White-hat hackers participating in a US Department of Defense bug bounty initiative recently rooted out 65 unique security vulnerabilities in the Defense Travel System (DTS), an enterprise application used by millions of DoD workers worldwide.
In less than one month, more than two dozen of the uncovered flaws — 28 — were flagged as high or critical in severity, according to HackerOne, the entity that managed the initiative for the DoD.
The DoD's Hack the DTS (Defense Travel System) contest is part of a broader DoD crowd-sourced bug hunting initiative called Hack the Pentagon. It's the fifth time the DoD has used such a program to try and proactively find vulnerabilities in important systems that its own security organizations might have missed. So far, since its launch in April 2016, the Hack the Pentagon program has helped the DoD find and fix some 3,600 vulnerabilities in total.
The Hack the DTS program ran from April 1 to April 29. A total of 19 security researchers participated in it and employed a bag of tricks including social engineering to try and find vulnerabilities in DTS that could be exploited. To be eligible to participate, the security researchers had to be citizens of or be eligible to work in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand.
In the 29 days that the program ran, the researchers reported a total of 100 vulnerabilities, of which 65 were confirmed to be valid issues. Sixteen of them were uncovered less than 24 hours after the Hack the DTS challenge launched.
Researchers who reported valid security flaws received varying bug bounties. Eight of the reported vulnerabilities garnered the maximum bounty of $5,000. In all, the DoD paid out a total of $78,650 to the security researchers who discovered the vulnerabilities.
Crowd-sourced bug hunting programs such as those managed by HackerOne, Bugcrowd, and Synack have surged in popularity in recent years. The programs have attracted tens of thousands of security researchers from around the world willing to find and disclose security vulnerabilities in return for monetary rewards.
For many organizations, the programs have offered a way to let outside security researchers take a crack at their websites and apps in a relatively controlled and managed environment.
For security researchers, bug bounty programs have offered an opportunity to monetize their bug hunting and vulnerability discovery work. Bug hunters can earn anything from a few hundred dollars for low-level submissions to tens- and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for major bug discoveries.
For organizations, the programs have offered a way to discover and fix flaws they might have otherwise missed, often at considerably lower cost than recruiting full-time employees to do it.
The model, says HackerOne CEO Marten Mickos, has been gaining traction within government as well.
"When Hack the Pentagon was launched in 2016, it marked a change in the entire industry," he says. "The world's most powerful organization decided it needed the help of external hackers to be secure."
Other federal agencies and corporations worldwide have taken the cue from DoD and have launched similar hacker-powered security programs, he says. Last year's bill directing the Department of Homeland security to launch a Hack the DHS program is one example of the continued momentum. The Singapore Ministry of Defense, the European Commission, and the tax authorities in Finland are all other examples, Mickos says.
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