Microsoft Joins Bug-Bounty Movement After a Long Delay

Mozilla does it, Google does it, Facebook does it. Now, Microsoft will also pay for vulnerabilities, as much as $100,000, but only on its own terms.

Security Alert

Breaking a longstanding moratorium on paying for information on vulnerabilities in its software products, Microsoft announced June 19 that the company has created two programs that will pay researchers for information on software flaws and a third that will reward researchers who create defensive measures.

The software company will pay $100,000 to any researcher who develops a technique to bypass the defenses of the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, Windows 8.1. In a second vulnerability-reward program, the company will also pay up to $11,000 for each bug found during the first 30 days of the beta period of its latest version of Internet Explorer, Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist lead for Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group, told eWEEK.

"What we are looking for are new ways to bypass our mitigations," she said. "We want to learn about these new ways to punch holes in our shields, so we can develop defenses that work platform-wide and block those types of attacks."

In addition to the two bug-bounty programs, Microsoft will also reward researchers who create novel ways to foil exploitation methods. Under its BlueHat Bonus for Defense program, also announced June 19, the company will award a $50,000 prize for techniques for blocking current attacks that bypass its defenses.

The programs come after years of criticism by some researchers and hackers that Microsoft should solve its security problems by paying for bugs. For more than a decade, security researchers have bristled at reporting bugs to Microsoft for free. While the company made billions of dollars on its software, researchers complained that they were expected to provide free quality assurance in the form of bug reports, or face criticism for being irresponsible. For a number of years, Microsoft had referred to the vulnerability reporting process as "responsible disclosure," if the researchers worked with the company to fix the issue before publicizing the flaw.

"The first thing that comes to mind is that it's about time," Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer for application-security firm Veracode, told eWEEK. "All the other browsers have bug-bounty programs, and that fact may have been one of the things that pushed [Microsoft] over the edge."

Times have also changed: The market for information on vulnerabilities has matured, and now any researcher who finds a significant vulnerability in a popular software product has a number of ways to get paid—from selling the information to a white-market program, such as the Zero-Day Initiative, to using a broker to cut a six-figure deal with a government agency.

Microsoft is feeling those changes. The company has courted researchers, creating a number of programs to strengthen the company's relationship with bug finders, but even so, researchers are turning fewer vulnerabilities over to Microsoft for free. Three years ago, more than 90 percent of the vulnerabilities that the company fixed came directly from researchers. Now, that's no longer true, said Moussouris.

"The researchers themselves are changing how they choose to report; the data is really what tells the story here," Moussouris said.

Microsoft's second program, the Internet Explorer 11 Preview Bug Bounty Program, is an attempt to change researcher behavior. In the past, researchers typically found and mainly reported vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer only after the software was released. By paying for bugs only during the first 30 days of the preview of Internet Explorer, Microsoft hopes to shift that behavior, so it can fix the software before its release.

"It's a good idea," Wysopal said. "If they are paying researchers to do their quality assurance, why not pay them to do it in the actual QA period, rather than after the product is released and you would have to issue a patch," he said.

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...