Uber paid 20-year-old Florida man to keep data breach secret, sources said

A 20-year-old Florida man was responsible for the large data breach at Uber Technologies last year and was paid by Uber to destroy the data through a so-called “bug bounty” program normally used to identify small code vulnerabilities, three people familiar with the events have told Reuters.

Uber announced on Nov. 21 that the personal data of 57 million users, including 600,000 drivers in the United States, were stolen in a breach that occurred in October 2016, and that it paid the hacker $100,000 to destroy the information. But the company did not reveal any information about the hacker or how it paid him the money.

Uber made the payment last year through a program designed to reward security researchers who report flaws in a company’s software, these people said. Uber’s bug bounty service – as such a program is known in the industry – is hosted by a company called HackerOne, which offers its platform to a number of tech companies.

Reuters was unable to establish the identity of the hacker or another person who sources said helped him. Uber spokesman Matt Kallman declined to comment on the matter.

Newly appointed Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi fired two of Uber’s top security officials when he announced the breach last month, saying the incident should have been
disclosed to regulators at the time it was discovered, about a year before.

It remains unclear who made the final decision to authorize the payment to the hacker and to keep the breach secret, though the sources said then-CEO Travis Kalanick was aware of the breach and bug bounty payment in November of last year.

Kalanick, who stepped down as Uber CEO in June, declined to comment on the matter, according to his spokesman.

A payment of $100,000 through a bug bounty program would be extremely unusual, with one former HackerOne executive saying it would represent an “all-time record.” Security professionals said rewarding a hacker who had stolen data also would be well outside the normal rules of a bounty program, where payments are typically in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

HackerOne hosts Uber’s bug bounty program but does not manage it, and plays no role in deciding whether payouts are appropriate or how large they should be.

HackerOne CEO Marten Mickos said he could not discuss an individual customer’s programs. “In all cases when a bug bounty award is processed through HackerOne, we receive identifying information of the recipient in the form of an IRS W-9 or W-8BEN form before payment of the award can be made,” he said, referring to U.S. Internal Revenue Service forms.

According to two of the sources, Uber made the payment to confirm the hacker’s identity and have him sign a nondisclosure agreement to deter further wrongdoing. Uber also conducted a forensic analysis of the hacker’s machine to make sure the data had been purged, the sources said.

One source described the hacker as “living with his mom in a small home trying to help pay the bills,” adding that members of Uber’s security team did not want to pursue prosecution of an individual who did not appear to pose a further threat.

The Florida hacker paid a second person for services that involved accessing GitHub, a site widely used by programmers to store their code, to obtain credentials for access to Uber data
stored elsewhere, one of the sources said.

GitHub said the attack did not involve a failure of its security systems. “Our recommendation is to never store access tokens, passwords, or other authentication or encryption keys in the code,” that company said in a statement.

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