Cybersecurity has become a hot topic in political circles, and for good reason; entities both public and private want to keep their data out of the hands of hackers. To help assuage their fears of a cyber attack, corporations are willing to pay top dollar for people like Tech’s own Ryan Pickren to find flaws in their security.
Pickren, a fourth-year CMPE major, recently won 15 million United Airlines miles by doing just that.
“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 said. “But, I quickly realized how fun looking for bugs was, so I just kept at it.”
Pickren didn’t just leave the womb with a passion for coding, however. His computer science journey began in high school, when he watched Stanford’s iOS development course in an attempt to begin making iPhone apps. From there, Pickren began attending Tech and his current interest in cybersecurity truly began to take form.
“Tech has been a great place for me to dive into my passion for cybersecurity,” Pickren said. “I have taken three different security classes and done research for the Georgia Tech Information Security Center.”
As a thank-you to the institute that put him on his current course, Pickren donated five million of his miles to Tech groups that will use them for charitable works.
“I wanted to help student organizations that help others by removing one hurdle they face in the funding game — air travel,” Pickren said, courtesy of the College of Engineering. “With these miles, Tech’s student organizations that do charity work should be set for airfare for a long time.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing (or flying) for Pickren. In 2014, Pickren was arrested for hacking the University of Georgia’s calendar as a harmless prank leading up to the annual football game between Tech and the Dawgs. Despite his arrest, which led to a Christmas partially spent in a jail cell, Pickren’s interest in cybersecurity carried on.
“The UGA incident was a serious wake up call,” Pickren said. “If I was to continue researching cybersecurity, I had to absolutely make sure that I was within the constraints of the law.”
Pickren’s white hat hacking efforts have paid off, as is evident by his recent exploits. He has far and away been the most valuable contributor to United Airlines’ Bug Bounty Program, earning over twice as many miles as any other participant.
Pickren is set to graduate in May and hopes to find a job that is both enjoyable and intellectually challenging. Although he is leaving, the impact he’s left on Tech will be felt for years to come.
“We always enjoy seeing how our students apply the knowledge they gain in class to real-world challenges,” said ECE Chair Steven McLaughlin. “Not only is he applying that in an incredibly creative way, he is sharing his success with current and future Georgia Tech students. It is a generous, inspired and impressive legacy.”