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College Student Earns 15 Million Miles for Hacking United Airlines

by Megan Hill

Oct 12, 2016
Features

A college student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Ryan Pickren is already an accomplished hacker. In 2015, he hacked rival University of Georgia’s online calendar and was threatened with prison time for the deed.

Now, instead of being punished, Pickren is being rewarded for his hacking efforts. He participated in United Airlines’ Bug Bounty Program and earned 15 million United miles — that’s about $300,000 worth of airline miles.

United’s program invites experts to legally hack their websites, with a bounty of up to 1 million United miles to anyone who reveals major security flaws. Though United has not revealed the details of college student Pickren’s work, it’s safe to say he must have uncovered several significant flaws based on his 15-million-mile reward.

Pickren is joined by 19-year-old security researcher Olivier Beg who earned 1 million miles by uncovering 20 medium and low-severity issues.

One major drawback to earning all these miles is they’re considered taxable income by the United States Internal Revenue Service. Pickren opted not to keep all of his miles, though, instead donating 5 million of them to Georgia Tech.

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