A six-week bug-hunting contest netted the US Air Force information on 54 security vulnerabilities in its Common Computing Environment (CCE), a branch-wide cloud platform that aims to serve up online applications, program management firm Bugcrowd said on August 6.
The bug bounty program, in which 50 vetted hackers participated, resulted in $123,000 in prizes, or an average of $2,460 per participant. The number and severity of the issues reported to the US Air Force show the strength of the crowdsourced model, says Casey Ellis, Bugcrowd's chief technology officer and founder.
"If you got people building software, building environments, they are also going to make mistakes, and that is the stuff you want to catch and provide feedback on," he says. "This is about making hackers part of the solution and figuring out how to engage them in activities for government cybersecurity."
Bug bounties have become much more popular as an inexpensive way of finding vulnerabilities in specific products and services. In addition to the US Air Force, every branch of the US military has run significant bounty programs against some part of their information infrastructure. In November 2016, the US Army launched a "Hack the Army" event, netting 118 valid vulnerability reports from 371 eligible participants. And, at last year's DEF CON conference in Las Vegas, the US Marine Corps had a live nine-hour hacking event, in which it paid out $80,000 in prize money for 75 vulnerabilities.
As the US government moves toward increasing its use of the cloud, the military is looking to test the security of its cloud infrastructure as well. The CCE is the US Air Force's cloud-based platform that currently hosts 21 applications as of April, according to the Air Force. The military branch has spent $136 million on the cloud platform since 2015 but has saved on operations and management issues, according to statements from the US Air Force.
As an initial validation to an organization that might be new to crowdsourced security, the bug bounty program was a success, says Ellis. The next step it to regularly use bug bounties to systematically improve infrastructure security.
"We are at the point, after initial validation, where we are as an industry is figuring out how to incorporate feedback from the hacker community into how we build our stuff securely," Ellis says. "That is going to be different for every organization."
In 2018, bug bounty programs had another growth year. Both Bugcrowd and HackerOne announced record-setting revenues. HackerOne paid more than $19 million for information on more than 100,000 vulnerabilities in the software and systems of its clients. Bugcrowd helped its clients launch 29% more programs in 2018, and had 92% more submissions, according to its "Priority One: The State of Crowdsourced Security in 2019" report.
The average payout from the US Air Force program was $2,460, very close to the average bounty of $2,442 for vulnerabilities in 2018, according to Bugcrowd's report. The most lucrative bounties, more than $8,550 per bug, were paid for vulnerabilities found in Internet of Things devices. Overall, Bugcrowd found that the bounty for vulnerabilities increased 83% in 2018 compared with the previous year.
"While the vulnerabilities in IoT devices — refrigerators and DVRs — capture our attention for their novelty and fear factor, they are still and by far outnumbered by vulnerabilities in web applications," the company stated in the report. "In fact, web application vulnerabilities have always been the top submitted vulnerabilities across our programs and correspondingly account for the highest percentage of awards paid."
While the US Air Force's bug bounty program seems impressive, the rewards from such programs tend to benefit relatively few people. Because there were 50 researchers, the average researcher only saw a single reward. In reality, the majority of the prizes likely went to a handful of researchers. An academic paper published last year found that bug bounties tend to have skewed rewards.
While every military branch is now on board, getting to this point required overcoming significant hurdles, Ellis says. "The idea that the DoD and the Air Force would accept the help of the external hacker community — that's not an intuitive thing," he says.