Security Firm Surpasses Apple's Top Bug Bounty Award for iOS Flaws

NEWS ANALYSIS: Just a week after Apple announced its bug bounty at Black Hat USA with a top award of $200,000, that amount has already been topped by a third-party research firm. But does it really matter?

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Among the biggest pieces of news to come out of the Black Hat USA conference last week was Apple's announcement of a new bug bounty program. As part of Apple's program, the top award for an iOS security flaw will be $200,000, which is a figure that has already been surpassed by other third-party bug programs for Apple technologies. Money alone, however, isn't the most important thing when it comes to bug bounties, or is it?

Security firm Exodus Intelligence announced on Aug. 9 that it will outbid Apple for iOS security exploits. While Apple is offering a maximum of $200,000, Exodus Intelligence will pay up to $500,000 for an iOS vulnerability. Exodus Intelligence first debuted back in 2012 with the promise of providing its customers with a vulnerability intelligence data feed that contains a detailed analysis of zero-day vulnerabilities.

The $500,000 award for a zero-day vulnerability in iOS, while higher than what Apple will pay, still isn't the most that a security researcher might be able to get. Security firm Zerodium claimed that in October 2015 it paid $1 million to a researcher who found a vulnerability in iOS 9.

More recently, in March, the FBI was able to bypass Apple's iOS security after paying a company reportedly as much as $1.3 million. It's not clear if the company paid by the FBI itself had made or was making use of an unknown zero-day iOS exploit.

So, on the surface, it would appear that Apple's entry in the bug bounty realm is somewhat underfunded, but that's not entirely the case. While bigger numbers do attract media headlines and may well attract a different cadre of security researchers, very few researchers will ever actually collect on such a high payout.

For Apple's own program, the $200,000 award is the maximum payout, not the average payout, and it's only for vulnerabilities found in secure boot firmware components. In contrast, Apple will pay $50,000 for flaws that enable execution of arbitrary code with kernel privileges, as well as unauthorized access to iCloud account data on Apple's servers. A sandbox escape will result in a $25,000 award from Apple.

In contrast to the big payouts that Apple and third parties are offering for the top end of iOS vulnerabilities, the vast majority of participants in bug bounty programs will earn far less per bug.

Bug bounty firm Bugcrowd's 2016 State of the Bug Bounty report found that the average bug bounty payout is $505.79. That's a far cry from the $500,000 offered this week by Exodus Intelligence for iOS flaws.

To be fair, not all bugs are equal, and a zero-day vulnerability in iOS that can enable a government to bypass Apple security is a high-value commodity. The fact that Apple's top publicly listed award isn't as high as Zerodium's or Exodus Intelligence's isn't necessarily a cause for concern either. Apple certainly has more money than any third-party security research firm, and I don't doubt that it could or would up the ante, if push came to shove.

At this point, what is clear is that there is a very high level of demand for Apple vulnerabilities, and time will tell what the actual supply is in the market and how that will impact bug bounty payouts.

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

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.