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A Bug-Hunting Hacker Says He Makes $250,000 a Year in Bounty

He probably does, but you shouldn’t quit your day job.

It seems like easy money. If you like tinkering with software, some big players in the tech world have a job for you: bug bounty hunter. At least one hacker says he can clear $250,000 a year by doing something that “comes easily”: hunting down vulnerabilities in computer code and then letting the software’s owner know about it.

Bug bounty programs have been around since 1995, but they’ve really taken off in the last few years, after Google and Facebook launched their initiatives in 2010 and 2011. Microsoft, Samsung, Uber, and Tesla (which pays for bugs found in its cars’ software) all have cash-for-bugs schemes. Apple, which was a holdout until earlier this month—and faced criticism for it—now says it will pay up to $200,000 per bug, but you have to be invited. Even the U.S. government got in on the trend earlier this year, with its Hack the Pentagon program.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter discusses the results of the "Hack the Pentagon" program.

It can seem like a dream career:

Finding a vulnerability or hack “feels exciting, because you are the first person in the world to discover it. It feels good to know that you are somewhere no one else has been,” said Francisco Correa, a 30-year-old bounty hunter who also works with HackerOne.

Correa, who has a beachfront apartment in Chile which he’s fitted out with fiber-optic Internet, began working four years ago with Google’s bug bounty program, and was quickly finding vulnerabilities for Adobe and Microsoft as well.

But the reality is a little more complicated. While a few white-hat hackers probably do laugh all the way to the bank, there is at least some testimony that suggests it’s anything but easy street. As the bug bounty boom was underway in 2014, for example, a post on Reddit gave the impression—both from a would-be bounty hunter’s perspective and a commenter who claimed to run a bug bounty program—of a scrappy, workaday existence that doesn’t pay very well. Less of a path to riches than a desk job in the gig economy.

The claim for the $250,000-a-year salary came from an article in the Guardian on Monday, which ran with the headline “Bounty hunters are legally hacking Apple and the Pentagon—for big money.” It follows the exploits of Nathaniel Wakelam, a 21-year-old who appears to earn a fortune working out of coffee shops.

He probably does. There are other eye-opening numbers as well. Wakelam says a 24-hour bug-hunting binge brought in $3,000, for example. Not bad for a day’s work. Facebook recently paid $10,000 for an Instagram bug—to a 10-year-old.

But the article also says that Bugcrowd, a third-party firm that helps connect companies with bug hunters, has gotten over 50,000 bug submissions in its three years of existence and paid out in excess of $2 million. That would be about $40 per bug submission, but only a small fraction of submissions result in payouts, and the company says the average is about $300. Enough, perhaps, for some money on the side, but it won't leave many people rolling in dough.

(Read more: The Guardian, “Apple Opens Up iPhone Code in What Could Be Savvy Strategy or Security Screwup,” “Online and Self-Employed”)

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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter discusses the results of the "Hack the Pentagon" program.
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