United launches bug bounty, but in-flight systems off limits

United will give loyalty miles as a reward instead of cash for finding flaws in its websites

United Airlines is offering rewards to researchers for finding flaws in its websites but the company is excluding bugs related to in-flight systems, which the U.S. government says may be increasingly targeted by hackers.

The bug bounty program rewards people with miles that can be used for the company's Mileage Plus loyalty program as opposed to cash, which web giants such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo pay.

Many companies have launched reward programs to attract independent researchers to investigate their software code and confidentially report flaws before hackers discover them.

United may be the first airline to create such a program, but the airline will not accept bugs found in onboard Wi-Fi, entertainment or avionics systems.

It warned of possible criminal and legal investigations for any testing of live systems on planes or aircraft systems.

The program comes shortly after United bumped heads with a security researcher who has probed aircraft software flaws. Chris Roberts, founder and CTO of One World Labs, was questioned by police and FBI agents following a flight last month on a United 737/800.

Roberts had written a joking tweet on April 15 referring to the aircraft's Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System, or EICAS, which monitors a variety of systems.

United's program comes about a month after a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that aircraft avionics systems could be at risk due to increasing Internet connectivity.

Software vulnerabilities in firewalls that separate cabin systems from cockpits could be subverted and "allow an attacker to gain remote access to avionics systems and compromise them," it said.

The airline will give 1 million air miles for an eligible remote execution flaw, 250,000 for issues such as authentication bypass, brute force or timing attacks and 50,000 for cross-site scripting and request forgery flaws.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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