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The Failure of my Security Blogging Contest

On the 20th of January (8 days before the start of linux.conf.au) I advertised contest to write blog posts related to computer security for the conference Planet [1].

The aim of the contest was to encourage (by money prizes) people who had no prior experience in computer security to get involved by writing blog posts. The rules permitted security professionals to enter but only for an honourable mention, the money was reserved for people without prior experience.

The money that I initially advertised was a fraction of what was reserved for prizes, the idea being that if the contest went well then the prize pool could be easily increased but that if it didn’t go well then there would only be one small prize for someone to win by default. At the time I considered a single entry winning by default to be the worst case scenario.

The eventual result was that there was only one entry, this was from Martin Krafft on the point of keysigning [2]. Martin has prior experience in the computer security field which excludes him from a money prize, but he gets the only honourable mention. From a quick conversation with him it seems that his desire from entering the contest was to get his ideas about weaknesses in the keysigning process spread more widely, so this seems like a fairly ideal result for him. I agree with Martin that there are significant issues related to the keysigning process, but my ideas about them are a little different (I’ll blog about it later). His point about people merely checking that the picture matches on the ID and not verifying what the ID means is significant, the fact is that the vast majority of people are not capable of recognising ID from other countries. Other than requiring passports (which differ little between countries) I can’t think of a good solution to this problem.

Congratulations Martin! It is a good post and a worthy entry.

Now as to why the contest failed. I spoke to some people at the end of the conference about this. One delegate (who I know has the skills needed to produce a winning entry) said that I advertised it too soon before the conference and didn’t give delegates time to write entries. While I can’t dispute his own reasons for not entering I find it difficult to believe that more than a small proportion of delegates had that motivation. The LCA Planet had some lengthy posts by other delegates, and the guy who won second prize in the hack-fest spent something like 20 hours coding on his entry during the conference time (I suspect that my contest had the potential for a better ratio of work to prize money). Also the 8 days before the conference started was a good time to write entries for the contest.

One suggestion was that I propose that the conference organisers run such a contest next year. The problem with this is that it’s difficult to say “I tried this and failed, could you please try it too”. If nothing else I would need some significant reasons to believe that the contest has the potential to be more successful before attempting it on a larger scale. If the contest had been backed by the LCA organisers then it might have been more successful, but that possibility seems unlikely (and there is scope for an event to be more successful than mine while still being a failure). The reason that I consider it unlikely that official support would make it more successful is that I first advertised the event on my blog (syndicated to the conference Planet). Everyone who has a blog and attends the conference can be expected to have read about it. I then advertised it on the conference mailing list which I believe had as subscribers a large portion of the people who have enough spare time to create a blog specifically for the purpose of entering such a contest.

A blogging contest related to a conference but which had a wider scope (IE not limited to one field but instead covering anything related to the conference) might be successful. If someone wants to run such a contest next year then it’s probably worth doing.

Of course I have not given up on the plan of getting more people involved in computer security, expect to see some blog posts from me in the near future with other approaches to this. Suggestions would be appreciated.

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