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WASHINGTON, June 17, 2016 — Cracking open his laptop between classes as he finished up his senior year in high school, 18-year-old David Dworken was on an important mission for the Pentagon, according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Dworken was among the more than 1,400 hackers invited to take part in the first bug bounty program for the federal government, Carter said today at an event in which he was joined by Dworken and others involved in the “Hack the Pentagon” pilot program.
More than 250 participants submitted at least one vulnerability report, with 138 of those vulnerabilities determined to be “legitimate, unique and eligible for a bounty,” Carter said.
The pilot program, which ran from April 18 to May 12, cost $150,000, Carter said.
“It’s not a small sum, but if we had gone through the normal process of hiring an outside firm to do a security audit and vulnerability assessment, which is what we usually do, it would have cost us more than $1 million,” Carter said.
The program, according to Carter, is a cost-effective way to supplement and support the people who defend the government’s computer networks. The Defense Department worked with the Silicon Valley-based company HackerOne to fix all the vulnerabilities, Carter said.
Building on Bug Bounty Program
The Defense Department is investing aggressively in innovation, including in people, practices and technologies, Carter said. The “Hack the Pentagon” program combined all those elements to “considerable success,” he said.
In addition to the security fixes, the department has “built stronger bridges to innovative citizens who want to make a difference to our defense mission,” he said.
Carter said there needs to be a pathway for ethical hackers and security researchers to report vulnerabilities in DoD networks and systems. As a result, the department is creating a central point of contact for researchers and technologists to point out gaps, he said.
In addition, Carter said, the bug bounty program is going to be expanded to other parts of the department. He is directing all DoD components to review where such programs can be used.
DoD will also include incentives in its acquisition guidance and policies so contractors who work on DoD systems can take advantage of innovative approaches to cybersecurity testing, he said.
“When it comes to information and technology, the defense establishment usually relies on closed systems,” he said. “But the more friendly eyes we have on some of our systems and websites, the more gaps we can find, the more vulnerabilities we can fix, and the greater security we can provide to our warfighters.”
The pilot program was conducted against publicly available websites, according to Chris Lynch, the director of the Defense Digital Service, the DoD agency that led the program. Mission critical systems were not involved, he pointed out.
He said they were looking for vulnerabilities that would allow someone to gain access to a system through a current user or allow a hacker to maliciously gain access to other networks or other systems.
“Even though it was a public set of websites, there’s a lot that we can learn from even what seemed to be fairly simple publicly accessible sites,” Lynch said.
The program targeted five public-facing websites: defense.gov, dodlive.mil, dvidshub.net, myafn.net and dimoc.mil, according to a DoD spokesman.
The payouts ranged from about $100, all the way up to $15,000 to a participant who had multiple submissions, according to Lisa Wiswell, with the Defense Digital Service.
Hacker at Work
Dworken, who just graduated June 13 from a local high school, said he discovered six vulnerabilities that focused on standard web security.
“I generally just worked on it during any free time I had, during free periods,” according to Dworken, who said he will study computer science in college with aspirations of a cybersecurity career.
While the vulnerabilities he discovered had already been reported by other hackers and he did not receive any payout, he said he was still happy to be a part of the program.
“Even without a bounty, these things are still, personally for me, incredibly rewarding,” he said. “There is the greater-good aspect of it, especially when working with the federal government for something I obviously care deeply about.”