Web mail company to pay prize after CEO hacked

After quickly being hacked, StrongWebmail plans another contest

A secure Web mail company that challenged hackers to break into the company's Web mail system is paying out a US$10,000 prize, just days after launching the contest.

A team of hackers managed to hack into StrongWebmail CEO Darren Berkovitz's Web mail account, using what's known as a cross-site scripting (XSS) attack, the company confirmed Monday. "They did it using an XSS script that took advantage of a vulnerability in the backend webmail program," StrongWebmail said in a statement.

StrongWebmail launched the contest at the end of May as a way of promoting the voice-based identification technology sold by its parent company, Telesign. Hackers were given Berkovitz's e-mail address and password and challenged to break into the account. The company thought this would prove difficult because StrongWebmail requires a special password that is telephoned to the user before e-mail can be accessed.

Secure Science Chief Scientist Lance James and his fellow hackers Aviv Raff and Mike Bailey found a back door in a common Web flaw, however, and claimed that they'd won the contest last Thursday. StrongWebmail's statement confirmed that they had indeed hacked into Berkovitz's e-mail account.

In cross-site scripting, the attacker takes advantage of a bug on the Web server in order to run malicious Web script in the victim's browser, essentially taking control of the browser.

The hackers found the Web flaw within a minute, James said, and then spent about six hours perfecting their attack. Not a lot of work for a $10,000 payout.

StrongWebmail said it was "not deterred" by the contest's quick conclusion and would be launching a new competition once this bug was fixed. "We won't rest until we have created the most secure e-mail in the world," the company said.

The bug used by the hackers was actually in the Rackspace Web mail software used to power StrongWebmail, not in the Telesign authentication system that StrongWebmail was created to promote, Berkovitz said in an e-mail interview.

The prize amount and rules of the next contest have yet to be determined, he added. "We are going to try and make the next contest really about breaching the portion that TeleSign protects," he said. "The e-mail we licensed is obviously from a large and reliable provider, but there is only so much we can do to ensure that they don't have holes on their end."

In an e-mail sent to James and viewed by the IDG News Service, the company complimented him on his hacking skills. "You and your team are quite impressive - what are your consulting rates?" the e-mail states.

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Robert McMillan

IDG News Service
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