All over the world, from South Africa to South Korea, business is booming in what hackers call “zero days,” the coding flaws in software like Microsoft Windows that can give a buyer unfettered access to a computer and any business, agency or individual dependent on one.
Just a few years ago, #hackers (..) would have sold the knowledge of coding flaws to companies like Microsoft and Apple, which would fix them. Last month, Microsoft sharply increased the amount it was willing to pay for such flaws, raising its top offer to $150,000.
But increasingly the businesses are being outbid by countries with the goal of exploiting the flaws in pursuit of the kind of success, albeit temporary, that the United States and Israel achieved three summers ago when they attacked Iran’s nuclear enrichment program with a computer worm that became known as “#Stuxnet.”
The flaws get their name from the fact that once discovered, “#zero_days” exist for the user of the computer system to fix them before hackers can take advantage of the vulnerability. A “#zero-day_exploit” occurs when hackers or governments strike by using the flaw before anyone else knows it exists, like a burglar who finds, after months of probing, that there is a previously undiscovered way to break into a house without sounding an alarm.
“Governments are starting to say, ‘In order to best protect my country, I need to find vulnerabilities in other countries,’ ” said Howard Schmidt, a former White House cybersecurity coordinator. “The problem is that we all fundamentally become less secure.”
A zero-day bug could be as simple as a hacker’s discovering an online account that asks for a password but does not actually require typing one to get in. Bypassing the system by hitting the “Enter” key becomes a zero-day exploit. The average attack persists for almost a year — 312 days — before it is detected, according to Symantec, the maker of antivirus software. Until then it can be exploited or “weaponized” by both criminals and governments to spy on, steal from or attack their target.
Ten years ago, hackers would hand knowledge of such flaws to Microsoft and Google free, in exchange for a T-shirt or perhaps for an honorable mention on a company’s Web site. Even today, so-called patriotic hackers in China regularly hand over the information to the government.
Now, the market for information about computer vulnerabilities has turned into a gold rush. (...)
Many technology companies have started “bug bounty” programs in which they pay hackers to tell them about bugs in their systems rather than have the hackers keep the flaws to themselves .(..)
In one case, a zero-day exploit in Apple’s iOS operating system sold for $500,000, according to two people briefed on the sale.
Still, said Mr. Soghoian of the A.C.L.U., “The bounties pale in comparison to what the government pays.” The military establishment, he said, “created Frankenstein by feeding the market.”
In many ways, the United States government created the market. When the United States and Israel used a series of flaws — including one in a Windows font program — to unleash what became known as the Stuxnet worm, a sophisticated cyberweapon used to temporarily cripple Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, it showed the world what was possible. It also became a catalyst for a cyberarms race.
“I think it is fair to say that no one anticipated where this was going,” said one person who was involved in the early American and Israeli strategy. “And today, no one is sure where it is going to end up.”
In a prescient paper in 2007, Charlie Miller, a former N.S.A. employee, (...) described how one American government agency offered him $10,000 for a Linux bug. He asked another for $80,000, which agreed “too quickly,” Mr. Miller wrote. “I had probably not asked for enough.”
(...) the take-away for him and his fellow hackers was clear: There was serious money to be made selling the flaws.
At their conventions, hackers started flashing signs that read, “No more free bugs.”
Hackers like Mr. Auriemma, who once gave away their bugs to software vendors and antivirus makers, now sound like union organizers declaring their rights.
“Providing professional work for free to a vendor is unethical,” Mr. Auriemma said. “Providing professional work almost for free to security companies that make their business with your research is even more unethical.”
Experts say there is limited incentive to regulate a market in which government agencies are some of the biggest participants.
“If you try to limit who you do business with, there’s the possibility you will get shut out,” Mr. Schmidt said. “If someone comes to you with a bug that could affect millions of devices and says, ‘You would be the only one to have this if you pay my fee,’ there will always be someone inclined to pay it.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “dancing with the devil in cyberspace has been pretty common.”