DoD Opens .Mil to Legal Hacking, Within Limits

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Hackers of all stripes looking to test their mettle can now legally hone their cyber skills, tools and weaponry against any Web property operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), according to a new military-wide policy for reporting and fixing security vulnerabilities.


Security researchers are often reluctant to report programming flaws or security holes they’ve stumbled upon for fear that the vulnerable organization might instead decide to shoot the messenger and pursue hacking charges.

But on Nov. 21, the DoD sought to clear up any ambiguity on that front for the military’s substantial online presence, creating both a centralized place to report cybersecurity flaws across the dot-mil space as well as a legal safe harbor (and the prospect of public recognition) for researchers who abide by a few ground rules.

The DoD said it would “deal in good faith” with researchers “who discover, test, and submit vulnerabilities or indicators of vulnerabilities in accordance with these guidelines:

“Your activities are limited exclusively to –
(1) Testing to detect a vulnerability or identify an indicator related to a vulnerability; or
(2) Sharing with, or receiving from, DoD information about a vulnerability or an indicator related to a vulnerability.”

The Department of Defense also issued the following ten commandments for demonstrating compliance with its policy:

  1. You do no harm and do not exploit any vulnerability beyond the minimal amount of testing required to prove that a vulnerability exists or to identify an indicator related to a vulnerability.
  2. You avoid intentionally accessing the content of any communications, data, or information transiting or stored on DoD information system(s) – except to the extent that the information is directly related to a vulnerability and the access is necessary to prove that the vulnerability exists.
  3. You do not exfiltrate any data under any circumstances.
  4. You do not intentionally compromise the privacy or safety of DoD personnel (e.g. civilian employees or military members), or any third parties.
  5. You do not intentionally compromise the intellectual property or other commercial or financial interests of any DoD personnel or entities, or any third parties.
  6. You do not publicly disclose any details of the vulnerability, indicator of vulnerability, or the content of information rendered available by a vulnerability, except upon receiving explicit written authorization from DoD.
  7. You do not conduct denial of service testing.
  8. You do not conduct social engineering, including spear phishing, of DoD personnel or contractors.
  9. You do not submit a high-volume of low-quality reports.
  10. If at any point you are uncertain whether to continue testing, please engage with our team.

In return, the DoD said it commits to acknowledging receipt of a report within three business days, and that it will work to confirm the existence of the vulnerability to the researcher and keep the researcher informed of any remediation underway. There are some restrictions, however. For example, researchers who report vulnerabilities will be expected to refrain from publicly disclosing their findings unless and until the DoD provides written consent that it’s okay to do so.

“We want researchers to be recognized publicly for their contributions, if that is the researcher’s desire,” the DoD stated. “We will seek to allow researchers to be publicly recognized whenever possible. However, public disclosure of vulnerabilities will only be authorized at the express written consent of DoD.”

The DoD said if it couldn’t immediately fix or publicly acknowledge reported vulnerabilities, it might be because doing so could have life-or-death consequences for service members.

“Many DoD technologies are deployed in combat zones and, to varying degrees, support ongoing military operations; the proper functioning of DoD systems and applications can have a life-or-death impact on Service members and international allies and partners of the United States,” the agency observed. “DoD must take extra care while investigating the impact of vulnerabilities and providing a fix, so we ask your patience during this period.”


The Defense Department made the announcement via, a company that helps organizations build and manage vulnerability reporting policies. HackerOne also helps customers build out “bug bounty” programs that remunerate and recognize researchers who report security flaws.

HackerOne currently is coordinating an upcoming bug bounty program called “Hack the Army,” in which some 500 qualifying contestants can earn cash rewards for finding and reporting cybersecurity weaknesses in the Army’s various online properties (incidentally, Hack the Army runs from Nov. 30 through Dec. 21, 2016, and interested/eligible hackers have until Nov. 28, at 17:00 EST to apply for a shot at one of those 500 spots).

Alex Rice, HackerOne’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said most organizations don’t have an official policy about how they will respond to reports about cybersecurity weaknesses and liabilities, and that the absence of such a policy often discourages researchers from reporting serious security holes.

“The default is terribly unfriendly to researchers,” Rice said. “The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) allows almost any company to go after researchers as hackers, and this happened far too many times. What this does is carve out a safe harbor from the CFAA, and begin to create a safe place that is really powerful and important.”

Rice said HackerOne last year took an inventory of vulnerability disclosure policies at the Global Forbes 2000 list of companies, and found that only six percent of them had published guidelines.

“You cannot run an effective public vulnerability disclosure program or a bug bounty program without having competent security professionals internally,” Rice said. “The problem is, the vast majority of organizations don’t have that.”

Image: Hackerone.

Image: Hackerone.

And when you start asking people to find and report gaps in your cybersecurity armor, you’d better be ready for them to do just that, said Jeremiah Grossman, chief security of strategy at anti-malware firm SentinelOne.

“I’ve seen people try to launch these vulnerability disclosure programs and then fail spectacularly because they don’t have the resources to handle the response,” said Grossman, who also serves on the advisory board for Bugcrowd — one of HackerOne’s competitors. “When you’re really mature in security, and not before then, is about the right time for a bug bounty program. If the organization can handle one to five vulnerabilities reported each month and can fix each of those in a few days, then they’re probably ready.”

Rice said one reason he’s so excited about bug bounty programs is that they offer would-be security professionals a way to demonstrate their skills in a safe and controlled environment.

“If you’re a security professional looking to challenge yourself and you skills, there are very few real world opportunities to do that, to test your mettle and improve,” Rice said. “But that real-world experience is so unbelievably critical in this industry, and we need to be creating more opportunities for people to improve that. The more we can do that and share what we learn out of it, the more we can raise the talent and education of security professionals worldwide.”

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear from a young or career-changing reader asking for advice about how to carve out a living in cybersecurity. This happened so often that I created an entire category of posts on this topic: How to Break Into Security. I’ll be revisiting that series soon, but for the time being I want to encourage anyone interested in building their skills through legal hacking to consider creating relationships with companies that have already sanctioned — and in many cases financially reward — such activity.

For starters, Bugcrowd has a nice list of bug bounty and disclosure programs from across the Web, broken down according to whether they offer various benefits such as financial reward, swag or public recognition. Hackerone maintains a searchable directory of security contacts and vulnerability reporting policies at various corporations.

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