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MIT Launches Bug Bounty Program

University will reward MIT affiliates who find specific categories of flaws in its web domains.

Bug bounty programs have proved to be an effective way for organizations to discover potentially serious security vulnerabilities in their infrastructure. It is the reason why software and technology vendors are not the only ones with such programs these days, but a growing number of enterprises as well.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this week became one of the first academic institutions to join the group with its launch of an experimental bug bounty program designed to bolster online security.

The program is open to MIT affiliates and rewards contributors who disclose severe vulnerabilities with TechCASH, which can be used for purchasing goods and services at MIT. Top contributors will also have an opportunity to retain their Kerberos MIT email accounts after graduation as a token of appreciation from MIT, a program description said this week.

Participation in the programs comes with several caveats. Only MIT affiliates, which typically includes undergrad and graduate students, are entitled to participate in the bug bounty program. Participants are prohibited from reading, writing, or accessing any private data that they might stumble upon when chasing down a bug.

The program also requires bounty hunters to refrain from publicly disclosing details of any bug they might discover until it has been fully addressed. Also prohibited are what administrators described as noisy automated scanners and any tests that disrupt services or prevent students and staff from accessing them

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Under the MIT bug bounty program, bug hunters are free to search for vulnerabilities in the university’s main student information system domain, its Atlas administrative systems hub, and the MIT course management system.

While bug hunters are not restricted from reporting any bugs, the university says it is most interested in discoveries involving SQL injection errors, remote code execution flaws, and weaknesses that allow privilege escalation and bypass of user authorization controls. Also high on the list of flaws the university is interested in hearing about are Cross Site Request Forgeries and Cross-Site Scripting errors, both of which are well understood and known about for years.

By the same token, MIT says it does not want bug hunters to look for or report on bugs that do not pose near or demonstrable risk. Also on the banned list are vulnerabilities involving denial of service attacks, social engineering exploits, physical attacks on servers and systems, and issues such as Address Resolution Protocol poisoning attacks, DNS poisoning, and other local exploits.

One reason why a growing number of organizations have begun using bug bounty programs is to give bug hunters more of an incentive for reporting a bug to them instead of selling it to a malicious adversary. Previous research has shown that bug bounty programs work especially well in unearthing vulnerabilities in relatively young software.

A database of current bug bounty and bug disclosure programs maintained by Bugcrowd lists over 450 programs from a wide range of organizations. A majority of the programs are from software and other technology firms. But many are not. Included in the list are companies as diverse as United Airlines, right advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Starbucks.

Another example is Uber, which earlier this year announced a program under which it will offer up to $10,000 in reward to researchers who responsibly disclose vulnerabilities in its software. To be eligible for the reward program, researchers are required to find at least four vulnerabilities in Uber’s software that the company validates as being genuine flaws.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
4/21/2016 | 7:57:04 PM
MIT's hacking talent
MIT certainly has the hacking talent.  It's probably the main reason I don't use the school's Wi-Fi when I visit the campus.  ;)
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Ninja
4/20/2016 | 5:45:31 PM
MIT, Uber are on the right track
Yes, make it worth people's time to hunt down vulnerabilities. We can't leave all the incentive to those busy seeking to create vulnerability exploits.
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