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

Microsoft is offering up to $100,000 for vulnerabilities foundin Windows 8.1 that are paired with exploits, but it's pretty much up toMicrosoft to decide who gets paid how much based on a set of subjectivecriteria.

In order to pull down the full amount, a submission must benovel, generic, reasonable, reliable, impactful, work in user mode and beeffective on the latest Windows OS, according to detailsof the new bounty program. Each of those criteria is subject to interpretation.

[BACKGROUND:Microsoftlaunches security bounty programs for Windows 8.1 and IE 11 Preview]

[RELATED:Googleexpands the scope of its vulnerability reward programs to cover Chromium OS]

It will be up to Microsoft to convince potentialparticipants in the program that their submissions will be treated fairly, saysRoss Barrett, senior manager of security engineering for Rapid7.

"A lot of people don't trust them," Barrett says. Microsoftcould find an attack technique good but not novel, and then patch thevulnerability without paying. "That's paranoid, maybe, but that kind ofparanoia tends to be par for the course in this industry," he says.

"If I were Microsoft I would make a point of making surethat 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 almostinsane amount of money" that will be hard to ignore, says Amol Sarwate,director of vulnerability labs at Qualys. In countries with weaker economiesthat amount would be even more significant, he says.

The sum is likely even more than researchers could makeselling such exploits on the black market, he says, and submitting to theprogram 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, withothers forming similar programs. Google's vulnerability program, for example,has paid out more than $800,000since it started in 2010.

Many researchers are satisfied getting public credit forfinding vulnerabilities, he says. Sarwate says this recognition is valuable tothem so much so that citations of these credits routinely show up on theresumes of researchers who received them.

The effectiveness of Microsoft's big-payoff program is inluring in ""ethically neutral" researchers who have discovered exploits andwant credit for it immediately, says Barrett. For many researchers that is thetrue prize. But they may not want to take the option of responsible disclosurein which they submit the vulnerability to the company and wait for perhapsmonths for it to issue a patch and give credit because the process takes toolong.

Instead they may disclose irresponsibly posting thevulnerability to a public site where they get immediate credit, but thevulnerability is also available for criminals to exploit. It is these impatientresearchers Microsoft can hope to attract, Barrett says; they may be willing towait for credit if they are paid as well.

"It's aimed at people who go straight to the press withtheir exploits, and it tries to win them over," he says.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communicationsfor Network World and writes the  Mostly Microsoft blog.Reach him at andfollow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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