Google lures bug hunters with $20,000

Joe Belanger /

The payouts will reward ethical hackers for finding code weaknesses in sensitive programs, including Gmail and Google Wallet.

Google has raised the stakes in prize money for finding security flaws within its sensitive Web properties, but most past winners hail from outside the United States, barring them from providing the same services to the U.S. government for a lot more money.

The Web services goliath on Monday announced the pot for a vulnerability reward program will increase to $20,000 -- six times the size of the $3,133.70 top prize that launched the contest in November 2010. The largest payouts will go to those who find "remote code executions" in Web products that allow access to Google's own computers, or cracks in "highly sensitive services" -- a category that includes Gmail and Google Wallet. Compensation for certain weaknesses that allow intruders to bypass software logins or leak information will rise to $10,000.

As of February 2011, the company had paid out $170,178 to so-called ethical hackers -- 86 percent of whom lived outside the United States. That means the hackers won’t be able to sell their talents to federal agencies. The average salaries for security-cleared professionals, all of whom must be U.S. citizens, increased 2 percent to $90,865 in 2011, according to, a professional network.

The most recent Google winners were based in India, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Poland, Romania and Taiwan; there were a few from California as well. The firm had awarded 200 individuals about $460,000 as of Monday.

Among the weaknesses Google security sleuths have discovered is one that could let an attacker gain administrator privileges, or full access, to any user account on Google’s Blogger service. Another player revealed that billing information in Google's online advertising service AdWords was susceptible to cross-site scripting. The technique involves stealing sensitive data from users by inserting malicious code into a Web tool.

Many federal workers use Google Search and the company-owned YouTube video sharing service on a daily basis.

Google is not the only technology outfit to dangle cash in front of code-crackers. Competitor Facebook, computer security firm Barracuda Networks and the Pentagon -- to some extent -- have tried rewarding hackers with money.

The Air Force is offering $10,000 for finding mechanisms that can filter a person’s private information from the tangle of social media, government records and other online flecks of data. That procedure could prevent snoops from cross-referencing public databases to identify details that an individual would prefer be kept confidential. The deadline for submissions is May 21. Contestants have until Nov. 2 to enter a digital forensics challenge run by the service and the Defense Computer Cybercrime Center, or DC3, for all-expenses-paid trips and courseware.

In 2010, the White House began promoting such competitions as a way to spur innovation at, a one-stop-shop for agencies to host and citizens to join online contests. The Obama administration recently touted its progress in holding prize competitions authorized by Congress earlier that same year.

(Image via Joe Belanger /