first browser maker to patch a critical vulnerability used a week ago to win US$5,000 in a hacking contest.

At the PWN2OWN competition last Thursday, a computer science student from Germany who would only give his first name as Nils cracked a Sony laptop running Windows 7 by exploiting a previously unknown bug in Microsoft Corp.'s new Internet Explorer 8 (IE8). Nils quickly followed that hack with two more, of Apple Inc.'s Safari and Mozilla's Firefox, both running on a MacBook.

For each successful exploit, Nils was paid US$5,000 -- a total of US$15,000 -- by contest sponsor 3Com Corp.'s TippingPoint. He also was awarded the Sony Viao notebook for being the first researcher to hack the machine.

By the rules of PWN2OWN, researchers are not allowed to divulge details of their vulnerabilities and exploits, but instead sign over the rights to both to TippingPoint, which in turn reports the bugs to the appropriate vendor.

Earlier today, Mozilla's director of security engineering, Lucas Adamski, told IDG News reporter Robert McMillan that Firefox would be patched against a critical vulnerability that had been disclosed on the site yesterday.

Later in the day, Mozilla added that it would also fix the bug Nils revealed. "Both issues have been investigated and fixes have been developed which are now undergoing quality assurance testing," the company announced in a post to its security blog. "These fixes will be included in the upcoming Firefox 3.0.8 release, due to be released by April 1."

Mozilla has labeled the 3.0.8 update as a "high-priority fire drill security update;" in other words, an emergency patch. Before declaring the fire drill update, Mozilla had slated 3.0.8 for a mid-April release.

It's unlikely that either Microsoft or Apple will patch their browsers' bugs before Mozilla. Apple, for example, never generates Safari patches within such a short time span. For that matter, neither does Microsoft.

The IE flaw, however, may already be fixed -- at least in IE8. The PWN2OWN contest featured the release candidate of IE8, which is the version Nils hacked. Several hours before the contest kicked off, Microsoft released the final edition of IE8, which some have speculated included a fix for Nils' bug.

They point to ZDNet security blogger Ryan Naraine's interview with Nils, during which he said he "really appreciated" the work of Mark Dowd and Alex Sotirov, two researchers who announced last summer that they were able to circumvent Windows Vista-specific security measures designed to hamper attacks. Yesterday, Dowd confirmed that IE8's final build addresses his and Sotirov's tactics "completely."

It's not known, however, if versions of IE prior to IE8 are also vulnerable to attack. In his interview, Nils admitted only that he had not been able to trigger the bug in IE7.

If Mozilla follows past practice, it will release Firefox 3.0.8 next Wednesday in the afternoon Pacific time, at which point users will be able to download it directly from the Mozilla site or use the browser's built-in updater to download and install the patched version.

Mozilla last patched Firefox March 4.

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Gregg Keizer

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