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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Facebook Declines Bug Bounty, But Crowdsourced Effort Pays

Security researchers, unhappy with Facebook's decision to withhold reward, come up with the cash on their own.

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If Facebook won't pay a bug bounty to a security researcher who attempted to responsibly report a serious vulnerability -- only to be hampered by poor communication on the social network's part -- then we will.

That's the message from the information security community -- and fans -- which have banded together to crowdsource a $10,000 reward for Palestinian security researcher Khalil Shreateh, after Facebook declined to compensate him as part of its White Hat security program. Facebook said that Shreateh violated its bug-reporting "terms of service" after he used the vulnerability to bypass the site's security controls and post a message on Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's wall.

But Marc Maiffret, CTO of BeyondTrust, criticized Facebook for missing the big picture: Shreateh's intentions were good, but he was hampered by Facebook's information security staff. Furthermore, Shreateh chose to report the vulnerability directly to the social network, instead of attempting to profit from it on the open market, where he stood to earn a substantially bigger payout.

"It's a pretty significant bug," Maiffret told CNN. The vulnerability could be used to post messages -- including photos and links -- to anyone's Facebook wall. "It would have been something that was very useful to folks in the underground to be able to post different content on celebrity sites or whatever it might have been, to be able to lure people to websites that would then attack them."

[ Do you believe Facebook has no role in business? Better rethink that position: Ignore Facebook At Your Peril. ]

In Facebook's defense, Shreateh used a third-party user's account to demonstrate the bug. But that was only after the social network's security team twice dismissed his attempt to report the vulnerability. Instead of offering clear guidance to Shreateh, furthermore, a Facebook security engineer said simply, "I am sorry this is not a bug."

Recapping those events, Maiffret -- in an offhand comment -- told CNN that if Facebook wouldn't pay Shreateh, then he'd be happy to help. "If Mark Zuckerberg doesn't have the $2,000 to set this guy on the right path, if he contacts me I'd be happy to do it personally," Maiffret said. Zuckerberg's net worth is estimated to be $16.1 billion.

In fact, Maiffret made good on his proposal later in the day, by donating $3,000 to Shreateh via a GoFundMe site campaign he created, which seeks to pay Shreateh a $10,000 bug bounty. "All proceeds raised from this fund will be sent to Khalil Shreateh to help support future security research," according to the campaign page. "Let us all send a message to security researchers across the world and say that we appreciate the efforts they make for the good of everyone." By Tuesday morning the campaign had already raised over $8,500, as well as offers of jobs for Shreateh, an information systems engineer who says he's unemployed.

Facebook's lack of largesse continues to draw widespread criticism, with one InformationWeek reader commenting: "Facebook Zucks."

Late Monday, Facebook's chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, issued a mea culpa -- of sorts -- over the miscommunication with Shreateh. "I've reviewed our communication with this researcher, and I understand his frustration. He tried to report the bug responsibly, and we failed in our communication with him," said Sullivan in a blog post. "We get hundreds of submissions a day, and only a tiny percent of those turn out to be legitimate bugs. As a result we were too hasty and dismissive in this case."

But Sullivan argued that the communication failure hadn't stemmed from a language barrier, or Facebook not being receptive to people sharing vulnerability details with the social network in return for bug bounties that pay a fraction of what researchers might receive on the open vulnerability market.

Rather, Sullivan said that Shreateh's emails had lacked sufficient technical detail. Accordingly, he promised that Facebook would update its White Hat page with recommendations for the best ways to report bugs -- hint: Facebook really likes videos that show the vulnerabilities in action -- as well as to "improve our email messaging to make sure we clearly articulate what we need to validate a bug." He also noted that Facebook offers test accounts for any researcher that may want to demonstrate a vulnerability.

Sullivan added that Facebook stood firm on its refusal to compensate Shreateh. "We will not change our practice of refusing to pay rewards to researchers who have tested vulnerabilities against real users," he said. "We hope this case does not discourage this researcher or any other researcher from submitting future reports to us."

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/21/2013 | 9:21:37 PM
re: Facebook Declines Bug Bounty, But Crowdsourced Effort Pays
I'm glad. I'm befuddled by Facebook's thought process on this one. He didn't follow the procedure because the procedure didn't work. By penalizing him, what is Facebook trying to communicate? That people should keep to themselves the bugs they uncover? Poor PR work, at the very least.
Mathew
50%
50%
Mathew,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/21/2013 | 3:12:58 PM
re: Facebook Declines Bug Bounty, But Crowdsourced Effort Pays
Well spotted, ParisExpat. We've tweaked the story to be more inclusive.
OtherJimDonahue
50%
50%
OtherJimDonahue,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/21/2013 | 1:46:37 PM
re: Facebook Declines Bug Bounty, But Crowdsourced Effort Pays
Good for him--he deserves it. (And you know he'll get a job out of this eventually.)
ParisExpat
50%
50%
ParisExpat,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/21/2013 | 6:42:10 AM
re: Facebook Declines Bug Bounty, But Crowdsourced Effort Pays
"Security researchers, unhappy with Facebook's decision to withhold reward, come up with the cash on their own."

Wow - I'll bet a lot of us who donated will be surprised to discover that we're actually 'security researchers' and not just ordinary people who are revolted by FB's miserable lack of fair-play!
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