SAN FRANCISCO, CA – RSA Conference 2016 – The US Defense Department is inviting vetted white-hat hackers to hunt for vulnerabilities in its public web pages under a pilot bug bounty program. The new “Hack the Pentagon” announced today by DoD officials took the security industry by surprise.
Bug bounty programs are gradually catching on in the commercial world, but no one expected the Pentagon—much less the feds—to launch one. The DoD program aims to tap expertise from the private sector in the first step in a planned group of programs to test for bugs in DoD websites, applications, and networks. DoD will give monetary awards to hackers who find bugs, but many of the details of the program were not yet disclosed.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, here today, shed more light on why DoD made such a bold move. “We’re trying to adopt what is a best practice. There are lots of companies who do this,” Carter said in a town hall session with Ted Schlein, general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “You invite people to come and attack you and find your vulnerabilities. It’s a way of kind of crowdsourcing the expertise and having access to good people and not bad people. You’d much rather find vulnerabilities in your networks that way than in the other way, with a compromise or shutdown.”
Participants must be vetted, of course: they register and undergo a background check. “We have to make sure they are a white hat,” Carter said. He said the hackers who participate in the program won’t be hacking at any of DoD’s other systems or networks, such as its mission-facing systems.
Katie Moussouris, chief policy officer of HackerOne, called the DoD’s bug bounty program a “landmark event” for the federal government as well as for security research. “This legitimizes hacking for defensive purposes,” she says.
It’s also a powerful recruiting tool for the DoD, which like many other organizations faces a talent gap in cybersecurity, says Moussouris, whose company sells a platform for vulnerability coordination and bug bounty programs. “As a means of identifying talent, it’s very significant.”
That doesn’t mean only young hacker talent will take on the DoD’s Hack the Pentagon challenge. Moussouris expects seasoned hackers to sign up as well to be some of the first to find bugs in the DoD’s websites.
Carter told RSA attendees that the program also highlights a cultural shift for DoD in cybersecurity. “It’s okay to tell us where we screwed up or if something is wrong. That to me is one of the great messages” here, he said.
Meanwhile, Schlein asked Carter to weigh in on the FBI-Apple dispute, where Apple is refusing to help the FBI unlock encryption on an iPhone used by San Bernardino terror suspect Syed Farook. Carter declined to comment on specifics of the case, noting that it’s a “law enforcement matter,” but he did share his view on encryption backdoors: “I’m not a believer in backdoors or a single technical approach to what is a complex” issue, he said. “I don’t think we ought to let one case drive a particular conclusion or solution. We have to work together" to come up with a solution, he said.
“I’m behind strong data security and strong encryption – no question about it,” he said.