Google has launched a bug-bounty programme 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. Bugs that are ranked "high" or "critical" in Chrome's rating system get preference, he added, but others may be considered.
"We are hoping that ... this programme will encourage new individuals to participate in Chromium security," said Evans. "The more people involved in scrutinising Chromium's code and behaviour, the more secure our millions of users will be."
"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 TippingPoint, which operates Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), one of the two best-known bug-bounty programmes. "But Chrome, and now Chrome OS, need researchers. Google needs people to put eyes on the target."
Google's new bounty programme 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 programme 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 programme 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 programme.
"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 grey 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, but he was vague about whether his team would pay a bounty for a bug that was publicly released prior to patching. "We encourage responsible disclosure," he sad in the blog post, answering his own question of whether publicly-revealed vulnerabilities would be eligible.
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 wek it patched 13 security vulnerabilities, and added support for bookmark synchronisation and browser extensions.
Chrome can be downloaded from the company's site.