Microsoft's BlueHat bounty aims to kill bugs dead

Instead of paying for one-off software vulnerabilities, Microsoft will get help from the security researchers in exterminating entire classes of bugs

Bug bounty programs are designed to reward security researchers for finding flaws in a vendor's product that have made it past their own quality processes. Some organizations, such as Google and Mozilla, have had bug bounty programs in place for a time, while social networking site Facebook just announced a bug bounty program with a base reward of $500.

Microsoft, however, isn't interested in paying for help for one-off software vulnerabilities. The software vendor instead is swinging for the fence: Getting help from the security research community in exterminating entire classes of bugs. That was the message at the Black Hat security conference last week, with its announcement of the "BlueHat" Prize. The contest promises a first-place award of $200,000 to security researchers who come up with "a novel runtime mitigation technology designed to prevent the exploitation of memory safety vulnerabilities." Second prize will win $50,000.

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Industry analyst reaction to the BlueHat Prize has been mixed. "It reframes the nature of a solution to the ongoing problem of software vulnerabilities," says Pete Lindstrom, research director at Spire Security. "It's a much more scalable way to attack the problem, rather than paying people to find individual vulnerabilities. That approach leaves many more vulnerabilities in applications for the bad guys to find," he says.

"Microsoft has consistently resisted paying bug bounties, a position it is at some pains to defend in light of major competitors including Google willing to pay for vulnerabilities," says Scott Crawford, managing research director, Enterprise Management Associates. "The cynical point of view would be that the BlueHat prize is something of an end run around Microsoft's longstanding position, taking the high road of offering a reward for better defense," says Crawford.

Perhaps the BlueHat Prize's much higher award, than the several hundred to several thousand dollar bounties researchers are paid for finding one-off exploitable software flaws, may be enough to attract bright minds to the problem. According to Microsoft, winners will keep their rights to their invention, but must be licensed to Microsoft without royalties. "We want to make it more costly and difficult for criminals to exploit vulnerabilities," Katie Moussouris, a senior security strategist lead at Microsoft, said at a press conference during the show. "We want to inspire researchers to focus their expertise on defensive security technologies."

But will the scheme work?

"It has a better chance at solving some of our major software problems than what we are currently doing with bug finding," says Lindstrom.

"It is a long-awaited recognition by Microsoft of the value of third-party security research, and I am encouraged by its focus on innovation in building an approach to security stronger than current models -- a philosophy much needed throughout the industry. I hope it attracts the interest intended and Microsoft is likely to hear from a lot of innovators with interesting ideas," says Crawford.

John Pescatore, a vice president and security analyst at Gartner, says it's a sign that the software giant has run out of ideas with its trustworthy computing initiative. "Just as open source operating systems like Linux proved that closed source operating system vendors like Microsoft don't have a monopoly on programming talent, something like this BlueHat Prize is essentially Microsoft saying 'we've spent hundreds of millions on Trustworthy Computing over the past 8 years but maybe someone out there has some better ideas,'" Pescatore says.

"It's not really a bad idea, though," he adds. "They are sort of doing what Google has done for several years with their Research Grants."

Read more about application security in CSOonline's Application Security section.

This story, "Microsoft's BlueHat bounty aims to kill bugs dead" was originally published by CSO.

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