If it takes a thief to catch a thief, Google is hoping that it takes a hacker to catch a hacker. The search engine giant Tuesday announced a new initiative, Project Zero, that it hopes will cut down on targeted attacks. The company has put together a team to improve security across the Internet.
Project Zero is a group of top Google security researchers whose mission is to track down and squelch software security flaws, called zero-day vulnerabilities by security experts. Zero-day bugs are exploited mostly by criminals, but also sometimes by state-sponsored hackers and intelligence agencies. A prominent recent example is the "heartbleed" bug that made vulnerable large amounts of online data, including passwords.
In announcing the initiative, Google pointed to zero-day vulnerabilities found in Adobe Flash Player that were used to target human-rights activists.
Pressure Put on Developers
Google's hope is that its researchers will help fix the flaws that lead to such breaches -- and not just in Google products. Project Zero's hackers will be free to attack any software whose vulnerabilities can be discovered and demonstrated. Google hopes that by doing so, it will pressure software developers to better protect Google's users.
Google, like some other companies, has paid bounties in the past when users have discovered flaws in its code. But now, with the security of Google programs often depending on third-party code such as Adobe's Flash, the company feels the need to formalize its bug-hunting efforts.
"You should be able to use the Web without fear that a criminal or state-sponsored actor is exploiting software bugs to infect your computer, steal secrets or monitor your communications," wrote Chris Evans, a member of Google's security research team, in a company blog post. "Yet in sophisticated attacks, we see the use of 'zero-day' vulnerabilities to target, for example, human rights activists or to conduct industrial espionage."
A Chance to Make a Patch
Although Google is still recruiting and hiring Project Zero team members, it's already assembled a group well known in security circles, including: Ben Hawkes, who has been credited with discovering numerous bugs in widely used software such as Adobe Flash and the Microsoft Office applications; American hacker George Hotz, who defeated Google's Chrome OS defenses to win the company's Pwnium hacking competition earlier this year; and Ian Beer, who was credited with finding six bugs Apple's iOS, OSX and Safari platforms.
Google hopes to have at least 10 full-time hackers working in its Mountain View, California, headquarters.
Google pledged that the work done under Project Zero will be transparent, with every bug filed and documented in a database. Bugs will be shown to the affected software vendor, and will be made public only after the vendor has had the chance to release a patch.
"You'll be able to monitor vendor time-to-fix performance, see any discussion about exploitability, and view historical exploits and crash traces," said Google's Evans.