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Vulnerability Reward Program: 2020 Year in Review

By Anna Hupa, Google Senior Strategist, Vulnerability Rewards Team

February 8, 2021

Despite the challenges of this unprecedented year, our vulnerability researchers have achieved more than ever before, partnering with our Vulnerability Reward Programs (VRPs) to protect Google’s users by discovering security and abuse bugs and reporting them to us for remediation. Their diligence helps us keep our users, and the internet at large, safe, and enables us to fix security issues before they can be exploited.

The incredibly hard work, dedication, and expertise of our researchers in 2020 resulted in a record-breaking payout of over $6.7 million in rewards, with an additional $280,000 given to charity. We’d like to extend a big thank you to our community of researchers for collaborating with us. It’s your excellent work that brings our programs to life, so we wanted to take a moment to look back on last year’s successes.

Our rewards programs span several Google product areas, including Chrome, Android, and the Google Play Store. As in past years, we are sharing our 2020 Year in Review statistics across all of these programs.

Android 

2020 was a fantastic year for the Android VRP, and in response to the valiant efforts of multiple teams of researchers, we paid out $1.74M in rewards. Following our increase in exploit payouts in November 2019, we received a record 13 working exploit submissions in 2020, representing over $1M in exploit reward payouts. Some highlights include:

  • We awarded our first-ever Android 11 developer preview bonus, which paid out over $50,000 across 11 reports. This allowed us to patch the issues proactively, before the official release of Android 11.
  • Guang Gong (@oldfresher) and his team at 360 Alpha Lab, Qihoo 360 Technology Co. Ltd., now hold a record 8 exploits (30% of the all-time total) on the leaderboard. Most recently, Alpha Lab submitted an impressive 1-click remote root exploit targeting recent Android devices. They maintain the top Android payout ($161,337, plus another $40,000 from Chrome VRP) for their 2019 exploit.
  • Another researcher submitted an additional two exploits, and is vying for the top all-time spot with an impressive $400,000 in all-time exploit payouts.

In addition, we launched a number of pilot rewards programs to guide security researchers toward additional areas of interest, including Android Auto OS, writing fuzzers for Android code, and a reward program for Android chipsets. And in 2021, we'll be working on additional improvements and exciting initiatives related to our programs.

Chrome 

Chrome has also seen a record year of VRP payouts! We increased our reward amounts in July 2019, and as a result, 2020 has seen us pay out 83% more than 2019, totalling $2.1M across 300 bugs.

In 2019, 14% of our payouts were for V8 bugs. This decreased to just 6% in 2020. At the end of 2020, we announced a further bonus reward for clearly exploitable V8 bugs, so we expect to see this amount increase again in 2021.

Google Play 

It’s been another stellar year for the Google Play Security Rewards Program! This year, we expanded the criteria for qualifying Android apps to include apps utilizing the Exposure Notification API and performing contact tracing to help combat Covid-19. We also increased our maximum bounty award amount to $20,000 for qualifying vulnerabilities.

In 2020, the Google Play Security Rewards Program and Developer Data Protection Reward Program awarded over $270,000 to Android researchers around the world.

Abuse Program

Beyond typical security vulnerabilities, we remain interested in research focused on abuse-related risks.

The Abuse program released an official definition describing what an abuse risk is and how abuse-related reports are assessed. We also announced increased rewards for reports focused on abuse-related methodologies. These efforts led to a huge spike of abuse-related reports. In fact, we received more than twice as many reports in 2020 as in 2019, a level of growth we’ve never seen before. The fantastic work of our researchers in 2020 allowed us to identify and fix over 100 issues across more than 60 different products.

Research Grants

Besides reward payouts, in 2020 we also awarded over $400,000 in grants to more than 180 security researchers around the world, which is a record for this program. More than a third of these grants were awarded in response to the Covid-19 crisis, to extend our support to researchers and enable them to continue with their work. Our researchers got back to us with over 200 reports which resulted in more than 100 identified vulnerabilities.

"The point is, the value of these research grants is not $1337, $500 or $5000 etc. It is priceless!" – Research Grantee

Looking Forward

Finally, because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and related restrictions on travel last year, we couldn’t keep our tradition of meeting our bug hunters in person and organizing events like ESCAL8, where we can engage with our incredible community of researchers. Like everyone else, we are full of hope that 2021 will allow us to meet in person again, and celebrate the 10 year VRP anniversary and the fantastic work our researchers have contributed during this time.

We look forward to another year of working with our security researchers to make Google, Android, Chrome and the Google Play Store safer for everyone. Follow us on @GoogleVRP to keep tabs on the latest.

Thank you to Mike Antares, Adam Bacchus, Dirk Göhmann, Amy Ressler, Martin Straka, Adrian Taylor and Jan Keller for their contributions to this post.

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