Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the serious security bugs reported since Mozilla launched its bug bounty program have been provided free of charge, according to Mozilla. "A lot of people would say, 'Don't worry about it. Donate it to the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] or just send me a T-shirt,'" said Johnathan Nightingale, the director of Firefox development, in a recent interview.
Mozilla was a pioneer in this area. It started offering a $500 bounty for security bugs in August 2004. Since then, it's had more than 120 bugs reported by about 80 researchers. The project recently upped its bounty and is now paying out a maximum of $3,000 for critical security bugs. A few weeks later, Google announced that it, too, would pay up to $3,000 for security bugs reported in its products.
"It's been a really successful program for us. We're really happy with it," Nightingale said.
Ironically, it's Mozilla -- the project that's been built on free contributions -- that pays bounties for bugs, while its biggest competitor -- Microsoft -- has so far refused to pay out.
Mozilla doesn't pay for the vast majority of bugs that get reported -- just for security flaws -- and developers don't complain, Nightingale said. "Security bugs are unlike other things," he said. "There are other markets."
Browser bugs can be worth a lot of money on the black market, for example, where they are snatched up by criminals looking for ways to sneak their malicious software onto people's computers. By offering a cash bounty, Mozilla hopes it can tip the scales a bit, and get some finds from people who would like to do the right thing but also really need the money.
"In North America, $3,000 is not nothing," he said. "But in a lot of the world, $3,000 is a big deal, and our contributions come from lots of places."
It may be that cash payments for security research are becoming the norm. Mozilla developers say other software companies are starting to take notice and are now talking about bug bounty programs of their own.