College student Ryan Pickren is a computer hacker. At one time, he used these skills to get himself into a bit of trouble with the law. Now Pickren gets rewarded handsomely by United Airlines for his hacking abilities. How did this redemption story happen?
Hacker Slams Rival Football Team
Back in 2014, the Georgia Tech student decided to take smack talk to the next level. Pickren hacked into the University of Georgia’s computer and added an event to the school’s calendar:
“Sat., November 29, 2014/12:00pm/Get Ass Kicked By GT.”
Now, usually, there’s nothing wrong with a little school rivalry. However, Pickren committed a crime that got him a felony computer trespass charge in Clark County, Georgia. He faced a $50,000 fine and up to 15 years in jail.
Luckily, justice took mercy on him and ordered him into a pretrial diversion program. Once he completed the program, the county dropped all charges against Pickren.
After completing the program, though, Pickren found more productive ways to apply his technical talents.
United Airlines Rewards Hackers?
After his diversion program ended, Pickren got accepted into an out-of-state internship program. This created a problem. How would he get back to Georgia to visit his girlfriend? That’s when the creative hacker discovered the United Airlines Bug Bounty Program.
“I first started working with United because I was about to leave the state for an internship and I wanted frequent flyer miles so I could see my girlfriend back in [Atlanta] on the weekends,” Pickren told Business Insider. “But I quickly realized how fun looking for bugs was so I just kept at it.”
The United Airlines Bug Bounty Program encourages hacker to dig into its computer systems to find security gaps. Then, the hackers report these issues back to United, who rewards them with frequent flyer miles.
So far, Pickren has earned $300,000 worth of United frequent flyer miles for his efforts. That works out to about 15 million miles or about 600 domestic flights. He has also donated 5 million of his frequent flyer miles to Georgia Tech. The college plans to use them for its Georgia Tech Engineers Without Borders program to bring clean drinking water to Uganda.