Apple’s bug bounty program favors quality over quantity

The company will pay between $25,000 and $200,000 for exploits

After years of reluctance to pay researchers for exploits, Apple has given in and is ready to hand out up to US$200,000 for critical vulnerabilities found in the latest version of iOS and the newest iPhones.

Apple announced the program Thursday at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. It starts in September, and unlike bounty programs run by other large technology companies it will be invite only.

The program will start with a few dozen researchers hand-picked by Apple, though any outsider who submits a flaw that qualifies can receive a reward and be invited to join the program, said Ivan Krstić, the head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture.

"It's not meant to be an exclusive club," he said.

Apple said it was willing to double the payouts for researchers who donate their reward to a charity.

Rich Mogull, CEO of information security firm Securosis, noted that bug bounty programs can have downsides, and said it's not something Apple necessarily had to do. But he said it's a good start and something Apple can benefit from.

Some companies "don’t really want to get into a bidding war with governments and well-funded criminal organizations, some of which are willing to potentially pay up to a million dollars for certain exploits," Mogull said in a blog post.

Public bug bounty programs can also produce a lot of noise in the form of low-quality reports that don't necessarily lead to bug fixes, but that still consume engineering resources to investigate, he said.

Mogull believes Apple's program focuses on quality over quantity and has a clear objective: to find exploitable bugs in key areas of iOS that are considered a high priority. It also forces researchers to prove the impact of any flaws they find with working proof-of-concept exploits. That's harder than simply submitting bugs that might be critical and leaving it to the company investigate.

Apple will pay up to $200,000 for critical flaws in the secure boot firmware components, up to $100,000 for exploits that can extract confidential material from the Secure Enclave Processor -- the secure chip that performs cryptographic operations in iPhone 5s and later, $50,000 for bugs that can result in arbitrary code execution with kernel privileges, $50,000 for ways to access iCloud account data on Apple's servers without authorization, and $25,000 for vulnerabilities that provide access from inside a sandbox process to user data outside of that sandbox.

This bounty structure reflects the difficulty of finding each of the five types of flaws, Krstić said.

Apple hasn't always had the best relationship with the security community. While many researchers acknowledge the solid security of Apple products, it has often been criticized for the way it communicates about security issues, or for not communicating enough. Apple is also one of the last big companies to launch a security rewards program.

Vulnerabilities that can completely compromise iOS command some of the highest prices on the gray market. When iOS 9 came out, one exploit broker who counts government agencies among its customers offered $1 million for a browser-based jailbreak -- an exploit that can gain root access to iOS simply by visiting a website. The FBI has also bought an iOS exploit from hackers in order to access the data on the locked iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Asked by the audience at Black Hat why Apple waited so long to launch a bounty program, Krstić said the company has heard from researchers that finding critical vulnerabilities is increasingly difficult, and it wanted to reward those who take the time to do it.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about AppleFBI

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Lucian Constantin

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place