Security Experts:

How Commercial Bug Hunting Changed the Boutique Security Consultancy Landscape

It’s been almost a decade since the first commercial “for-profit” bug bounty companies launched leveraging crowdsourced intelligence to uncover security vulnerabilities and simultaneously creating uncertainty for boutique security companies around the globe.

Not only could crowdsourced bug hunting drive down their consulting rates or result in their best bug hunters turning solo, it raised ethics questions, such as should a consultant previously engaged on a customer security assessment also pursue out-of-hours bug hunting against that same customer. What if she held back findings from the day-job to claim bounties at night?

With years of bug bounty programs now behind us, it is interesting to see how the information security sector transformed – or didn’t.

The fears of the boutique security consultancies – particularly those offering penetration testing and reverse engineering expertise – were proven unfounded. A handful of consultants did slip away and adopt full-time bug bounty pursuit lifestyles, but most didn’t. Nor did those companies feel a pinch on their hourly consulting rates. Instead, a few other things happened.

Evolution of Bug Bounty ProgramsFirst, the boutiques upped the ante by repositioning their attack-based services – defining aggressive “red team” methodologies and doubling down on the value of combining black-box with white-box testing (or reverse engineering combined with code reviews) to uncover product and application bugs in a more efficient manner. Customers were (and are) encouraged to use bug bounties as a “first-pass filter” for finding common vulnerabilities – and then turn to dedicated experts to uncover (and help remediate) the truly nasty bugs.

Second, they began using bug bounty leaderboard tables as a recruitment vehicle for junior consultants. It was a subtle, but meaningful change. Previously, a lot of recruitment had been based off evaluating in-bound resumes by how many public disclosures or CVEs a security researcher or would-be consultant had made in the past. By leveraging the public leaderboards, suddenly there was a target list of candidates to go after. An interesting and obvious ramification was (and continues to be) that newly rising stars on public bug bounty leaderboards often disappear as they get hired as full-time consultants.

Third, bug bounty companies struggled with their business model. Taking a slice of the vendors payments to crowdsourced bug hunters sounded easier and less resource intensive than it turned out. The process of triaging the thousands of bug submissions – removing duplicates, validating proof-of-concept code, classifying criticality, and resolving disparities in hunter expectations – is tough work. It’s also something that tends to require a high degree of security research experience and costly expertise that doesn’t scale as rapidly as a crowdsource community can. The net result is that many of the bug bounty crowdsource vendors were forced to outsource sizable chunks of the triage work to boutique consultancies – as many in-house bug bounty programs also do.

A fourth (but not final) effect was that some consulting teams found contributing to public bug bounty programs an ideal way of cashing in on consulting “bench time” when a consultant is not directly engaged on a commercial project. Contributing to bug bounties has proven a nice supplement to what was previously lost productivity.

Over the last few years I’ve seen some pentesting companies also turn third-party bug bounty research and contribution into in-house training regimes, marketing campaigns, and an engagement model to secure new customers, e.g., find and submit bugs through the bug bounty program and then reach out directly to the customer with a bag full of more critical bugs.

Given the commercial pressures of on third-party bug bounty companies, it was not unexpected that they would seek to stretch their business model towards higher premium offerings, such as options for customers to engage with their best and most trusted bug hunters before opening up to the public or offering more traditional report-based “assessments” of the company’s product or website. More recently, some bug bounty vendors have expanded offerings to encompass community managed penetration testing and red team services.

The lines continue to blur between the boutique security consultancies and crowdsourcing bug bounty providers. It’ll be interesting to see what the landscape looks like in another decade. While there is a lot to be said and gained from crowdsourced security services, I must admit that the commercial realities of operating businesses that profit from managing or middle-manning their output strikes me as a difficult proposition in the long run.

I think the crowdsourcing of security research will continue to hold value for the businesses owning the product or web application, and I encourage businesses to take advantage of the public resource. But I would balance that with the reliability from engaging a dedicated consultancy for the tougher stuff.

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Gunter Ollmann is currently the CSO of Microsoft’s Cloud and AI Security division. He is a seasoned information security leader who has defined and trailblazed new security markets through his work with globally recognized companies, including Microsoft and IBM X-Force, and startups, including IOActive and Damballa. As a seasoned C-level executive and technologist, Mr. Ollmann has been instrumental in several dozen M&A deals (as acqui-hire, acquirer, consultant, or adviser) ranging from tens-of-millions to billion dollar transactions.