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 those 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.

In order to pull down the full amount, a submission must be novel, generic, reasonable, reliable, impactful, work in user mode and be effective on the latest Windows OS, according to details 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 communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.

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