Facebook is going to pay hackers to find problems with its website -- just so long as they report them to Facebook's security team first.
The company is following Google and Mozilla in launching a Web "Bug Bounty" program. For security related bugs -- cross site scripting flaws, for example -- the company will pay a base rate of $500. If they're truly significant flaws Facebook will pay more, though company executives won't say how much.
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"In the past we've focused on name recognition by putting their name up on our page, sending schwag out and using this an avenue for interviews and the recruiting process," said Alex Rice, Facebook's product security lead. "We're extending that now to start paying out monetary rewards."
On Friday, Facebook will launch a new Whitehat hacking portal where researchers can sign up for the program and report bugs.
Many hackers go public with the software and website flaws they find to gain prestige. Finding an important bug on a widely used website such as Facebook can help make a journeyman hacker's career, and going to the press with the issue can make him -- or her -- famous.
But talking about the issue before Facebook has had a chance to patch it, can be risky for Facebook users. In recent years, other companies have started these bug bounty programs to encourage hackers to keep quiet about the problems they find until they are patched.
Google pays between $500 and $3,133.70, depending on the severity of the flaw.
Google started to pay for browser bugs in early 2010, and then in November it expanded the program to cover bugs in its Web properties too.
The Web bug bounty program has helped Google uncover a lot of programming errors in the past eight months, most of which have been in Google's lesser-known products, a company spokesman said this week.
Google sees its Web program as a big success. "We're very happy with the success of our vulnerability reward program so far. We've already given out $300,000 and have seen a variety of interesting bugs," the spokesman said in an email message.
Facebook's security team already engages in a lot of dialogue between security researchers and its own programmers. The company is contacted between 30 and 50 times each week by hackers. Their information leads to an average of about one to three "actionable bugs," per week, Rice said. Most of these are cross-site scripting or cross-site request forgery issues. These are both very common Web programming errors that could be abused by scammers and cybercrooks to rip off Facebook users.
Company executives say that keeping good relationships with the hacker community is very important. Facebook has sponsored high-profile parties at the Defcon hacking conference for the past two years and Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan sees that meeting as a key place to recruit new talent and educate security staffers.
"There's no other conference that we send so many people to or think about in advance like we do at Defcon," Sullivan said "We have a lot of people who go on their own dime too, not just because it's their job. It's a really important part of the identity of the people who work here."