Google to pay bounties for Chrome browser bugs

Offers $500 for most vulnerabilities, $1,337 for 'particularly clever' flaws

Google yesterday announced a bug-bounty program that will pay researchers $500 for each vulnerability they report in the Chrome browser and its underlying open-source code.

In a post to the Chromium project's blog, Chris Evans, who works on the Chrome security team, said the base bounty would be $500, but that "particularly severe or particularly clever" bugs would reap rewards of $1,337 each.

The latter amount is a reference to "leet," a kind of geek-speak used by some researchers; there, "leet" is rendered as "1337."

New vulnerabilities in Chrome, Chromium -- the open-source project that Google uses to craft Chrome -- and plug-ins that ship with Chrome, such as Google Gears, are eligible for bounties, said Evans. Chrome OS is not part of the program at the moment, but it may be added in the future. Bugs that are ranked "high" or "critical" in Chrome's rating system get preference, he added, but others may be considered.

"While we have a bunch of great engineers at Google who spend their whole day trying to break into Chrome, we know there are lots of smart people outside of the company and we want their help too," Evans said in an e-mail reply to questions Friday. "We always know we can do more." About ten bugs submitted in 2009 would have been rewarded with a bounty payment had the program been in place, Evans added.

"Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox...those browsers have been out there for a long time," said Pedram Amini, manager of the security research team at 3com's Austin, Tex.-based TippingPoint, which operates Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), one of the two best-known bug-bounty programs. "But Chrome, and now Chrome OS, need researchers. Google needs people to put eyes on the target."

Google's new bounty program isn't the first from a software vendor looking for help rooting out vulnerabilities in its own code, but it's the largest company to step forward, Amini said. Microsoft, for example, has traditionally dismissed any calls that it pay for vulnerabilities. "This will be beneficial to Google," Amini added. "There are actually very few vendors who play in the bounty market, but Google doing it is definitely interesting."

Both Amini and Google's Evans cited Mozilla's similar program as the first notable vendor-sponsored bounty. Mozilla kicked off a $500-per-vulnerability bounty in August 2004 that it is still in operation. The Mozilla program pays for bugs in the code used to create Firefox, Thunderbird and other open-source applications.

Mozilla declined to comment on Google's decision to pay bounties, or answer questions about the current status of its own bug bounty program.

"Bounties give researchers motivation," explained Amini. "If they're looking for a target to audit, they're more likely to look at your code if you're offering a financial reward."

TippingPoint's ZDI receives and pays for "a lot of browser bugs," acknowledged Amini, "but we don't see Google as a competitor. We focus mostly on Internet Explorer and Firefox, because that's where the market share is, and to some degree on Safari, because it's the default browser for Mac OS and a vulnerability there also generally affects the iPhone."

Of the eight IE vulnerabilities that Microsoft patched last week with its emergency update, five had been discovered by researchers who received rewards from ZDI.

"But Chrome is a gray area for us right now," said Amini. For instance, TippingPoint will again sponsor the "Pwn2Own" hacking contest at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, British Columbia in late March, but has not decided whether it will include Chrome in the browser hacking competition, as it did last year.

Amini said that there is "no comparison" between the $500 that Google and Mozilla pay for bugs and the rewards ZDI offers. "We pay ten times more than they're paying," said Amini. "And on the black market [some] browser vulnerabilities can go for as much as $30,000."

Researchers may publish their findings once Google has patched the bug, said Evans, who hinted that his team would not pay a bounty for a bug that was publicly released prior to patching. "It's important to keep in mind that we are experimenting with this project to help us discover bugs before they affect Chrome users," he said.

Bounties are first-come, first-served, said Evans, if several researchers submit the same vulnerability.

When Google upgraded Chrome for Windows to version 4.0 last Monday, it patched 13 security vulnerabilities, and added support for bookmark synchronization and browser extensions.

Chrome can be downloaded from the company's site.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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