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Linkedin spurns bug bounty hunter

Will debug for food - but who will bite?

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Earlier this month, employees for LinkedIn, a social network site that caters to business people, received an unusual proposition from a security researcher who had just uncovered a vulnerability that put many of its users at serious risk.

"If you are interested in the bug, we would like to give you first right of refusal to purchase it," security researcher Jared DeMott wrote in a July 10 email addressed to a LinkedIn executive. "If you wouldn't like to buy it then we are happy to re-sell or release as a full disclosure to help prevent security issues arising on end users servers."

As part of the offer, DeMott would provide working attack code so LinkedIn could verify the bug, which initially was believed only to allow an attacker to crash a LinkedIn user's machine. The price tag: $5,000. A week later, DeMott increased the asking price to $10,000 after writing exploit code that proved the vulnerability in the LinkedIn toolbar for Internet Explorer allowed attackers to completely hijack a user's PC if it visited a booby-trapped website.

Adhering to a policy of not paying for security vulnerabilities, LinkedIn executives didn't respond to the emails. On July 23, almost two weeks after first contacting LinkedIn, DeMott made good on his pledge, posting proof-of-concept code on his website that demonstrated the severity of the flaw he had discovered.

LinkedIn patched the critical security hole about 24 hours later.

The incident underscores the ethical minefield confronting both companies and researchers when serious vulnerabilities are discovered in a widely used program or service. There are no reports that the vulnerability was maliciously exploited. But LinkedIn's decision not to pay meant its users, many of whom are high-net worth individuals, were put at a higher risk of being victimized than would be the case had LinkedIn bought the exploit and fixed it quietly.

The decision also failed to compensate a researcher whose expertise can command fees as high as $500 per hour for expending considerable effort uncovering information that was crucial to LinkedIn.

"If you put yourself in Jared's shoes ... he's got kids he's got to support, so what other option is there?" says Charlie Miller, principal security analyst for Independent Security Evaluators, who submitted a paper on his experience selling a security vulnerability to a US governmental agency. "LinkedIn is the company that has the most to gain from this."

And yet even Miller, an acquaintance of DeMott, admits to feeling uncomfortable with the offer. "Your gut reflex is that they're basically blackmailing the company," he says.

DeMott says blackmail was the last thing on his mind when he sent the email to LinkedIn. He says he recently sold a vulnerability to a company very similar to LinkedIn for $5,000. The flaw, in an Internet Explorer plugin, also could have allowed the remote exploit of users.

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