There’s an old adage within the developer community, known as Linus’s Law: ‘Many eyes make all bugs shallow.’ What this saying essentially refers to is the idea of collective intelligence, which leverages shared knowledge and diverse perspectives to produce new ideas and troubleshoot problems one person could not solve alone.
In application security (AppSec), collective intelligence becomes especially useful as multiple people can contribute their perspectives to potential vulnerabilities and resolve problems early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC).
Your internal development team might rely on collective intelligence, or you might collaborate with an external contractor to improve AppSec. Bug bounty programs are another form of collective intelligence. These programs enable your business to tap into a global community of ethical hackers to gain insight and resolve vulnerabilities in your applications.
What is a bug bounty program?
A bug bounty program gives your organisation access to a global community of ethical hackers that will analyse your software and act as ‘bounty hunters’ for software vulnerabilities, operating under strict guidelines set by you. Your organisation rewards participants based on the severity and impact of the vulnerabilities they discover. The model intends to motivate people to find even the most hidden and potentially harmful flaws.
By integrating these programs with conventional AppSec measures, your organisation can benefit from diverse expertise, achieving a more thorough and holistic evaluation. This collaboration between organisations and the global hacking community pushes the boundaries of what traditional security measures can achieve.
Please note that your organisation should still complete a cyber hygiene check before opening the application to bug bounty hunters, otherwise the program could become unnecessarily costly.
What are the benefits of bug bounty programs?
A bug bounty program brings a fresh perspective to securing your applications. Due to their familiarity with your system, internal testers might target known vulnerabilities or overlook a vulnerability in areas they have frequently worked on. Such an approach can inadvertently lead to bias, with some potential threats remaining undetected.
External bug hunters counter this with fresh perspectives, varied experiences and tools. Your internal testers likely also have a broad range of skills, but limited time. Bug bounty hunters often specialise in a discipline and choose to do deep research into one area. They have an advantage over internal testers in identifying previously overlooked vulnerabilities and delivering a more comprehensive security assessment to the organisation.
Our partner, Bugcrowd, wrote a great article on the types of hacker roles that contribute to crowdsourced security. I recommend giving it a read to understand the variety available.
Prompt detection of vulnerabilities
Periodic penetration testing, while valuable, often operates on a set schedule, potentially allowing vulnerabilities to persist undetected between test cycles. This gap can leave your applications exposed to unnecessary risks.
For this reason, some organisations make their bug bounty programs a continuous endeavour that consistently surfaces vulnerabilities. Ongoing bug bounty programs enable hackers to regularly identify and report threats, reducing the exposure window and enabling you to promptly address vulnerabilities.
Bug bounty programs can be a more cost-effective approach to finding vulnerabilities than hiring a full-time security team or contractor to complete the work. Rather than incurring consistent overheads, your organisation can allocate funds specifically for discovering vulnerabilities.
The pay-for-performance nature of these programs ensures that expenditure directly correlates with results. Organisations only compensate participants after identifying vulnerabilities, guaranteeing a tangible return on investment (ROI).
What challenges must you consider before using a bug bounty program?
Inherent biases in external testers
Despite coming from backgrounds with differing levels of experience, external bug hunters will have biases in their testing approaches. They might go after vulnerabilities they have previously succeeded with while overlooking others.
They will also be motivated by financial gain. A bug bounty hunter might target bigger vulnerabilities to earn more money, which could cause them to overlook smaller vulnerabilities that still require attention. Engaging with a diverse group of testers from varied backgrounds evens out these biases and heightens your chances of gaining a well-rounded evaluation of your application’s security.
Prioritising high-payout vulnerabilities
Ethical hackers will look for the vulnerabilities that give them the highest payout. In any situation, surely you would go for the option where you can make the most money. Ethical hackers in your bug bounty programs could dedicate more time and resources to critical vulnerabilities while potentially ignoring other issues that offer smaller rewards.
So, it is important to consider adding more incentives to your rewards program. Rather than paying flat fees depending on vulnerability severity, you might consider increasing the payout if someone finds many small vulnerabilities. Considering varying incentives can prevent too much focus on just the high-payout categories and incentivise a thorough examination of all areas.
Relinquishing control and data
Perhaps the biggest concern with bug bounty programs is handing over portions of your application to external testers. While bug bounty hunters provide valuable insights, these programs raise data control and integrity issues with the risk of exposing sensitive data.
To mitigate these concerns, you must carefully define the boundaries for testing and understand the risks of allowing access to the application. You cannot be completely sure that an ethical hacker has another agenda.
The benefits of bug bounty programs make them an excellent option for identifying vulnerabilities in your applications. With access to a global community of ethical hackers, you can increase the number of vulnerabilities found, run the program continuously and take a cost-effective approach to AppSec.
Before partaking in a bug bounty program, you should understand the challenges. Ethical hackers will have biases influencing their approach to finding vulnerabilities and feel driven by financial gains. Engaging bounty hunters from various backgrounds, creating different incentives and restricting access to some parts of your application can help you manage these challenges.
Galah Cyber can advise your AppSec strategy
We designed our AppSec Advisory services to ensure security, reliability, and compliance in your software applications and related infrastructure. Our approach focuses on identifying, assessing, and mitigating security risks at every stage – from the software development lifecycle to applications operating in live environments.
Our experts will deliver actionable and practical security advice to identify, prioritise, and address potential application vulnerabilities. We can advise you on the challenges and benefits of bug bounty programs, including whether it is a good idea for your business. Please visit our Advisory Services page for more information.