NEW YORK — On the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, two Italian hackers have been searching for bugs — not the island’s many beetle varieties, but secret flaws in computer code that governments pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn about and exploit.
The hackers, Luigi Auriemma, 32, and Donato Ferrante, 28, sell technical details of such vulnerabilities to countries that want to break into the computer systems of foreign adversaries.
The two will not reveal the clients of their company, ReVuln, but big buyers of services like theirs include the National Security Agency — which seeks the flaws for America’s growing arsenal of cyberweapons — and US adversaries like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
All over the world, from South Africa to South Korea, business is booming in what hackers call “zero days,” the coding flaws in software like Microsoft’s Windows that can give a buyer unfettered access to a computer and any business, agency, or individual dependent on one.
Just a few years ago, hackers like Auriemma and Ferrante would have sold the knowledge of coding flaws to companies like Microsoft and Apple, which would fix them. Last month, Microsoft sharply increased the amount it was willing to pay for such flaws, raising its top offer to $150,000.
Increasingly, however, the businesses are being outbid by countries with the goal of exploiting the flaws in pursuit of the kind of success that the United States and Israel achieved three summers ago when they attacked Iran’s nuclear enrichment program with a computer worm that became known as “Stuxnet.’’
The flaws get their name from the fact that once discovered, “zero days” exist for the user of the computer system to fix them before hackers can take advantage of the vulnerability. A “zero-day exploit” occurs when hackers or governments strike by using the flaw before anyone else knows it exists.
“Governments are starting to say, ‘In order to best protect my country, I need to find vulnerabilities in other countries,’ ” said Howard Schmidt, the former White House cybersecurity coordinator. “The problem is that we all fundamentally become less secure.”
Ten years ago, hackers would hand knowledge of such flaws to Microsoft and Google free, in exchange for a T-shirt or perhaps for an honorable mention on a company’s website. Even today, so-called patriotic hackers in China regularly hand over the information to the government.
Now, the market for information about computer vulnerabilities has turned into a gold rush. Disclosures by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA consultant who leaked classified documents, made it clear that the United States is among the buyers of programming flaws. But it is hardly alone.
Israel, Britain, Russia, India, and Brazil are some of the biggest spenders. North Korea is in the market, as are some Middle Eastern intelligence services. Countries in the Asian Pacific, including Malaysia and Singapore, are buying, too, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
To connect sellers and buyers, dozens of well-connected brokers now market information on the flaws in exchange for a 15 percent cut. Some hackers get a deal collecting royalty fees for every month their flaw lies undiscovered, according to several people involved in the market.
A broker’s approach need not be subtle. “Need code execution exploit urgent,” read the subject line of an e-mail sent from one contractor’s intermediary last year to Billy Rios, a former security engineer who is now a director at Cylance, a security start-up.
“Dear Friend,” the e-mail began. “Do you have any code execution exploit for Windows 7, Mac, for applications like Browser, Office, Adobe, SWF any.”
“If yes,” the e-mail continued, “payment is not an issue.”
For start-ups eager to displace more established military contractors, selling vulnerabilities have become a lucrative opportunity. Firms like Vupen in Montpellier, France; Netragard in Acton, Mass.; Exodus Intelligence in Austin, Texas; and ReVuln, Auriemma and Ferrante’s Maltese firm, freely advertise that they sell knowledge of the flaws for cyberespionage and in some cases for cyberweapons.