From Pranks to Profit

A photo of the Georgia Tech building.

Georgia Tech, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

It seems like a very minor piece of hacking—Georgia Tech student Ryan Pickren used an HTML loophole to sneak into the event calendar of rival college University of Georgia to post this message on the date of a football game between the two schools:

Sat., November 29, 2014 / 12:00 pm / Get Ass Kicked by GT.

Inter-school pranks are a long American tradition, but the simple elegance of this one made national news when it happened in 2014. Pickren was arrested and convicted of felony computer trespassing, but it seems the judge was nearly as admiring of the prank as his own grandfather. The offense is punishable by a maximum of 15 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. Pickren got 12 months of community service. After completing that, which he did in early 2016, his record was wiped clean.

More than that, the computer engineering student, who was able to continue working on his degree during his sentence, has been deluged with job offers. His community service was served at Techbridge, a nonprofit tech-support agency for other nonprofits. In that time, he developed security tools to protect clients from hackers like himself.

Now he’s working in the security sector. He is the top contributor to United Airlines’ Bug Bounty Program, a freelance initiative wherein UA rewards hackers for finding and reporting security flaws in their digital presence.

With the only rule being that hackers have to keep their fingers off of any onboard systems, the program gives away up to a million free air miles for every flaw found. If they’re found, they can be fixed. The program debuted shortly after a security researcher tweeted that he could hack the onboard system to drop its air masks.

Pickren, who chose to work in United Airlines’ program mostly because he needed the air miles to help him through an out-of-state internship that would have resulted in a lot of travel, says that he grew quickly to love the work. He’s earned over 15,000,000 frequent flier miles, a third of which he’s donated to his school.