The last two years have seen the Equifax breach, the WannaCry cyberattack, a nefarious DDoS attack that destroyed the internet for a full day, and a laundry list of other security breaches of the stores, restaurants, and retailers we know and love. A skilled hacker has a dangerous amount of power in their hands — power with the potential to destroy lives.
But take heart: Scattered across the internet are hundreds of thousands of equally skilled hackers who are fighting to protect you. If your personal information wasn’t compromised this year, you have that army of nerds to thank.
Way back in 1983, Volkswagen offered a reward to hackers who were able to breach the operating systems of the company’s Beetles. Twelve years later, Netscape instituted the first “bugs bounty” program, offering rewards to users who reported issues in its Navigator 2.0 software. The program wasn’t especially lucrative — Netscape’s product director at the time said in an interview that “several” hackers received a $1,000 prize, while “many others” received Netscape merchandise — but it demonstrated the potential of such programs. A small but dedicated group of Netscape users put hours into the task, despite the small chance of a reward.
A few other companies followed suit throughout the next few decades, including Mozilla, which announced a similar program, with a $500 prize, in 2004.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that bug bounty programs were brought to the mainstream: Google launched an “experimental new incentive” for the cybersecurity community to find bugs in Chromium, offering $1,337 for “particularly severe or particularly clever” bugs and $500 for other security bugs.
Today, most of the largest companies with technological components, from Snapchat and Dropbox to Tinder and Starbucks, have “bug bounty” programs. They offer monetary rewards, often in the thousands of dollars, to anyone who can exploit security vulnerabilities and report them to the company. Across basements, offices, cubicles, arenas, Slack channels, and forums, hackers answer their call.