It may have started out as a way to build a brand and engage the curiosity of the Internet development community, but an Israeli development-tools company's Game of Hacks competition has proven so popular that it is developing a white-labelled solution to help organisations put their own developers through their security paces.
The online game – which pushes players to test their ability to spot security flaws in samples of actual code – was played by 35,000 people in its first 24 hours and hundreds of thousands more in the months since its launch in August 2014. Yet the most interesting part of the Game of Hacks, vice president of marketing Asaph Schulman told CSO Australia, was watching what happened as hackers tired of the game itself and began looking for ways to hack it.
Many of those mechanisms exploited vulnerabilities that Checkmarx had planted within the code on the assumption that it would become a honeypot for hackers. The company quietly watched discussions about the game on hacker forums, where participants quickly concluded that “hacking Game of Hacks is easier than playing Game of Hacks”.
Some hackers figured out ways to work around the game's control mechanisms, tricking its timer or gaming the leaderboard. Some gamers used bots to scrape all of the questions and correct answers in the game, then play it over and over again to set record scores. Checkmarx even found itself repeatedly blocking one very persistent UK hacker, who took over the leaderboard and posted a slew of racist, provocative messages that Checkmarx quickly erased.
Yet it was the interaction of hackers with code, and code with devices, that created new learnings for everyone involved: “People came up with ways to game the game, that we didn't even think of,” Schulman laughed, citing one hack that exploited a feature of the iPhone to freeze the timer and give contestants more time to answer the questions.
It was all part of the purpose of the game: “At the end of the day there was no chance in the world that you could target the developer and hacker community,” he said, “and not have them trying monkey business with the game.”
“There were different ways that people took advantage of the game and found vulnerabilities; some reported the vulnerabilities to us, and others just exploited the hell out of them.”
Game of Hacks rapidly became something altogether different, however, once Checkmarx began fielding enquiries from companies that wanted to buy the software – which had always been available to play for free online – for use within their own environments.
The company hadn't anticipated the emergence of this kind of demand, but the number of enquiries was great enough that it is now developing an on-premise version of Game of Hacks that can be tailored to suit different programming languages, or to incorporate real vulnerabilities as they are found during the development process.
“Chief security officers are concerned by the very low levels of secure coding and the understanding that developers don't have about security,” Schulman said. “Security awareness and secure coding education are a big problem – and everybody seems to love this approach, which is different to current and fairly boring security training where they stick devs in a room every 6 to 12 months and try to teach them to write secure code.”
Code samples in the white-labelled version, which is in limited beta now and expected to ship in the third quarter of this year, may also be gleaned from the company's own code scanner – its flagship product, which helps developers scan code for security vulnerabilities while applications are still being written – to provide fresh samples that are relevant and engaging for the target audience.
“At the end of the day,” Schulman said, “if we can actually replicate this phenomenon – posing questions about finding vulnerabilities and gamifying that – we can create something that is fun, educational, and resolves a certain pain point for our target audience.”
This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.