Microsoft's 'Dead or Alive' Bounty Expansion Aims to Eliminate Exploits

The software giant will now pay $100,000 for previously unreported techniques that bypass Windows defenses, even those already being used in the wild.

enterprise security

Microsoft expanded its bounty program on Nov. 4 to reward, not just researchers, but anyone who discovers a new technique for bypassing the security of the Windows operating system.

The change means that the company will pay out $100,000, its top award, to individuals who discover a previously unreported method of evading Windows' defenses, even if the technique is being used in an ongoing attack. In the original bounty program, announced less than five months ago, only a person who—through their own research—discovered a way to bypass the shield of Windows defenses could claim the prize.

"We are going from accepting entries from only a handful of individuals capable of inventing new mitigation bypass techniques on their own, to potentially thousands of individuals or organizations who find attacks in the wild," Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist lead for Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, stated in a blog post on the new program.

The revised bounty program aims to take all exploits for Windows' security off the market. Microsoft went so far as to call it a "Dead or Alive" program. The program is not about finding bugs, but finding new types of attacks, Moussouris said.

"Learning about 'ways around the shield,' or new mitigation bypass techniques, is much more valuable than learning about individual bugs because insight into exploit techniques can help us defend against entire classes of attack as opposed to a single bug--hence, we are willing to pay $100,000 for these rare new techniques," she said.

In addition to rewarding anyone with the chops to analyze malware, the program could turn attackers against one another, allowing one black hat researcher to turn in the code being used by a cyber-criminal to infect systems, Wendy Nather, research director with the enterprise security practice at the 451 Group, a business intelligence firm, said in a blog post. Typically, hackers and cyber-criminals tend to work together and form communities that share information. Microsoft's bounty program could stress those tenuous relationships, she said.

"This move by Microsoft presents economic disruption in the exploit market, but that’s not all," Nather said. "It's also a step toward reversing the inherent asymmetry between attackers and defenders."

Microsoft announced its original bounty programs in June, pledging to award $100,000 for researchers that found new ways to get around its software's defenses and $11,000 for any vulnerabilities found in its Internet Explorer browser. Any team that won its top prize could also propose possible defenses, earning another $50,000.

In October, the company awarded it first $100,000 bounty to security consultant James Forshaw, who developed a new technique for getting past Microsoft's defenses. The company also announced it had given $28,000 in prizes for six researchers, including Forshaw, who found security issues in the company's IE11 preview.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...