Uber Details Bug Bounty Breach Payout at Senate Hearing

A U.S. Senate hearing asks Uber and industry experts about bug bounties and why Uber used the approach to cover up a data breach.

Uber CISO

Uber Chief Information Security Officer John Flynn (pictured) appeared before a U.S. Senate committee on Feb. 6 to explain how a bug bounty was used to help cover up the company's 2016 data breach. Flynn appeared alongside the CEOs of HackerOne and Luta Security.

In November 2017, Uber publicly admitted that it was victim of a data breach in 2016 that exposed personally identifiable information on its drivers and users. Uber paid the attackers that breached its system a payment of $100,000 in a bid to keep the data safe. What was not initially publicly revealed was that Uber paid the attackers via the HackerOne bug bounty program in an effort to cover up the data breach.

"Our primary goal in paying the intruders was to protect our consumers' data," Flynn stated during his testimony. "This was not done in a way that is consistent with the way our bounty program normally operates."

Uber has had a public bug bounty program through HackerOne since March 2016, paying security researchers to responsibly disclose vulnerabilities to the ride-sharing company. Flynn said that through the program, Uber has been able to fix 800 system vulnerabilities and has paid out approximately $1.3 million in awards to security researchers.

In a typical bug bounty, security researchers are rewarded for responsibly disclosing security vulnerabilities to a vendor. Flynn said that in his view, the 2016 data breach was different because the researchers not only found a weakness, but they also exploited the vulnerability in a malicious fashion to access and download data. 

"We recognize that the bug bounty program is not an appropriate vehicle for dealing with intruders who seek to extort funds from the company," Flynn said. "The approach that these intruders took was separate and distinct from those of the researchers in the security community for whom bug bounty programs are designed."

Flynn also emphasized that, as Uber's leadership has already publicly stated, it was wrong not to disclose the 2016 breach earlier as it should have been disclosed in a timely manner.

Bug Bounties

Flynn was joined in his Senate hearing testimony by the CEOs of bug bounty firms HackerOne and Luta Security, who provided additional insight into how bug bounties are supposed to work.

"Much like in Star Wars, the Force for finding vulnerabilities has a dark side as well as a light side, but they are two sides of the same coin, representing indistinguishable skill sets," Katie Moussouris, CEO Luta Security, stated.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., took aim at Uber's bug bounty payout during the committee hearing with an analogy from the non-cyber world. There is a big difference between a security consultant who tells an individual that they have a risk of forced entry into a home and the criminal who says they have a forced entry risk and have abducted the homeowner's child and have to pay $100,000 to get the child back, he said.

"That's ransom, and it's a crime," Blumenthal said. "Concealing that in my view is aiding and abetting that crime."

Flynn responded to Blumenthal emphasizing that payment to the attackers was not consistent with the way Uber's bug bounty program operates. He added that it is also not the way Uber will do things moving forward. 

HackerOne CEO Marten Mickos also responded to Blumenthal, noting that payout to the breach attackers was also not consistent with his firm's policies.

"We do not engage in extortion payouts. That is against our policies, and it's not the business we are in," Mickos said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.