Germans launch $5,000 CeBIT hacker challenge

Wibu may wobble but it won't fall down, says company chief

A German computer security firm is inviting hackers to break into its products live at this year's CeBIT computer fair.

Wibu will place its reputation on the line by asking a group of "ethical" hackers to crack a file scambled with its encryption technology.

Although the event has been decribed as little more than a publicity stunt by one UK computer security expert, it is sure to draw a crowd at this year's show: the company is offering a prize of $5,000 to any hacker that can break its copy protection system and decrypt a hidden message.

Oliver Winzenried, chief executive of Wibu-Systems said the hacking contest will demonstrate the strength of Wibu's technology. "We want to produce proof in front of everybody that valuable software development projects can be safely protected. Today, illegal copies don't have to exist," he said.

Wibu uses hardware keys to lock and unlock the software encryption applied to sensitive documents. These documents can then be sent over the public Internet without any fear of unwanted eavesdropping. The encryption algorithm used to protect files is Rijndael, which was recently chosen as the US governent's new Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and will be used to protect thousands of computer systems around the world.

Brian Gladman, a consultant on the creation of AES and a former government encryption expert, said it is too much to expect anyone to crack Rijndael by brute force. "If you took all the computers in the world and ran them for a billion years, you still wouldn't be able to do it," he said. "It is a bit of stunt. What is more important is how it is implemented."

Gladman suggests that a weakness may, for example lie in the hardware keys used, which could potentially be replicated.

A spokeswoman for Wibu sayid the company believes its technology can fend off even the wiliest of hacker. "We are entirely confident that Wibu-Key is ver secure and will not be broken," she said.

Wibu-Key is currently used to protect patient records at hospitals in Germany as well as confidential documents at firms worldwide.

This is the first time that CeBIT has hosted such an event and the contest will start at high noon today in Hall 23. Wibu posted adverts for hackers for hire over the past month and detail and conditions of the competition will appear on the company's Web site on the opening day of the show.

Despite sounding similar, the hacker challenge is quite different to that faced by those trying to unravel the methods proposed by the Secure Digital Music Initiative for keeping track of copyright protected music over the Internet. In this case, the task was to remove a code number embedded into a piece of music, which some hackers achieved in a matter of days.

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