Former NSA analysts start company to research zero-day vulnerabilities in websites

Two former National Security Agency (NSA) computer network operations analysts have set up a company called Synack that is offering to match bug-bounty security experts from around the world -- including from within the NSA on a freelance basis -- to discover zero-day vulnerabilities in websites.

CEO Jay Kaplan and CTO Mark Cuhr say the idea behind the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company they formed in January is to bring together security experts with the knack of finding zero-day bugs in software to see if they can find any in the websites and applications of Synack customers. Zero-days are vulnerabilities in software and services that are not yet generally known and thus are not yet patched or otherwise protected, making them dangerous holes that an attacker might exploit.

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"We pay researchers for vulnerabilities found," said Kaplan, saying it depends on the severity. Bug-bounty rates typically run a minimum of $500 to several thousand for "more serious cases" related to database compromises, for instance. Customers, whom they decline to name, would pay a recurring subscription, with the initial focus on Internet-facing web applications and websites that the bug hunters would examine.

There are several bug-bounty reward programs known to exist, including ones run by Google, Microsoft, and PayPal -- that will pay cash to researchers who show evidence of serious vulnerabilities. Governments are also believed to buy zero-day vulnerabilities, too, for secretive operations.

Kaplan said Synack has cultivated relationships with several bug hunters around the world , including at the NSA, who would be available to take on specific assignments for customers, which includes working via the start-up's technical platform for end-to-end testing vulnerability. The goal to give any business a chance to have its own bug-bounty program, they say and they expect to be able to support customers on a large scale.

The initial focus is on "live application testing" on Internet-facing websites already in production, Kaplan said. This would essentially put it under attack, he acknowledged, but he adds Synack has a way to make sure customers know what's happening.

Kaplan said his own experience at NSA convinced him that the automated vulnerability-testing tools and scanners simply aren't enough to find serious security holes, and that the human element is needed.

Synack today announced $1.5 million in venture capital funding from a combination of investors that include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Greylock Partners, Wing Venture Partners, Allegis Capital and Derek Smith, CEO of start-up Shape Security. Shape Security also is said to be testing the Synack technology itself.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail:

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