Google Launches New Incentive Program for Bug Hunters

Google will offer up-front grants of up to $3,133.70 to selected vulnerability researchers who will receive rewards regardless of whether they find a bug.

Google bug bounty

Buoyed by the success of its existing bug-bounty program, Google has launched an initiative to reward researchers interested in finding security vulnerabilities in its products.

Google's new Vulnerability Research Grants initiative will offer up-front cash awards of up to $ 3,133.70 to researchers interested in taking a crack at specific Google products and services. Unlike the company's current bug-bounty program, the new initiative will reward vulnerability researchers regardless of whether they find a bug or not.

At the same time, researchers who do actually find a bug under the grants program will remain eligible for a bounty under Google's current Security Rewards Program as well.

The goal of the experimental grants program is to give researchers some financial incentive to continue hacking away at Google's technology and not to be worried about wasting time on the effort, Google Security Engineer Eduardo Vela Nava wrote in a blog post.

Google's current bug-bounty program and the company's own internal efforts are making it increasingly hard for vulnerability researchers to find bugs in its products. "Of course, that's good news, but it can also be discouraging when researchers invest their time and struggle to find issues," he said.

The new research grants initiative is targeted at the top vulnerability researchers in Google's current Security Reward Program as well as "invited experts," a program description noted. Grants are available for security research on newly launched Google products and services and on products the company considers sensitive, such as Google Search, Google Wallet, Google Code Hosting, Google App Engine and Google Play.

Grants are also available for any work that aims to improve the efficacy of Google's security patches, especially those that affect a wide number of products. Grant amounts vary from $500 to $3,133.70.

The grants initiative builds on the broad Vulnerability Reward Program (VRP) that Google launched in 2010 as part of an effort to bolster product security. The program rewards security researchers and firms that disclose certain types of vulnerabilities, including cross-site scripting, cross-site forgery and server-side code execution flaws, in Google products.

Google has so far paid out close to $4 million to researchers that have found bugs in its products and services under the VRP. In 2014 alone, Google paid $1.5 million to some 200 researchers who reported a total of nearly 500 security problems in its products.

Google is one of several companies that currently have a reward program for bug hunters. Others with a similar program include Microsoft, Facebook and Mozilla. Analysts believe that such programs can help technology vendors uncover flaws in their products at a fraction of the cost of doing it themselves.

"I think that anything invested in discovering vulnerabilities is money well spent," said Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst at IT-Harvest, a security consultancy in Birmingham, Mich.

"Paying up-front, as in this new Google program, is more honest than pure bug bounties," Stiennon said via email. "Bug bounties are cheaper, in that potentially hundreds of people work for free in the hopes of discovering a bug and the payer only pays the one who succeeded." The next step for companies like Google is to expose source code to the same level of scrutiny, Stiennon said.

Pete Lindstrom, an analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass., said that vendor efforts to uncover product flaws via bug-bounty programs are generally a good thing.

"Anything that a company does to further its development of secure software is a great idea," Lindstrom said. "It seems like Google is a proponent of the 'many eyes theory,'" in vulnerability research, he said. The grant program could get people more excited about trying to find security flaws in Google's products and services he said.

But Google too needs to focus more on finding security problems in its own products, Lindstrom said. In recent months, Google appears to have put quite a bit of effort into finding flaws in Microsoft products, Lindstrom noted, referring to Google's public disclosure of a zero-day flaw in Windows 8.1 before Microsoft could fix it. Instead of doing that, the company should be focused on fixing its own problems first, he said. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," he said.

"If you know you have vulnerabilities, why is it that you think you should be looking for other's people's vulnerabilities," he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.