Microsoft’s $100K hacker bounty sounds great but has a lot of loopholes

Winning vulnerabilities and exploits must be novel, generic, reasonable, reliable and impactful – whatever they mean

Microsoft is offering up to $100,000 for vulnerabilities found in Windows 8.1 that are paired with exploits, but it’s pretty much up to Microsoft to decide who gets paid how much based on a set of subjective criteria.

Microsoft is offering up to $100,000 for vulnerabilities found

in Windows 8.1 that are paired with exploits, but it’s pretty much up to

Microsoft to decide who gets paid how much based on a set of subjective

criteria.

In order to pull down the full amount, a submission must bedetails

novel, generic, reasonable, reliable, impactful, work in user mode and be

effective on the latest Windows OS, according to

of the new bounty program. Each of those criteria is subject to interpretation.

[BACKGROUND: Microsoft]

launches security bounty programs for Windows 8.1 and IE 11 Preview

[RELATED: Google]

expands the scope of its vulnerability reward programs to cover Chromium OS

It will be up to Microsoft to convince potential

participants in the program that their submissions will be treated fairly, says

Ross Barrett, senior manager of security engineering for Rapid7.

“A lot of people don’t trust them,” Barrett says. Microsoft

could find an attack technique good but not novel, and then patch the

vulnerability without paying. “That’s paranoid, maybe, but that kind of

paranoia tends to be par for the course in this industry,” he says.

“If I were Microsoft I would make a point of making sure

that somebody gets this [$100,000]. It would do wonders for their reputation.

It’s more about community relations.”

It’s also about economics, because $100,000 is “an almost

insane amount of money” that will be hard to ignore, says Amol Sarwate,

director of vulnerability labs at Qualys. In countries with weaker economies

that amount would be even more significant, he says.

The sum is likely even more than researchers could make

selling such exploits on the black market, he says, and submitting to the

program doesn’t run the risk of getting caught by law enforcement.

These cash bounty programs have work pretty well since TippingPoint

(now part of HP) set up its Zero Day Initiative in 2005, Sarwate says, with

others forming similar programs. Google’s vulnerability program, for example,

has paid out more than $800,000

since it started in 2010.

Many researchers are satisfied getting public credit for

finding vulnerabilities, he says. Sarwate says this recognition is valuable to

them – so much so that citations of these credits routinely show up on the

resumes of researchers who received them.

The effectiveness of Microsoft’s big-payoff program is in

luring in “”ethically neutral” researchers who have discovered exploits and

want credit for it immediately, says Barrett. For many researchers that is the

true prize. But they may not want to take the option of responsible disclosure

in which they submit the vulnerability to the company and wait for perhaps

months for it to issue a patch and give credit because the process takes too

long.

Instead they may disclose irresponsibly – posting the

vulnerability to a public site where they get immediate credit, but the

vulnerability is also available for criminals to exploit. It is these impatient

researchers Microsoft can hope to attract, Barrett says; they may be willing to

wait for credit if they are paid as well.

“It’s aimed at people who go straight to the press with

their exploits, and it tries to win them over,” he says.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communicationsMostly Microsoft blog.tgreene@nww.com and@Tim_Greene.

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