Security Vendors Slam Defcon Virus Contest

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There will be a new contest at the Defcon hacker conference this August, one that antivirus vendors already hate.

Called Race-to-Zero, the contest will invite Defcon hackers to find new ways of beating antivirus software. Contestants will get some sample virus code that they must modify and try to sneak past the antivirus products.

Awards will be given for "Most elegant obfuscation," "Dirtiest hack of an obfuscation," "Comedy value" and "Most deserving of beer," contest organizers say.

The contest was announced Friday. Security vendors began panning it immediately, saying it will simply help the bad guys learn some new tricks.

"It will do more harm than good," said Paul Ferguson, a researcher with antivirus vendor TrendMicro. "Responsible disclosure is one thing, but now actually encouraging people to do this as a contest is a little over the top."

Some compared the contest to a controversial 2006 Consumer Reports review of antivirus software. In that article, the magazine created 5,500 new virus samples, based on existing malware, and was roundly criticized by antivirus vendors for contributing to the rapidly expanding list of known malware.

Security companies are already having a hard time keeping up with the torrent of new malware.

With antivirus vendors already processing some 30,000 samples each day, there's no need for any more samples, said Roger Thompson, chief research officer with antivirus vendor AVG Technologies. "It's hard to see an upside for encouraging people to write more viruses," he said via instant message. "It's a dumb idea."

Contest organizers say that they're trying to help computer users understand just how much effort is required to skirt antivirus products. "The point behind the contest is to illustrate that antivirus alone is not a complete defense against malware," said one of the contest's organizers, who identified himself only as "Rich," in an e-mail message.

The Race-to-Zero sponsors hope to present the contest results during Defcon, Rich said.

The contest is not organized by Defcon, but is one of the unofficial events that the show's organizers have encouraged attendees to arrange.

Defcon runs Aug. 8 to Aug. 10 at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

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