Researchers will be eligible for bounties of up to $3,500 for discovering bugs in federal agency systems.

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Apparently taking a cue from the over 450 organizations that already have a bug bounty program in place, the US General Services Administration’s 18F digital services group appears to be exploring the idea of hosting one for federal agencies.

Details of the program were first reported by FedScoop and have not yet been publicly released. But the 18F group’s page on GitHub offers a glimpse of what the GSA appears to have in mind for the program.

The page shows that bug hunters who report high-severity vulnerabilities to agencies participating in the GSA bug bounty service could be eligible for a reward of up to $3,500, depending on the quality of the report. Vulnerabilities that the GSA considers as high severity include SQL injection flaws, remote code execution errors, site-wide elevation of privilege or authentication bypass issues, and flaws that lead to widespread information disclosure.

People who report medium severity flaws such as cross-site scripting errors (XSS) and cross-site request forgery (CSRF) vulnerabilities stand to make up to $1,000 per bug. Low severity flaws, such as server misconfiguration and provisioning errors, data leaks involving non-personally identifiable data, and open redirects will fetch $500.

“We'll typically follow these guidelines closely, but we do reserve the right to adjust our rewards based on our assessment of severity and the quality of the report,” the description on the GSA 18F GitHub page noted. “For example, we may pay less for low-quality reports, or more for low-severity issues that are especially novel or required significant effort.”

The page also has a long list of vulnerabilities that researchers are welcome to report to participating agencies but will not qualify for a bounty. Among them are bugs that require attackers to gain physical access to a system, denial of service attacks, insecure cookie settings, and brute-force attacks that require a lot of time and resources to exploit.

Bounties will be available only for vulnerabilities discovered in a specific list of federal agency sites that are in scope for the program. Submissions covering out-of-scope websites will not be rewarded. No details are available yet on the agency sites that are in scope for the program and those that are out of scope because the program hasn’t officially launched yet.

Dozens of technology vendors, and increasingly many non-tech companies such as United Airlines, Uber, Starbucks, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have similar bug bounty programs in place.

If it launches the program, the GSA will become the second US federal government entity to have a bug bounty initiative. Earlier this year, the Pentagon became the first when it launched a Hack The Pentagon commercial bug bounty program and did a one-month pilot run with it between April and May.

The big question is what sort of warranties the program will offer against prosecution for those who do try and find bugs in agency systems, says Richard Stiennon, chief security analyst at IT-Harvest.

“Will the GSA also protect those looking for bugs against prosecution for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?” he says. “Hacking systems is illegal, even when the intent is to expose vulnerabilities.

Without clear protections, researchers are unlikely to participate in the program, he says. "[But] if they will provide a get-out-of-jail free card even I would help them find vulnerabilities in government agencies' applications,” Stiennon says.

Pete Lindstrom, an analyst at IDC, predicts that the program will attract a lot of curious hackers and possibly a lot of noise. “Presumably, the program will be less expensive than hiring experienced vulnerability researchers and QA folks internally,” he says.

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

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 career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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