HBO offered hackers $250,000 ‘bug bounty’, leaked email claims

HBO reportedly offered $250,000 (£193,000) to the group that hacked its servers under the guise of a “bug bounty”, according to a screenshot of the conversation released by the attackers and seen by the Guardian.

A senior vice president of the company made the offer on 27 July, phrasing the payment as a reward for discovering weaknesses in HBO’s network rather than acceding to ransom demands.

There is no way to verify the authenticity of the email, or whether it has been altered, but it was shared with some outlets through the same email address that the attackers had previously used to leak stolen data.

In the message, the executive says HBO has “been working hard since Sunday evening [23 July] to review all of the material that you have made available to us. We simply have not yet been able to do so”.

The executive continues: “You have the advantage of having surprised us. In the spirit of professional cooperation, we are asking you to extend your deadline for one week.

“As a show of good faith on our side, we are willing to commit to making a bug bounty payment of $250,000 to you as soon as we can establish the necessary account and acquire bitcoin.”

The offer may have been an attempt to stall for time, rather than a genuine proposal of payment. HBO came clean about the hack four days after the bug bounty payment was offered, telling the public that it had experienced a “cyber-incident, which resulted in the compromise of proprietary information”.

A script for Game of Thrones, and two unreleased episodes of dramas Ballers and Room 104, were put online the same day. A week after the payment offer, on 3 August, the attackers sent out more evidence of hacked materials, and claimed to have access to the company’s entire webmail system – a claim denied by HBO.

The hackers later released the personal details of some Game of Thrones actors, including email addresses and phone numbers, plus some HBO emails and confidential files, along with a renewed demand for a multimillion dollar ransom.

Bug bounty payments are a common occurrence in cybersecurity, designed to encourage third-parties to discover and report weaknesses found in security systems so they can be fixed, rather than sell the information to would-be attackers.

But it is uncommon for them to be paid following the active exploitation of a bug to steal substantial quantities of data, and extremely uncommon for them to be paid to attackers who deliver payment demands in the form of a video of scrolling text set to dramatic music, asking for a payment of “six months salary”, or $6m – as the HBO attackers did.

At least one Hollywood hack victim has paid the ransom demanded by attackers, according to the Hollywood Reporter. But most victims refuse to talk about the ransom requests, fearing that admission they paid will make them a target for future attacks.


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