What is Bug Bounty Program? It's Working and Benefits

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What is Bug Bounty Program
Updated on 14th Mar, 23 5.6 K Views

The following are some of the topics that we will be covering in this blog:

What is Bug Bounty Program?

A bug bounty program, also known as a vulnerability rewards program (VRP), offers rewards to individuals for uncovering and reporting software bugs. As part of a vulnerability management strategy, these crowdsourcing initiatives are often used by companies to supplement penetration tests and internal code audits.

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Bug bounty programs authorize independent security experts to report bugs to a company in exchange for rewards or compensation. These bugs can include security exploits, vulnerabilities, process issues, hardware flaws, etc.

The reports of detected bugs are typically made through programs that are run by independent third parties. These kinds of programs are primarily curated for a company’s requirements.

The program may be public where anyone can sign up; they may also be private or invite-only for confidentiality purposes. The program can take place over a set duration or, commonly, with no end date.

Who Uses Bug Bounty Programs?

Large companies, including Apple, Android, AOL, Digital Ocean, Goldman Sachs, etc., use bug bounty programs as a part of their security program. A list of all the programs offered by bug bounty providers, such as HackerOne and Bugcrowd, can be viewed on their websites.

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Why Do Companies Use Bug Bounty Programs?

Bug bounty programs benefit companies by making use of hackers who can uncover the bugs in the companies’ codes. These programs have access to a larger number of hackers or testers, thereby increasing the chances of finding bugs before malicious hackers attempt to exploit them.

It can serve as a good public relations choice for companies. These programs can also serve as an indication to the public and regulators that a company has a mature security program.

The popularity of these programs is likely to continue, as they have come to be considered an industry standard that should be invested in by all companies.

Why Do Researchers and Hackers Participate in Bug Bounty Programs?

Since the programs offer both cash bonuses and recognition to those finding and reporting bugs, it is a great opportunity for some to earn a full-time income, income to supplement a job, or showcase real-world experience for those looking for a job. Very recently, Google’s bug bounty program paid around ₹6.5 million to an Indore-based techie for discovering 232 vulnerabilities within Android.

Sometimes, these programs can help those participating to connect with the members of the security team of a company. Some like to participate in these programs because they can also be fun! It is a great, and of course, legal chance to test out one’s skills against large companies and government agencies.

Benefits of Bug Bounty Programs

Bug bounty programs have become increasingly prominent in the public and private sector due to the various benefits offered by them to the company that is being tested.

Increased Vulnerability Detection

The key benefit of a bug bounty program is that the company hosting it can have a number of vulnerabilities within its applications found and fixed, thus preventing exploitation by cybercriminals and preventing significant damage.

The program provides a higher probability of finding vulnerabilities, helping to protect the company’s reputation, and decreasing high-value hacks.

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Reduced Cost

Bug bounty programs enable significant cost savings in several ways.  Firstly, paying a bounty to learn about a vulnerability costs much less than attempting to remediate a cybersecurity incident due to that same vulnerability. While bounty values are subject to variation, even the most expensive bounties are often significantly cheaper than data breaches.

Because companies have to pay the bug bounty hunters only if they find something, bug bounty programs are, ultimately, much cheaper than paying for the same level of security testing via contractors as they have to be paid by the hour whether or not they find anything.

Access to a Wider Group of Talent

Bug bounty programs provide a company with a wider pool of talent, which might be otherwise almost impossible to have in-house. Considering the fact that the participants of the program are highly skilled and specialized in their respective fields, they would likely be very expensive on the payroll. A company can perform vulnerability testing with the help of a larger group of bug hunters with a wide range of skills through a bug bounty program than a traditional vulnerability scan or penetration test.

Realistic Threat Simulation

A company essentially prefers to find and fix the vulnerabilities that are most likely to be attacked first by malicious attackers. However, the realism of these exercises in penetration tests and vulnerability assessments can be challenging due to a number of different factors.

For bug bounty programs, companies pay bug hunters to act as cybercriminals.  These bug hunters possess the same level of knowledge about a company as hackers might have, which makes vulnerability assessments more realistic than structured engagements.

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Drawbacks of Bug Bounty Programs

Low Possibility of Success and Income

Because a large number of hackers participate in bug bounty programs, it can be very challenging to be the first one to claim the reward and earn a significant amount of money on the platform. Practically, a hacker might spend weeks hunting for a bug to exploit only to end up as the second person to report it and make no money out of it.
It has been recorded that a major percentage of the participants on bug bounty platforms have never sold a bug. Furthermore, a 2019 report by HackerOne stated that only around 2.5 percent out of the 300,000+ registered users received a bounty on their time on the platform.

Clearly, most hackers are not making big money on these platforms, and only a very few are making enough to replace a full-time salary.

Cases of Success and Remediation

These programs are only beneficial as long as they result in a company finding problems that it was not able to uncover on its own. Even if the issues are found, the company has to find solutions to fix those problems.

If a company is not able to quickly remediate the identified issues and bugs, a bug bounty program is probably not the right choice for the company.

Large Number of Unhelpful Alerts

Bug bounty programs typically attract a large number of submissions, many of which may not be of a high standard. A company, therefore, needs to be equipped to handle the large volume of alerts and the possibility of receiving quite a few unhelpful reports for every useful one.

Attracting Less or Wrong Talent

If a program is not able to attract enough participants or sees the participation of the wrong skill sets, the program is most likely to flop.

Less Focus on OS Vulnerabilities

According to HackerOne, 72 percent of bug bounty participants concentrate on website vulnerabilities, while only 3.5 percent of participants focus on operating system (OS) vulnerabilities. This may be due to the fact that hacking the OS, such as network hardware and memory, requires high-level expertise and specialization. Therefore, there is significant return on investment (ROI) for bug bounties on websites only, and not from applications that may require specialized expertise.

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Time Limit Issues

Companies that need to urgently get an application or website checked for bugs within a specific time frame may not find it wise to rely on a bug bounty as there is no guarantee of when or if they will receive the reports.

Public Reputation At Stake

Allowing independent researchers to attempt to penetrate a company’s network may result in the public disclosure of bugs. This will not only cause harm to the company’s reputation in the public eye, but will also reduce sales. It will also result in malicious third parties using that information to target the company.

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Is a Bug Bounty Program Right for Every Company?

As it has been previously discussed in this blog, there are certain scenarios where bug bounty programs might not necessarily benefit a company; these programs are, therefore, not a good fit for all companies. For this program to be effective, a company first needs to reach a certain level of maturity in its security program.

It is crucial for a company to know whether or not it is capable of fixing any and all identified vulnerabilities. If the same cannot be achieved within a reasonable amount of time, then a bug bounty program is probably not a good fit for the company.

If a company finds difficulty in basic patch management or is struggling to fix a host of other identified problems, then it is not a good idea to implement a bug bounty program since the volume of reports will add an extra load on the company.

The program will benefit a company if there is no backlog of identified security issues, remediation processes are in place for addressing identified security issues, and additional reports are looked into. If a company does not learn from its mistakes, the bug bounties can quickly add up as the company is likely to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, which will result in the same vulnerabilities time and again.

Another reason why it may not be a good fit for a company is because it may have highly specialized targets, such as network hardware or operating systems, which may not attract enough experts to make the program worthwhile.

Finally, the reward or prestige offered for submitting bug reports for different companies greatly impacts the number of highly skilled participants. For example, reporting a bug for companies such as Apple or Google may carry more weight or value than finding a bug for a lesser known company. 

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Alternatives to Bug Bounty Programs

The following are the alternatives for those companies that cannot afford or choose not to go program to ensure security:

  • ​​Companies can have a vulnerability disclosure program providing a secure channel for researchers to reach out to them about any security vulnerabilities that may have been identified. The researchers, in this case, do not necessarily have to be paid.
  • It is important to introduce an identified point of contact for immediately filtering requests to the security team instead of the communications team, which may not entirely understand the seriousness of the report. This also encourages researchers to report vulnerabilities when found.
  • The point of contact should include a framework that can appropriately handle the intake, mitigation, and remediation measures.
  • Companies may also hire a penetration testing firm for performing a time-limited test of specific systems or applications. The pen testers will then produce a report at the end of the test. The company has access to a highly skilled team of trusted hackers at a known price. The company may also request any specialized expertise if required, as well as ensure a private test rather than a public event.
  • Companies can have the testers sign nondisclosure agreements in case highly sensitive internal applications are being tested.

It is important to remember that these alternatives are usually a single event and not an ongoing bounty. Penetration testers have to be paid whether or not they find any vulnerabilities unlike in a bug bounty  where rewards are paid only if a bug is successfully reported.

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While bug bounty programs and ethical hackers can be very effective to find bugs, such programs have also been deemed to be controversial. To limit the potential risks of such programs, some companies offer private or invite-only programs.

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