What is a Bug Bounty Program in Cybersecurity?

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What is a Bug Bounty Program?

All software has flaws. It’s the nature of the beast. In a bug bounty program, sometimes called a vulnerability reward program, an organization offers a reward to ethical hackers, outside security testers, who can discover and document bugs in its operating system and applications. The premise is that by exposing your software to a diverse group of hackers you have a good chance of identifying more flaws and vulnerabilities than you would from internal testing alone. And you can fix them before they cause operational problems or before they can be exploited by cybercriminals. Bug bounty programs can yield valuable information, but they are not a panacea, and they are not for everyone.

Benefits – And Drawbacks – of Bug Bounty Programs

Bug bounty programs have been shown to deliver significant benefits if they are set up and run correctly, and they are becoming more popular. Hackers found 65,000 vulnerabilities in 2022 and the average spend on bounties increased to $3,000.

Benefits of Bug Bounty Programs

  • Greater Access to Security Researchers

    Your development and security teams may be great at identifying flaws during coding and production, but you can benefit from inviting a large crowdsourced group of outside testers with a wide variety of skills to examine everything with fresh eyes. Bug bounty participants are motivated by the rewards that you offer, so the higher the rewards, the more testers you will attract, and the more chance that your program will yield results. Most programs offer rewards that increase along with the severity or criticality of identified bugs. 

  • Reduced Cost  

    It is a well-known principle in hardware design that correcting a flaw early in design is much less costly than correcting it after production. It’s very similar with software. The cost to reward a tester for identifying vulnerabilities and other flaws is much less costly than suffering a service outage or data breach. And unlike internal testing programs performed by salaried employees, you only pay a bounty hunter if they find something.

  • More Realistic Threat Simulation

    Bug bounty hunters possess similar knowledge about a company and its software that a cybercriminal would have. And they use many of the same techniques that hackers employ to affect a breach. This makes vulnerability testing more realistic than internal testing.

  • Continuous Security Testing

    Bug bounty programs usually don’t have any time constraints. Ethical hackers are constantly on the hunt to identify vulnerabilities, just like criminal hackers.

Drawbacks of Bug Bounty Programs

  • Large Number of Low Quality or Low Severity Bug Reports

    Bug bounty programs typically result in a large number of reports, many of which can be of low quality, low severity, or even false positives. The organization needs to devote resources to triage these reports and decide which to address and how to compensate the tester. And it will have to identify and handle duplicate submissions. 

  • Attracting the Wrong Participants

    The company sponsoring the bug bounty program may not have any control over who the participants are. Often there is no vetting process. If the program doesn’t attract enough participants or the right people with the right skillsets, the program may not yield helpful results. And there is always some risk when you invite independent testers to probe your systems.  They could, intentionally or accidentally, expose bugs publicly, leading to reputation damage or worse, a breach.

  • Focus on the Wrong Systems

    The majority of bug hunters focus on website vulnerabilities. Hacking operating systems and applications requires more highly specialized expertise. So the organization may not see significant benefit from the program unless these areas are specifically addressed in testing.

  • No Guarantee of Success

    The company is simply inviting security researchers to participate in the bug bounty program.  There is no guarantee that qualified testers will participate or that the program will result in useable bug reports.

Is a Bug Bounty Program Right For Your Company?

Offering a bug bounty program may be a good option for your company to improve your cybersecurity posture. There are significant benefits, as described above, but it’s not for everyone. Before offering the program the company should examine its current ability to handle a substantial influx of bug reports. If the company already has a patch backlog or a list of problems it is struggling to address, adding more bugs to the pile may not be a good idea. And the company needs to manage the program and testers – advertising availabilities, receiving and triaging reports, handling rewards payments, etc.

The company also needs to determine if the rewards it is prepared to offer will attract qualified participants. Big companies like Google, Meta, and Apple offer big rewards as well as prestige for hackers that identify high-quality bugs. OpenAI recently announced a program with rewards that range from $200 for low severity bugs to $20,000 for an exceptional discovery. Small companies with limited resources may not be able to compete for high-caliber talent.

Bug Bounty or Pentesting … or Both

At first glance, a bug bounty program may sound like a penetration testing program. You pay some outside testers to find bugs in your systems. The programs do have similarities, but there are some major differences. 

  • Program Control

    In a bug bounty program you are responsible for management and control. You have to determine who is allowed to test, what happens after bugs are found, who follows up after triaging and remediation, and how payouts are processed.  When you hire a penetration testing company, they handle all those tasks. They can aggregate analytics to help their testers efficiently choose how and where to hack. And they can provide you with meaningful reports to help you improve your cybersecurity posture in addition to addressing identified bugs.

  • Researcher Vetting

    When you initiate a bug bounty program you can open it up to anyone, or invite a selected group of hackers to participate. But how much do you know about these people? A penetration testing company will go through a rigorous vetting process to make sure that its researchers are trustworthy and possess the necessary skills. 

  • Quality and Timeliness of Results

    The quality of results in a bug bounty program is beyond your control. Bug bounty allows for continuous testing, but you don’t know if or when bugs will be submitted. Your pool of testers may not have sufficient diversity to provide adequate test coverage. Many of the bugs identified will likely be of low severity that may take resources away from resolving more serious, exploitable vulnerabilities. 

    Pentests are run for a defined period rather than ongoing testing. A pentesting company will employ a pool of highly-skilled researchers and the bugs they identify will be triaged before being referred to you along with remediation information. And the pentesters can consider context when assessing identified vulnerabilities.  

  • Program Cost

    Pentesting typically costs more than bug bounty. With bug bounty you only pay a reward if testers find something worthwhile. But if your rewards are not enticing enough, you may not attract qualified testers to your program. Pentesting companies work on a contract basis. Cost, whether or not bugs are found, usually depends on the nature of the software, the scope of testing and the complexity of the operation. Researcher rewards are the responsibility of the pentesting company.

Your Vulnerability Management Strategy

If cost is your major deciding factor, then bug bounty may be your best option. But for comprehensive vulnerability testing, pentesting with its timeliness and high-quality results is best. Or you may choose to use both bug bounty and pentesting in your vulnerability management strategy. Ongoing bug bounty can be used as a low-cost option to supplement periodic penetration testing and internal code audits. 

If you want to learn more about the differences between bug bounty and pentesting and how Synack can help you deploy a comprehensive vulnerability management program, visit our Beyond Bug Bounty solution page.

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