Pretty Complex

The Hacker's Business Model

The hacker's business may have become a lot harder. A former hacker noted that his "last full weaponized exploit took eight months to create; today you need a full chain from remote to kernel, and not every stack overflow is exploitable anymore – it's not like in the 90s. In '98, all we needed to create an exploit was a crate of Mate, a weekend, some computers, and no sleep." Technologies like address space layout randomization (ASLR), code fuzzing, and the extended use of canaries make it harder today to exploit software bugs, he further explains. "Someone at Pwn2Own had to chain 17 bugs to finally get code execution." Even though the prize money awarded at Pwn2Own 2018 [26] decreased, the work quality increased in skill level. Today, exploit programmers have to know more about operating systems, platforms, and software and invest more time and qualification in their work. Very likely that is also a reason for price increases.

If not for all the taxpayer money being wasted, the whole development could be seen as very positive: "If I find a bug, I can choose to get the $10 - 20K from Google – not too bad for a few days, maybe weeks of work – or invest months just to find the bug being closed or discovered by someone else in the meantime." With more and more open source, this scenario becomes more and more likely. It seems to be a business decision for a hacker as well.


So what about the malware industry? On the one hand, they have enough money to have lots of skilled developers code exploits, even if it takes longer. The large amount of money spent should even make up for occasional losses due to the "death" of a bug before an exploit is finished.

When you talk to these companies' representatives, they usually don't want to talk about this. However, there's one topic they do like to talk about: lack of experts. Both the military and its affiliated businesses can't find experts with skill levels as high as they need. In addition, the ethical differences between the hacker culture and the military's goals pose another problem. Ethical hacking is a big thing; there are even certifications available now. In the meantime, Western military leaders and politicians alike wonder how the Russians motivate their hackers. Although patriotism might have some influence with Russian hackers, ideology is rare – most are more interested in cleaning out other people's bank accounts [27].


  1. Tim Cook on Google and Facebook:
  2. Eisenhower's farewell address:
  3. Data is the new oil:
  4. German IT Security 2017:
  5. Windows zero-day exploit:
  6. Bleedingbit:
  7. Motherboard article:
  8. Israeli Ministry of Defense letter:
  9. VEP:
  10. EFF VEP FOIA request:
  11. New US policy regarding VEP:
  12. "Old Trick Threatens the Newest Weapons" by John Markoff, The New York Times, October 26, 2009:
  13. Stuxnet:
  14. US cyberwarfare:
  15. National Cyber Strategy:
  17. Zero Days:
  18. Stuxnet II:
  19. DoD Cyber Strategy 2018:
  20. Kurz, Constanze, and Frank Rieger. Cyberwar – Die Gefahr aus dem Netz, C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2018: [in German]
  21. FinFisher:
  22. Adriel Desautels at BDF 2015:
  23. Zerodium:
  24. Rand exploit study:
  25. Google's bug bounty program:
  26. Pwn2Own 2018:
  27. Russian hackers:

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