A Look at What Security Vulnerabilities Are Worth

By Sean Michael Kerner  |  Posted 2015-11-22 Print this article Print
vulnerability value

Over the years, many vendors and security researchers have attempted to put a price on the value of a vulnerability. In some cases when bug bounties have been paid out, there has been transparency, while in others, the amounts have been shrouded in secrecy.

This week, vulnerability acquisition firm Zerodium published its list for what it will pay for security vulnerabilities. Zerodium has achieved a degree of notoriety this month for claiming to pay out a $1 million bug bounty for an Apple IOS 9 exploit chain.

Chaouki Bekrar, founder of Zerodium, told me in September that his firm was acquiring various zero-day exploits and was spending "$400,000 to $600,000 per month for vulnerability acquisitions."

The range that Zerodium will pay starts at up to $5,000 for a common range of Web applications, including popular open-source content management systems WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. Zerodium will pay up to $30,000 for remote code execution flaws in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Apple Safari.

Hewlett-Packard's Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) similarly paid $30,000 to researchers for each Firefox exploit publicly demonstrated at the 2015 Pwn2own hacking challenge. ZDI however awarded those that could exploit Microsoft's Internet Explorer $65,000, while a Google Chrome exploit was valued at $75,000.

Somewhat ironically, it was Bekrar's predecessor company, Vupen, that was the big winner of the 2014 Pwn2own event, when ZDI paid out even higher figures. Vupen was awarded $50,000 for Firefox exploits and $100,000 for Internet Explorer.

Suffice it to say that Bekrar knows a thing or two about browser exploits to put a dollar figure on their value, which is why different classes of exploits are valued differently. Looking beyond just remote code execution flaws in browsers, Zerodium will pay up to $50,000 for Internet Explorer or Safari flaws that also include a sandbox escape. A sandbox is a technology mechanism that restricts the boundaries of a running process.

A remote jailbreak of Android or Windows Phone is valued at up to $100,000, while a remote jailbreak on Apple iOS is now valued at $500,000.

While Zerodium's numbers aren't all that strange in comparison to say ZDI's, they do seem somewhat exorbitant compared with what bug bounty vendor Bugcrowd pays out to its researchers. Bugcrowd issued a 30-month report in July, noting that it had paid out a total of $724,014.02 to 566 different researchers from January 2013 to June 2015.

The top single reward paid out by Bugcrowd was as a $10,000 bounty, paid to a researcher for a cross-site request forgery flaw found in an e-commerce platform, while the average payout was only $1,279.

Clearly, different bugs have different values, depending on the complexity of the software as well as the impact the exploit might have. Additionally, as with anything else, market dynamics are at play, as the value of a vulnerability is also determined by what someone is willing to pay for it. Zerodium is now laying its cards on the table by publishing its payout ranges. Time will tell if Zerodium's pricing will become the established norm or an outlier.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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