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Mozilla Pays 12-Year-Old San Jose Boy for Hunting Bugs in System

It's safe to say a typical Willow Glen 12-year-old doesn't earn $3,000 for a couple of weeks' worth of work. Then again, Alex Miller is no typical 12-year-old.

Alex is a bug hunter, but the bugs he's uncovering are unlikely to end up in any entomological reference book. Instead, the bug Alex found was a valid critical security flaw buried in the Firefox web browser. For his discovery, he was rewarded a bug bounty of $3,000 by Mozilla, the parent company of Firefox.

Alex knows the value of bug bounties; he knows what other companies are offering, so when Mozilla upped its bug bounty from $500, he was motivated.

"A couple months ago we increased the amount of payment to a much more substantial $3,000, basically to reflect the change in the economy, and the marketplace, since the time the program was initiated," says Brandon Sterne, security program manager at Mozilla.

A Firefox loyalist, the University Prep Academy seventh-grader began his diligent search in the bowels of the browser for a bug that would qualify for the bounty.

He found something in an initial search and sent in a bug report, but it wasn't the right type of bug to qualify for the big bucks. Alex returned to the computer and his exploration. By Alex's estimation he spent about 90 minutes each day for about 10 days until he spotted it--a flaw in the memory of the running program.

There might have been dancing and some whooping at that point, he says.

Could it have been this easy, could anyone have found this bug?

"Absolutely not," says Sterne. "The space of people that are contributing in this area is pretty small. This is a very niche technical area."

Mozilla is a nonprofit, open source project with products such as web browser Firefox, and calendar projects such as Lightning and Sunbird.

"Mozilla depends on contributors like these for our very, sort of, survival. Mozilla is a community mostly of volunteers. We really encourage people to get involved in the community. You don't have to be a brilliant 12-year-old to do that," he says.

Alex is virtually self-taught, says his mother, Elissa Miller. Reading his parents' very technical books is not an assignment, it's something he just does; and he understands them. He has a "gift for the technical," Elissa says.

While some may contend that Alex spends too much time on the computer, Miller is quick to point out that he's not just playing games; what Alex is doing is learning.

"Clearly it's his passion," she says.

Alex has other interests, such as badminton and guitar. He's also learning Mandarin. And a smile breaks across his face as he recalls a quest to build a deadly robot in the Science Olympiad.

He can talk politics like a 40-year-old who's hooked on NPR news shows and enjoys a good debate. But there are reminders that he isn't yet old enough to vote.

"But you still have to do chores," Miller reminds him when he talks of his next debugging mission.

Until he produced a copy of the check from Mozilla, Alex says his friends didn't actually believe him when he told them about the money.

His declaration that he was "really, really, really, really, really happy," when the check came in the mail hints at his youthful exuberance.

Spending the first $100 didn't take long; he made a donation to his neighbor's nonprofit organization, Unconditional Love Animal Rescue, which the Miller family also supports by fostering found kittens.

He very much wants a new computer, and since he says he's been pretty bad about it in the past, he plans yo buy Christmas gifts for his family. The rest will stay put in the bank, where, if Alex gets his way, it will be joined by more bug bounty.


Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: News on October 29, 2010 @ 9:17 PM

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