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Sony gets 'epic fail' award from hackers

John D. Sutter
Sarah Willis, a friend of one of the judges, was the Vanna White of the Black Hat conference's Pwnie Awards.
Sarah Willis, a friend of one of the judges, was the Vanna White of the Black Hat conference's Pwnie Awards.
  • "Pwn," in hacker jargon, means "to own" or "to take control of"
  • Pwnie Awards are held in conjunction with the Black Hat computer security conference
  • Stuxnet, a worm aimed at attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, won "Pwnie for Epic 0wnage"

Las Vegas (CNN) -- It's the Oscars for hard-core computer hackers, except that the trophies at the Pwnie Awards are cutesy little toy horses with pink and purple manes.

An explanation helps make some sense of this: "Pwn," in hacker jargon, means "to own" or "to take control of." It's the ultimate IT-nerd dis. As in, "I totally own your network." Or "I just pwned you in that World of Warcraft battle."

Add an -ie to the end, and you get "Pwnie," which is pronounced "pony" -- as in My Little Pony, which is exactly what these awards resemble.

See how much sense that makes?

It's all in good fun, but the hacker-judges behind this year's Pwnie Awards, which were held Wednesday night in a dark conference room at Caesars Palace in conjunction with the Black Hat computer security conference, stepped into some serious territory this year. They dished out awards for notorious hacks, such as the malicious Stuxnet worm, and lambasted companies that hackers have taken down.

It's an awards show where the bad guys win, even though the judges are quick to say they're not condoning any questionable online behavior.

Stuxnet, which apparently was aimed at attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, won the "Pwnie for Epic 0wnage" -- meaning a really good hack. No one walked up to the stage to accept that award, of course, because no one knows who's behind Stuxnet.

That worm beat out better-known competitors: the hacking rings Anonymous and LulzSec; and U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning, who allegedly gave information to WikiLeaks. Not that any of them would have gone on stage to accept the award either.

The biggest no-duh moment of the night came when the seven hacker-judges -- all seated on stage, all men, and three of them wearing black shirts -- gave the "Pwnie for Most Epic Fail" award to Sony. In case you haven't been on the Internet in a year, a presenter joked, hackers stole personal information -- and plenty of credit card numbers -- from people who play video games and watch movies on Sony PlayStation's online network.

Sony actually was the only company nominated in that category.

Other Pwnie awards were given for "Best Client-Side Bug," which went to the hacker Comex, who started the site, which lets people customize their iPhones by breaking into them -- freeing them up to work on other cellular networks.

A guy in a white T-shirt, who claimed to know Comex, almost fell over when he tried to hop onto the stage to accept the award on that hacker's behalf.

The Pwnie for "Best Server-Side Bug" had to be presented with a caveat: "Be aware that our definition of server-side has been disputed, so our definition is any bug that exploits a feature remotely without using interaction."

Murmurs rustled through the audience. The winner was "ASP.NET Framework Padding Oracle."

Finally, what awards show would be complete without some music? The Pwnie for best hacking-related song went to the hacker Geohot, who got on Sony's bad side before the recent rampage of data leaks. His song defies description. You just have to watch the video on YouTube. (Warning: Hackers being sued by Sony may use foul language.)

For a full list of winners, go to the awards site at

Throughout the awards ceremony, a woman named Sarah Willis stood on stage and managed to keep a pleasant and mostly unconfused look on her face as she passed out tiny pony dolls to hackers and their proxies.

Willis, a friend of one of the judges, said she enjoyed being the Vanna White of the Pwnies. And even though she works in marketing and doesn't live the hacker culture, she's into it.

"I want to absorb as much as I can while I'm here," she said.

Other participants expressed this learning-is-good sentiment, too.

Even though the Sony hack was terrible, the "silver lining" is that it got people thinking about computer security, said Dino Dai Zovi, one of the judges.

They had to think about it, he said, because they couldn't use their PlayStations.


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