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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Apple's New Bounty Program Has Huge Incentives, Big Risks

Industry observers applaud the program's ability to find exploits but fear unintended consequences.

Last week at Black Hat USA, Ivan Krstić, Apple's head of security engineering and architecture, announced a massive expansion of the company's bug-bounty program. In addition to expanding the program from iOS to all of Apple's operating systems, the new program dramatically increases the bounties on offer, to a maximum of $1.5 million under certain circumstances.

"Apple is demonstrating that it understands the importance of finding bugs, not just when they’re in the hands of customers, but also in the production cycle," says Casey Ellis, CTO and founder of Bugcrowd. He points out that Apple now finds itself competing with offensive exploit buyers — those who will pay researchers for exploits that they will then use against victims in the real world.

"Most other industry players don't face this hurdle, and this in combination with their focus on product security is a telling sign of why payouts are so large," Ellis says. "The skills to find the types of bugs Apple is targeting are rare and often tied up in the offensive market, and this is another indication of why payouts are high."

Apple has long had a bug-reporting program for iOS but has limited payouts for exploits in other systems to a relative handful of prescreened and invited researchers. Now the program will be applied to macOS, tvOS, and watchOS as well as iOS.

While impressive, the bounties are not the only part of the enhanced program. Apple also announced the iOS Security Research Device Program — specially unlocked iPhones available to certain invited researchers who will be able to use the devices to find vulnerabilities and develop exploits. The security research devices are intended to be authorized, official alternatives to the "dev fused" altered phones available for thousands of dollars on the black market.

Apple is balancing two competing demands for the new program. On the one hand, Ellis says that expanded access to the program should bring talented new researchers into the Apple security field. On the other hand, "Crowd sourcing can be quite effective but also quite noisy," he explains, saying that a company can end up wading through many low-quality exploits or repeats of existing vulnerabilities from new researchers if it doesn't carefully stage the new researchers into the program.

That "noise" is part of the reason that not everyone is convinced that Apple is on the right track with the new program. "Apple's new $1 million bug bounty has more potential to wreak havoc on the defensive security ecosystem than it does to protect users," says Katie Moussouris, founder and CEO of Luta Security. "While some exploits may be acquired this way, and some new talent may come forward, this ultimately isn't a sustainable payout for defense."

Moussouris says that Apple may have gone beyond the point at which it creates what she calls "perverse incentives" in the market. She specifies three things that concern her about the scale of the bounties:

"1. Offense prices will simply increase as a direct result, so this doesn't 'compete' with that market; rather, it invigorates it.

"2. For another, this may be enough of an incentive for insiders to collude with outsiders. ...

"3. Finally, they may be sacrificing their own hiring pipeline & possibly even their current internal retention of employees."

Apple obviously wants to increase the number of researchers working on its platforms. Moussouris says that she hopes the program succeeds in bringing excellent research and new talent to the market. Ellis agrees and says that Apple has created a program that can pull that off. "The number of people who can effectively create exploits is small. Now, there's the reward and the test bed to let them build valuable experience."

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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