Senators want a (bug) bounty on DHS

Shutterstock image 625972778 linux sql 

The Pentagon has been repeatedly hacked -- and officials have been pleased with the results of the sanctioned bug bounty programs. Now, senators want to unleash hackers on the Department of Homeland Security.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have introduced the Hack the Department of Homeland Security Act to establish a DHS bug bounty in the mold of the Pentagon competitions.  

"Federal agencies like DHS are under assault every day from cyberattacks," said Hassan in a statement announcing the bill. "These attacks threaten the safety, security and privacy of millions of Americans and in order to protect DHS and the American people from these threats, the Department will need help."

Hassan said the bill is intended to leverage skills of white-hat hackers "across America as a force multiplier against these cyberthreats." DHS is a particularly important host for a bug bounty program because of its role in overseeing security of the .gov domains, she added.

The Hack DHS program would operate in a similar fashion as the DOD bounties. Hackers will register with DHS and submit to a background check. Participants will receive payment if they "identify unique and undiscovered vulnerabilities in DHS's networks and data systems."

Like the DOD programs, the Department of Justice would need to provide legal authorization for the DHS program. In November 2016, DOD also launched a vulnerability disclosure program in coordination with the DOJ's criminal division that provides legal cover for hackers to find and report vulnerabilities in public-facing websites.

The DOD has launched three different bounties so far -- one for the Pentagon as a whole, an Army bounty and an Air Force bounty that is currently underway. They have resulted in the patching of hundreds of vulnerabilities and the payment of tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

In each case, the DOD initiated the competitions in partnership with the Defense Digital Service, and HackerOne has administered the bounties.

The Government Services Administration is in the process of developing its own bug bounty program.

Congress had no involvement in the DOD bounties or the pending GSA bounty, which raises the question why senators are taking the step to legislate a DHS bounty.

"We're aware that there is an interest in doing this within DHS, but the department has not yet enacted such a program," said Kevin Smith, spokesperson for Portman. "The bug bounty program has been effective for DOD, and Sen. Portman believes that DHS needs to move more quickly and prioritize putting a similar program in place there." 

A spokesperson for Hassan told FCW that "Congress has an important role in encouraging the Trump administration and departments across the federal government to pursue innovative solutions" and that Hassan "is focused on strengthening cybersecurity through innovative programs that have been successful in the private sector."

The Department of Homeland Security told FCW its policy is not to comment on pending legislation. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment about whether it is working on authorization for a DHS bounty or broader authorization for a .gov vulnerability disclosure program.

The Hack the DHS bill has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


  • Defense
    Soldiers from the Old Guard test the second iteration of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) capability set during an exercise at Fort Belvoir, VA in Fall 2019. Photo by Courtney Bacon

    IVAS and the future of defense acquisition

    The Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System has been in the works for years, but the potentially multibillion deal could mark a paradigm shift in how the Defense Department buys and leverages technology.

  • Cybersecurity
    Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lora Ratliff)

    Mayorkas announces cyber 'sprints' on ransomware, ICS, workforce

    The Homeland Security secretary announced a series of focused efforts to address issues around ransomware, critical infrastructure and the agency's workforce that will all be launched in the coming weeks.

Stay Connected