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9/13/2016
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Portrait Of A Bug Bounty Hacker

Bounty programs attract young, self-taught hackers who primarily depend on it as a lucrative side gig.

As bug bounty programs start to gain wider-spread acceptance in the enterprise, information security leaders are likely curious about who it is, exactly, they're depending upon to help them. The answer, for the most part, is hardly surprising, according to a new survey out today by HackerOne. On the whole, most bug bounty hunters are young males seeking to challenge themselves with a fun and lucrative side gig. Nevertheless, there's a statistically significant number who are turning the practice into a full-time job.

The 2016 Bug Bounty Hacker Report took a look at some key demographics of over 600 of the hackers who hunt for vulnerabilities with the aim of picking up cash from HackerOne clients. According to the firm, over the past year its crowdsourced program has helped resolve more than 28,000 vulnerabilities and has earned researchers like the ones who participated in today's study over $10 million in bounties in that time.

The study shows that 97% of bounty hunters are male and 90% are under the age of 34. The largest component (43%) fell between 18- to 24-years old. They're spread all over the world, with survey respondents coming from 72 different countries. The biggest chunk of researchers come from India, which claims 20% of hunters, followed closely by the United States, which accounts for 18%. Russia comes in third with 8%.

Nearly three in four respondents reported that they are self-taught hackers, with just 3% saying they learned through classes or an official certification program.

"The overwhelming number of bug bounty hackers who are self-taught speaks to the importance to creativity and desire to overcome obstacles that we continue to see in our hacker community," the report explains. "This also highlights the importance of knowledge sharing within the community from publicly disclosing reports, to blogs, videos and other online resources designed to help hackers continue to improve their skills."

Unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents reported their primary motivations with bug hunting is to make money. Around 72% say they hack to earn dough. But they're also driven to have fun and to be challenged, which was noted by 70% and 66% of respondents, respectively as big motivators. Other notable reasons were to advance careers and to do good in the world.

While money is the biggest draw to these hackers, the money most of them make is supplemental. A little over half of them report making less than $20,000 a year for their efforts and 45% say they are already employed full-time. Among those moonlighters, about 28% would call themselves security practitioners, 18% label themselves software developers and 13% are consultants. There's also a significant contingent of those hacking between classes, with over one in four reporting that they're students.

Still, for a number of hackers, bug bounty programs are their life's work. The study found that 17%  of respondents say that they rely solely on bounty programs for their income and another 9% say they make at least 76% of their income from their bug-finding efforts. Many of them are making a significant chunk of change. Almost 6% of those surveyed say they make over six figures in US dollars each year from bug bounty programs.

This tracks with other research out this year from Bugcrowd, which in its 2016 State of Bug Bounty report found that 15% of its researchers were hunting bugs full-time. That study showed that 70% of its researchers spend 10 hours a week or fewer working on bounties. Those "super hunters" who dedicate more time to the efforts do tend to produce more for bug bounty programs. According to Bugcrowd, its top ten paid researchers have collectively made 23% of total payouts from all of its programs.

 

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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