A laptop is standing on a table during the Chaos Communication Congress, an annual hacker conference held in Germany.
Photo: Jens Schlueter / Getty

As far back as 2015, major companies like Sony and Intel have sought to crowdsource efforts to secure their systems and applications through the San Francisco startup HackerOne. Through the “bug bounty” program offered by the company, hackers once viewed as a nuisance—or worse, as criminals—can identify security vulnerabilities and get paid for their work.

On Tuesday, HackerOne published a wealth of anonymized data to underscore not only the breadth of its own program but highlight the leading types of bugs discovered by its virtual army of hackers who’ve reaped financial rewards through the program. Some $29 million has been paid out so far with regards to the top 10 most rewarded types of security weakness alone, according to the company.

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HackerOne markets the bounty program as a means to safely mimic an authentic kind of global threat. “It’s one of the best defenses you can have against what you’re actually protecting against,” said Miju Han, HackerOne’s director of product management. “There are a lot of security tools out there that have theoretically risks—and we definitely endorse those tools as well. But what we really have in bug bounty programs is a real-world security risk.”

The program, of course, has its own limitations. Participants have the ability to define the scope of engagement and in some cases—as with the U.S. Defense Department, a “hackable target”—place limits on which systems and methods are authorized under the program. Criminal hackers and foreign adversaries are, of course, not bound by such rules.

Graphic: HackerOne

“Bug bounties can be a helpful tool if you’ve already invested in your own security prevention and detection,” said Katie Moussouris, CEO of Luta Security, “in terms of secure development if you publish code, or secure vulnerability management if your organization is mostly just trying to keep up with patching existing infrastructure.”

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“It isn’t suitable to replace your own preventative measures, nor can it replace penetration testing,” she said.

Not surprisingly, HackerOne’s data shows that overwhelmingly cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks—in which malicious scripts are injected into otherwise trusted sites—remain the top vulnerability reported through the program. Of the top 10 types of bugs reported, XSS makes up 27 percent. No other type of bug comes close. Through HackerOne, some $7.7 million has been paid out to address XSS vulnerabilities alone.

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Cloud migration has also led to a rise in exploits such as server-side request forgery (SSRF). “The attacker can supply or modify a URL which the code running on the server will read or submit data to, and by carefully selecting the URLs, the attacker may be able to read server configuration such as AWS metadata, connect to internal services like http-enabled databases or perform post requests towards internal services which are not intended to be exposed,” HackerOne said.

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Currently, SSRF makes up only 5.9 percent of the top bugs reported. Nevertheless, the company says, these server-side exploits are trending upward as more and more companies find homes in the cloud.

Other top bounties include a range of code injection exploits or misconfigurations that allow improper access to systems that should be locked down. Companies have paid out over $1.5 million alone to address improper access control.

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“Companies that pay more for bounties are definitely more attractive to hackers, especially more attractive to top hackers,” Han said. “But we know that bounties paid out are not the only motivation. Hackers like to hack companies that they like using, or that are located in their country.” In other words, even though a company is spending more money to pay hackers to find bugs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have more security.

“Another factor is how fast a company is changing,” she said. “If a company is developing very rapidly and expanding and growing, even if they pay a lot of bounties, if they’re changing up their code base a lot, then that means they are not necessary as secure.”

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According to an article this year in TechRepublic, some 300,000 hackers are currently signed up with HackerOne; though only 1-in-10 have reportedly claimed a bounty. The best of them, a group of roughly 100 hackers, have earned over $100,000. Only a couple of elite hackers have attained the highest-paying ranks of the program, reaping rewards close to, or in excess of, $1 million.

View a full breakdown of HackerOne’s “most impactful and rewarded” vulnerability types here.

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