Christmas came early for Facebook bug bounty hunter Tommy DeVoss who was paid $5,000 this week for discovering a security vulnerability that allowed him to view the private email addresses of any Facebook user.
“The hack allowed me to harvest as many email addresses as I wanted from anybody on Facebook,” DeVoss said. “It didn’t matter how private you thought your email address was – I could of grabbed it.”
DeVoss said on Thanksgiving Day he discovered the vulnerability and reported it to Facebook via its bug bounty program. After weeks of going back and forth verifying what the exact bug was and how it was exploited, Facebook said it would award him $5,000 for the discovery. And on Tuesday it did. The bug was tied to the user-generated Facebook Groups feature that allows any member to create an affinity group on the social network’s platform. DeVoss discovered as an administrator of a Facebook Group he could invite any Facebook member to have Admin Roles via Facebook’s system to do things such as edit post or add new members.
Those invitations were handled by Facebook and sent to the invited recipient’s Facebook Messages inbox, but also to the Facebook user’s email address associated with their account. In many cases users choose to keep their email addresses private. DeVoss discovered, despite privacy settings set by Facebook members, he was able to gain access to any Facebook user’s email address whether he was Friends with them or not.
DeVoss found when he cancelled pending invitations to those invited to be Facebook Group Administrators there was a glitch. “While Facebook waits for the confirmation, the user is forwarded to a Page Roles tab that includes a button to cancel the request,” he said. Next, he switched to Facebook’s mobile view of the Page Roles tab. Here DeVoss was able to view the full email addresses of anyone he wanted to cancel from becoming a Facebook Group Administrator.
“I noticed that when you clicked to cancel the administrator invitation on the mobile page, you were redirected to a page with the email address in the URL,” he said. “Now all you have to do is pluck the plaintext version of the confidential email address straight from the URL.”
DeVoss, a software developer in Virginia, said this is the largest bug bounty payment he has ever earned. He told he participates in a number of bug bounty programs including Yahoo’s and the Hack the Pentagon program. For its part, in October Facebook announced it has paid out more than $5 million to 900 researchers in the five years since it implemented its bug bounty program. The company said it paid out $611,741 to 149 researchers in the first half of 2016 alone.
Facebook was one of the first websites to launch a bug program when it followed in the footsteps of both Mozilla and Google in August 2011. In February, the company paid $10,000 to a 10-year-old boy from Finland after he discovered an API bug in the image sharing app Instagram, which Facebook bought for $1B in 2012. The company awarded $15,000 to Anand Prakash in March for a bug allowed him to crack open any of Facebook’s 1.1 billion accounts using a rudimentary brute force password attack.