Pwn2Own hacking contest ends with two virtual machine escapes

Two teams of researchers chain multiple vulnerabilities together to escape from a guest OS running inside a VMware Workstation virtual machine

Two teams of researchers managed to win the biggest bounties at this year's Pwn2Own hacking contest by escaping from the VMware Workstation virtual machine and executing code on the host operating system.

Virtual machines are in used in many scenarios to create throw-away environments that pose no threat to the main operating system in case of compromise. For example, many malware researchers execute malicious code or visit compromise websites inside virtual machines to observe their behavior and contain their impact.

One of the main goals of hypervisors like VMware Workstation is to create a barrier between the guest operating system that runs inside the virtual machine and the host OS where the hypervisor runs. That's why VM escape exploits are highly prized, more so than browser or OS exploits.

This year, the organizers of Pwn2Own, an annual hacking contest that runs during the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver, Canada, offered a prize of US$100,000 for breaking the isolation layer enforced by the VMware Workstation or Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors.

Friday, on the third and final day of the contest, two teams stepped up to the challenge; both of them from China.

Team Sniper, made up of researchers from the Keen Lab and PC Manager divisions of internet services provider Tencent, chained together three vulnerabilities to escape from the guest OS running inside VMware Workstation to the host OS.

The other team, from the security arm of Qihoo 360, achieved an even more impressive attack chain that started with a compromise of Microsoft Edge, moved to the Windows kernel, and then escaped from the VMware Workstation virtual machine. They were awarded $105,000 for their feat.

The exploit scenarios were difficult to begin with, because attackers had to start from a non-privileged account on the guest OS, and the VMware Tools, a collection of drivers and utilities that enhance the virtual machine's functionality, were not installed. VMware Tools would have probably provided more attack surface had they been present.

Also on the third day, researcher Richard Zhu successfully hacked Microsoft Edge, complete with a system-level privilege escalation that earned him $55,000. It was fifth Microsoft Edge exploit demonstrated during the competition.

Apple's Safari fell four times, Mozilla Firefox once, but Google Chrome remained unscathed. Researchers also demonstrated two exploits for Adobe Reader and two for Flash Player, both with sandbox escapes. The contest also included many privilege escalation exploits on Windows and macOS.

The Qihoo 360 team won the most number of points and were crowned Master of Pwn for this year's edition. It was followed by Tencent's Team Sniper and a team from the security research lab of China-based Chaitin Technology.

The researchers have to share their exploits with security vendor Trend Micro, the contest's organizer, which then reports them to the affected software vendors.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?