Can Bug Bounty Programs Replace Pentests?
Information security is becoming an increasingly hot topic for discussion, so organizations are considering vulnerability search methods such as bug bounty programs as an alternative to penetration testing. This is, to put it mildly, not quite the right approach. And in this article, we will tell you why.
What are bug bounty programs? Key differences between bb and pentesting
A bug bounty program is a program offered by some websites through which people can earn money and get recognition for finding bugs, exploits and vulnerabilities in software products and systems of various companies. It is akin to an exchange that puts up a lot-task, according to which you need to find vulnerabilities in a certain application or piece of infrastructure, and any bug bounty hunter who wants can try it for a reward. Accordingly, such programs allow developers to detect bugs and fix them in a timely manner.
Bug bounty programs are long-term. We can say that if the organization invited bug hunters to look for vulnerabilities, then this campaign can last for months and even years. This is one of the main advantages of these programs, but more on that later.
At the same time, penetration tests are limited in time. During the pentest, an imitation or simulation of an attack by intruders is carried out in order to identify vulnerabilities in the security of an information system, or some part of it. Web application penetration tests and other types of penetration testing may also be performed. Pentesters must find as many vulnerabilities in the system as possible within the agreed time. As a result, the customer receives a report on the state of the cybersecurity of an organization or a software product at the current time.
A penetration test is also a condition for ISO 27001 or SOC 2 certification, as well as compliance with standards such as GDPR and several others. The differences are fundamental, and both types of procedures have their advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of a bug bounty programs
A bug bounty programs are usually well organized by dedicated platforms. Such a platform provides the infrastructure, acts as an intermediary between the customer company and performers, and organizes legal support for the parties. Accordingly, any interested bug bounty hunter can try to take such a job, which significantly increases the coverage — the company can attract specialists with different experience and different skills.
Another major advantage is the continuity of programs. That is, bug hunters can constantly check a company’s infrastructure or applications for bugs or security vulnerabilities as products evolve or change. In this regard, they are not limited in time, and can return to work after weeks or months.
We must not forget that payment for the work of a bug hunter is possible only after the disclosure of a vulnerability, while the customer can flexibly change prices and adjust them depending on his budget.
Disadvantages of a bug bounty programs
The disadvantages of bug bounty programs come out of their advantages. Since the work of a bug hunter is paid only if a vulnerability is discovered, and then not always, hunters usually take on what brings in the most money. And often they do not methodically test all common types of attacks. This is time consuming and may not be cost effective for them. Also, the use of automated tools may be limited by the customer, as this work may already be performed by an internal IT security team.
Moreover, for many bug bounty hunters, this work is not the main one, and often they do it in their free time for fun. Of course, you can meet an enthusiast who, out of personal interest, will dive into your product in order to fully explore it, but this is rather an exception to the rule.
For some companies, a bug bounty program may also not be entirely appropriate if you are planning to release a new product, and divulging unique ideas and details may not be profitable for the business. In addition, organizations sometimes fear that they may attract the attention of hackers or bug hunters who will be interested in selling information about detected vulnerabilities to some third parties on the black market.
Advantages of a penetration test
The main advantage of a pen test compared to a bug bounty program is that pentesters conduct a deep and thorough exploration of the information system, in accordance with the accepted methodology. That is, pentesters do not try to find a security vulnerability as quickly as possible and move on. They are interested in diving into your infrastructure and finding as many bugs and vulnerabilities as possible, which may be unique to each specific case. Pentesters will do this because they get paid whether they find something or not.
Penetration tests are usually carried out in accordance with certain conditions, which allows penetration testing of closed, internal enterprise systems, as well as those products that are in development and cannot yet be opened for the general public. Also, in addition to pen testing itself, pentesters make reports on the work done, describe how they found vulnerabilities, and give recommendations on how to fix them.
Disadvantages of a penetration test
Penetration testing also has its limitations and disadvantages. The key here is that the pentest only allows the customer to understand the state of the security of the infrastructure or application at a given, current moment in time. That is, the relevance of a pentest decreases over time and as changes are made to the system. Therefore, it is recommended to conduct it twice a year, or after major changes are made to the organization’s infrastructure or applications.
Also, another disadvantage is that the pentest is usually carried out by a small group of testers, according to a given scenario, and the scope of the project has a certain time frame. That is, security testing is not continuous, and its effectiveness depends on the chosen methodology, personal skills and experience of pentesters.
Very often, penetration testing turns out to be an expensive undertaking, costing thousands, tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which, in turn, can also be perceived as a disadvantage.
Bug bounty program or penetration test?
And yet, which is better: a bug bounty or a penetration test? It is impossible to give one answer for all companies and all cases, since both methods are aimed at finding vulnerabilities, and are complementary. Moreover, no single cybersecurity testing method is capable of identifying all potential risks and vulnerabilities.
Therefore, if your company has never done a penetration test before, this procedure may be more relevant for you. Since the cost of finding all the vulnerabilities through the bug bounty program can be much more than the cost of a penetration test. As they say, cheaper by the dozen. Pentest will also be more effective if you are planning to publish a website, application, or online service, or release a major update. So you can immediately determine the largest number of vulnerabilities.
And only after you have published your application or launched a new product, you may want to take advantage of a bug bounty program. This will allow a wide audience to help you find other security vulnerabilities for a long time, which may be caused, for example, by some minor updates in your system.
This is the best option for companies that can be called mature in terms of cybersecurity, but it is not a dogma. In some particular cases, it is desirable to weigh the pros and cons and assess the risks of using bug bounty programs, since a misunderstanding of what it is can only encourage hackers to attack.
If you have any questions regarding penetration testing, or the appropriateness of certain methods for checking the cybersecurity of your organization, we will be happy to help. Contact us right now, or leave your contacts in a special form so that we can agree on a convenient time for a consultation. Please note that you can also apply for a free vulnerability scan of your website, and receive a report on critical and non-critical vulnerabilities.