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Security Governance

What is Bug Bounty?

Bug bounty is a cybersecurity method that empowers organizations to minimize their threat exposure by leveraging the expertise of a community of ethical hackers.

decorative image of bug bounty hunting

Bug bounty is a monetary reward given to ethical hackers for successfully discovering and reporting a vulnerability or bug to the application's developer. Bug bounty programs allow companies to leverage the hacker community to improve their systems’ security posture over time continuously.

How Bug Bounties Work

Companies create bug bounties to provide financial incentives to independent bug bounty hunters who discover security vulnerabilities and weaknesses in systems. When bounty hunters participate in the bug bounty program and report valid bugs, companies pay them for discovering security gaps before bad actors do.

Bug Bounty Program Examples

Here are 3 examples of bug bounty programs in operation today, though other options and formats are also available for organizations to implement:

  • In-house triage: Social media platform Meta has a triage team that reviews bounty hunter submissions. Hackers are encouraged to discover and report vulnerabilities in Meta's products and services through its reporting process. Established in 2011, this program has paid out more than $15 million as of May 2024. The program clearly advertises its bounty structure and bonus program, which is paid out at the sole discretion of the triage team.
  • Vendor-managed program: Travel search engine Kayak lets users compare hundreds of travel sites at once. Their bug bounty program is managed by hackerone and has a detailed overview that defines both eligible and non-eligible vulnerabilities, rules of engagement and program statistics. Having launched its bug bounty program in 2022, KAYAK has already paid out over $150,000 in bounties.
  • Hack-a-thon: The United States government started using crowd sourcing to find security vulnerabilities with its "Hacking the Pentagon" challenge in 2016. The Defense Digital Service engaged hundreds of security researchers worldwide to discover and disclose roughly 7,000 vulnerabilities.

Benefits of Bug Bounty Programs

  • Improved Security: Bug bounties help identify and fix vulnerabilities internal teams may miss such as remote code execution (RCE) bugs, account takeover (ATO) bypass vulnerabilities, and two-factor (2FA) bypass vulnerabilities.
  • Cost-Effective: Organizations only pay for vulnerabilities reported with a bug bounty program.
  • Expanded Talent Pool: Security researchers with various skill sets and backgrounds participate in bug bounty programs. This helps organizations cast a global net to capture more expertise and perspectives when addressing security challenges.
  • Continuous Testing and Learning: Without the constraints of a project scope or funding restrictions, bug bounty hunters are able to constantly probe systems for vulnerabilities, perform ongoing security testing and help companies as technology evolves.
  • Reputation Management and Public Trust: Effective bug bounty programs enhance a company’s reputation as a responsible and proactive player in cybersecurity. This builds trust among prospects, users, partners, and stakeholders.

Disadvantages of Bug Bounty Programs

  • Cost: While cost-effective (as explained above), programs still require budget allocation for assessment, triage and management.
  • False Positives: Not every report is valid, creating wasted time and resources in assessing submissions that ultimately can't be validated.
  • Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Bug bounty programs must meet legal and regulatory requirements, which vary depending on the organization's industry and jurisdiction.

Proving a Bug Bounty Program is Working

Companies can prove the effectiveness of their bug bounty program by:

  • Tracking Vulnerabilities: Keeping records of vulnerabilities discovered and fixed through the program.
  • Measuring ROI: Calculating the cost savings and return on investment (ROI) achieved through the program, including avoided security incidents and damage to reputation.
  • Continuous Improvement: Implementing feedback mechanisms to improve the program based on hacker engagement, response times, and vulnerability severity.

Bug Bounty Best Practices

  • Define Scope and Objectives: Clearly outline the scope of the program and specify eligible vulnerabilities.
  • Establish Guidelines and Rules: Develop comprehensive policies for reporting vulnerabilities, including submission processes and communication channels.
  • Set up Responsive Triage Process: Dedicate resources to review and validate vulnerability reports and implement fixes promptly.
  • Offer Competitive Rewards: Design a transparent and competitive reward structure based on the severity and impact of reported vulnerabilities.
  • Provide Resources and Support: Maintain open communication channels, offer prompt feedback to bounty hunters, and provide educational materials to help them develop their skills.

Bug bounty programs are a proven and effective approach to enhancing organizational cybersecurity. By following best practices and fostering a strong relationship with the ethical hacker community, organizations can identify and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by malicious actors.

Learn more

Demo: How to model your bug bounty processes

Article: How to Streamline Security Governance with the Right Platform

ebook: Process Mining: The Security Angle