Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Application Security

Security Researchers Push for 'Bug Bounty Program of Last Resort'

An international program that pays out hefty sums for the discovery of software vulnerabilities could spur greater scrutiny of applications and lead to better security.

Creating national programs to buy vulnerability information from security researchers could significantly reduce the risk of software flaws, according to two European security researchers.

In a paper published on Thursday — "Bug Bounty Program of Last Resort" — Stefan Frei and Oliver Rochford argue that the funds necessary to pay a bounty of $50K, $150K, and $250K for medium-, high-, and critical-severity vulnerabilities from the top 500 vendors would amount to $1.7 billion, less than 0.01% of the US gross domestic product. To create a net positive impact on cybercriminals, the effort would only have to create minimal savings of less than 0.5% of the $1 trillion annual impact of cybercrime, the researchers state.

Related Content:

SolarWinds Attack, Cyber Supply Chain Among Priorities for Biden Administration

Special Report: How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem

New From The Edge: AI and APIs: The A+ Answers to Keeping Data Secure and Private

While the proposal is ambitious, only modest results would reduce the pool of available zero-days and create a more secure software ecosystem, says Frei, security officer at SDX Security and a lecturer at ETH Zurich, a public university in Switzerland.

"Over the past two decades we had to learn that vulnerabilities don't go away, in spite of all investments," he says. "We also have to realize that doing more of the same will not solve the problem."

The proposed policy — funded by the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at ETH Zurich's Department of Management, Technology, and Economics — is not an entirely new suggestion. An economic analysis of bug-bounty programs published at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS) in 2019 found that combining rewards and better law enforcement tends to have the surest impact for improving security. The Open Bug Bounty Project boasts that crowdsourced researchers have helped close hundreds of thousands of potential vulnerabilities in websites and software. 

Yet having a government-coordinated effort aimed at finding the majority of vulnerabilities in software and rewarding researchers could have a significant impact on software security. Not only would it spur more scrutiny of applications and code, but passing the costs of rewards back to the software vendor could help further incentivize secure coding. 

Currently, software vendors do not have many reasons to prioritize security over more common development goals, such as functionality and speed of development, the report concludes.

"With few incentives to invest in secure software design, and even fewer penalties or liability costs for releasing insecure software, it has become common to prioritize commercial agility rather than security," the researchers state in the report. "The risk has thus been fully externalized."

Currently, hundreds of organizations and companies offer bug bounties, typically through third-party commercial programs, such as Bugcrowd, HackerOne, or the Zero-Day Initiative. The efforts have created a market for vulnerability information, with HackerOne saying it paid out more than $23 million for 10 classes of vulnerabilities in a year.

Yet those programs are opt-in and require a company willing to put up the cost of rewards and administration fees. Moreover, many of the top software vendors have the cash flow to be able to afford a bounty program. While 11 of the top 20 software companies with the most CVEs could offer bounties for less than 0.5% of the annual revenue, five are open source projects, not commercial entities. 

Using the National Vulnerability Database and its tracking of vulnerabilities that have a Common Vulnerability Enumerator (CVE) assigned, the researchers estimate that covering 81% of the medium, high, and critical vulnerabilities, as measured by the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), would cost $1.7 billion a year.

"Zero-days, while a rare occurrence for most businesses, are devastating because they impact you even if you're doing an otherwise great job," Frei says. "Being forewarned is being forearmed — so there's an imperative to find and disclose vulnerabilities as fast as we can — especially because it also depletes the overall arsenal of zero-days available to criminals and nation-states."

Many implementation details remain to be sorted out. While passing the cost back to vendors could incentivize more secure development practices, the initial proposal calls for governments to contribute based on the benefits they receive from software, similar in some ways to the economics of recycling. Yet regulations would be needed to make sure that companies do not continue to excessively contribute to vulnerability tallies, Frei says.

"To give any approach teeth, binding and minimum quality and security standards must be established and also enforced, but there are indirect ways of doing that too," he says. "Non-participation in [the effort] could, for example, result in higher GDPR fines, or higher cyber-insurance premiums. But we'd advocate mandatory participation."

While the researchers call for an international effort, each country or region may approach their piece of the initiative in their own way and band together to share costs and information, Frei says. Most countries already have computer, or cyber, emergency response teams (CERTs), and some privacy companies could be involved as well.

"We'd expect there to be regional adaptations — for example, with some countries assigning the responsibility to agencies," he says. "We would also want multiple and regional entities so researchers can submit to the entity they trust. Multiple entities also provide a level of redundancy and competition."

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Commentary
Cyberattacks Are Tailored to Employees ... Why Isn't Security Training?
Tim Sadler, CEO and co-founder of Tessian,  6/17/2021
Edge-DRsplash-10-edge-articles
7 Powerful Cybersecurity Skills the Energy Sector Needs Most
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer,  6/22/2021
News
Microsoft Disrupts Large-Scale BEC Campaign Across Web Services
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  6/15/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-34390
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty TLK contains a vulnerability in the NVIDIA TLK kernel function where a lack of checks allows the exploitation of an integer overflow on the size parameter of the tz_map_shared_mem function.
CVE-2021-34391
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty TLK contains a vulnerability in the NVIDIA TLK kernel�s tz_handle_trusted_app_smc function where a lack of integer overflow checks on the req_off and param_ofs variables leads to memory corruption of critical kernel structures.
CVE-2021-34392
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty TLK contains a vulnerability in the NVIDIA TLK kernel where an integer overflow in the tz_map_shared_mem function can bypass boundary checks, which might lead to denial of service.
CVE-2021-34393
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty contains a vulnerability in TSEC TA which deserializes the incoming messages even though the TSEC TA does not expose any command. This vulnerability might allow an attacker to exploit the deserializer to impact code execution, causing information disclosure.
CVE-2021-34394
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-22
Trusty contains a vulnerability in all TAs whose deserializer does not reject messages with multiple occurrences of the same parameter. The deserialization of untrusted data might allow an attacker to exploit the deserializer to impact code execution.