Bugs Money

Talk about geek chic. Facebook has started paying researchers who find and report security bugs by issuing them custom branded “White Hat” debit cards that can be reloaded with funds each time the researchers discover new flaws.

Facebook's Bug Bounty debit card for security researchers who report security flaws in its site and applications.

I first read about this card on the Polish IT security portal Niebezpiecznik.pl, which recently published an image of a bug bounty card given to Szymon Gruszecki, a Polish security researcher and penetration tester. A sucker for most things credit/debit card related, I wanted to hear more from researchers who’d received the cards.

Like many participants in Facebook’s program, Gruszecki also is hunting bugs for other companies that offer researchers money in exchange for privately reporting vulnerabilities, including Google, Mozilla, CCBill and Piwik. That’s not to say he only finds bugs for money.

“I regularly report Web app vulnerabilities to various companies [that don’t offer bounties], including Microsoft, Apple, etc.,” Gruszecki wrote in an email exchange.

The bug bounty programs are a clever way for Internet-based companies to simultaneously generate goodwill within the security community and to convince researchers to report bugs privately. Researchers are rewarded if their bugs can be confirmed, and if they give the affected companies time to fix the flaws before going public with the information.

As an added bonus, some researchers — like Gruszecki — choose not to disclose the bugs at all.

“My rule #1 as participant of bug bounties: Don’t tell details about reported bugs,” he replied, when asked about the details behind his most recent Facebug find. “This is my personal decision, but perhaps in the future I change my mind. So I prefer to fix the bugs silently, but it’s nice that they can mention about me by putting my name on their White Hat list.”

Gurszecki said that as cool as the White Hat card is, he has asked Facebook to send his earnings another way, saying that using the card carried too many fees in his country.

“I have found the card is too expensive to use in Poland, and chose another way to get my reward,” he said. “The Facebook team sent me the card only as a souvenir.”

Neal Poole, a junior at Brown University, has reported close to a dozen flaws to Facebook, and also recently received a White Hat card. Poole has earned cash reporting flaws to Google and Mozilla, but unlike Gruszecki he blogs about each vulnerability he finds after they are fixed, detailing every step of his discovery and interaction with the affected vendor.

Poole’s research and diligent write-ups eventually caught the attention of Facebook’s recruiters: Next summer, he’ll be interning at Facebook, working directly with the company’s security team.

The New York native welcomed the bug bounty card, which makes it a bit easier to get paid. Initially, he’d asked to be paid via Western Union, but he ended up having the payment sent via PayPal. Now he just takes the card into JP Morgan Chase (the issuer of the card) and has them dump the cash into his bank account. “It was a little confusing at first for the people at my bank. They’d never seen one of these cards before.”

The young researcher said although the White Hat card definitely carries some geek cred, he won’t be flashing it at security conferences to buy drinks for his contemporaries anytime soon.

“I don’t think I’d want to use card like that at [hacker conventions like] Black Hat or DefCon,” Poole said. “It’d probably get cloned, or I’d feel like if you pulled out the card it you would immediately become a target.”

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