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What Are Bug Bounty Programs, And Why Are They Becoming So Popular?

Bug Bounty Programs

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Some organizations run bug bounty programs as a way to identify and fix vulnerabilities within their production applications.  A bug bounty program gives ethical hackers permission to test if an organization’s applications contain certain types of vulnerabilities.

The details of bug bounty programs can vary from one organization to another.  Some companies might declare “open season” on their applications, allowing ethical hackers to test for any potential vulnerability in the organization’s attack surface.  Others may specify the applications and web pages that are considered “in scope” and which vulnerabilities the testers may and may not test for.  For example, testing for a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in a website may be encouraged, while attempting a Denial of Service (DoS) attack against it is not.

If an ethical hacker discovers a vulnerability, they submit a report to the organization, often through a platform like HackerOne.  The organization then works with the ethical hacker to validate the existence of the vulnerability, patch it, and test that the patch works.  Then, the organization pays out a bounty to the vulnerability discoverer.  The amount of the bounty typically depends on the severity and impact of the vulnerability in question.

The Benefits of Bug Bounty Programs

Bug bounty programs have become increasingly popular among the public and private sectors alike.  The reason for this is that these programs provide a number of different benefits to the organization being tested.

Increased Vulnerability Detection

The primary benefit of a bug bounty program is that the organization identifies and fixes a number of vulnerabilities within their applications.  If these vulnerabilities were discovered and exploited by a cybercriminal before the organization could fix them, then the impact to the organization could be significant.

With a bug bounty program, an organization has a higher probability of identifying vulnerabilities before they can be used in attacks.  This helps to protect the company’s reputation and decreases the likelihood of high-value hacks.

Reduced Cost

Bug bounty programs provide significant cost savings to an organization in a couple of different ways.  One of these is the fact that paying a bounty to learn about a vulnerability is much cheaper than remediating a cybersecurity incident caused by that same vulnerability.  While bounty values can vary greatly, even the most expensive bounties are often an order of magnitude cheaper than a data breach.

The other cost saving associated with bug bounty programs is the fact that an organization only has to pay bug bounty hunters if they find something.  Bug bounty programs provide access to a huge pool of labor as hunters look for potential vulnerabilities.  This is much cheaper than paying for the same level of security testing in-house or via contractors, whom organizations have to pay by the hour whether or not they find anything.

Greater Access to Talent

Bug bounty programs also provide an organization with access to talent that might be difficult or impossible to attract and retain in-house.  Many bug bounty program participants are highly skilled and specialize in vulnerability identification.

These bug hunters participate in bug bounty programs because they offer the potential to provide huge rewards to the bug hunters on a regular basis if they are skilled.  Even if these hunters were interested in going on an organization’s payroll, they would likely be expensive.  With a bug bounty program, an organization can undergo vulnerability testing by more bug hunters with a greater range of skills and talents than would be available with a traditional penetration test or vulnerability scan.

Realistic Threat Simulation

One of the biggest challenges with penetration testing and vulnerability assessments is making the exercises realistic.  An organization wants to find and fix the vulnerabilities that an attacker is most likely to exploit first.  However, the realism of these exercises can be degraded by a number of different factors.

With a bug bounty program, an organization is paying bug hunters to act exactly like a cybercriminal would.  They have the same level of knowledge about the company and access to its systems.  This means that the vulnerability assessments performed by bug bounty hunters are likely to be more realistic than a more structured engagement.


Making the Most of Bug Bounty Programs

Bug bounty programs are designed to identify the vulnerabilities that exist in an organization’s systems today.  However, if an organization and its developers don’t learn from their mistakes, then bug bounties can add up quickly, as they are likely to keep creating the same vulnerabilities.

Our secure coding training platform provides organizations with a way to maximize the impact of bug bounty programs by allowing developers to learn from their mistakes. It integrates with bug bounty programs like HackerOne to learn which vulnerabilities exist in an organization’s code. This enables us to provide just-in-time, targeted training to developers to teach them to recognize and correct the mistakes that they are making as they code. As developers improve their secure coding knowledge and skills, the number of vulnerabilities decreases, resulting in a lower overall cost for application security.