Hacker challenge ends in feuding

A weekend competition to test the skills of malicious hackers fell apart after poor planning by contest organizers and infighting among different hacker groups crippled the Web site responsible for keeping score in the competition.

Contest organizers invited hackers to tamper with up to 6,000 Web sites. Points were awarded to hackers who could successfully compromise an organization's Web server and deface its Web pages, according to Internet Security Systems (ISS).

The international contest, known as the Defacers Challenge, was scheduled to begin Sunday. However, the Web site designated by contest organizers to keep score of the defacements, www.zone-h.org, was quickly overwhelmed with traffic Sunday morning, according to a statement released by Zone-h.

The Tallinn, Estonia-based security portal, which is the most prominent site that tracks defacements, had no connection to the Defacers Challenge and site organizers were dismayed to learn that Zone-h was designated as scorekeeper for the challenge, according to Roberto Preatoni, also knowns as "SyS64738," founder of Zone-h.org.

"Declaring Zone-h referee was the most stupid thing someone could think of," he said.

One of Zone-h's 50 operators personally confirms each recorded defacement. Had the contest produced the volume of defacements that were promised, Zone-h could not have verified the flood of 20,000 or 30,000 defacements within the six hour window specified by the contest organizers, Preatoni said.

Compounding Zone-h's woes, the site also fell victim to a massive distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack on Sunday morning beginning at 10:00 AM local time and lasting until 5:00 PM, Zone-h said.

The attack downed Zone-h's Web site with 900M bits per second of sustained traffic and came from a group of Brazilian hackers unhappy about the contest, Preatoni said.

"They told me that defacing is an art and that silly challenges must be boycotted," he said.

The hackers said that taking down the Zone-h Web site was the only way to thwart the contest organizers, Preatoni said.

The strategy worked. Defaced Web sites submitted to Zone-h for much of Sunday were not received by Zone-h operators and could not be verified, Preatoni said.

Despite the feuding and confusion, Zone-h received around 500 recorded defacements. An additional 400 or 500 were received Monday, but had not yet been verified, Preatoni said.

As predicted by Preatoni and others, the list of compromised sites included few household names, but plenty of small Web sites in both the U.S. and abroad, such as www.thebuffrestaurant.com in Boulder, Colorado and www.ddwautomotive.com in Mishakawa, Indiana.

The absence of larger sites was greeted with praise by some security companies.

"I think it's evidence that information sharing and awareness about an issue that was coming worked," said Pete Allor, manager of X-Force Threat Intelligence Services at Internet Security Systems, which issued a warning about the contest on Wednesday.

However, others expressed skepticism about any connection between prior warnings of the contest and the lack of major defacements, saying that security vendors and the media hyped a low-level threat.

"We didn't think there was much to it, and it turned out we were right," said Al Huger, senior director of engineering at Symantec.

The level of weekend defacements reported by Zone-h was consistent with the level of activity Symantec noted on its DeepSight alert network, Huger said. That level was in line with the ordinary "background" level of defacement activity and didn't warrant the alarms, he said.

"In this case, there was no fire where there was smoke," Huger said.

Like the story of the "Boy who cried wolf," false alarms from security companies about events such as the Defacers Challenge could cause organizations to doubt future warnings, creating the possibility of bigger problems when a real crisis hits, Huger said.

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