25 Jan Bug Bounty vs Pentest: A Cheat Sheet for Decision Makers
Companies use ethical hacking to test their applications, networks, and other systems for vulnerabilities.
This article will cover the benefits and disadvantages of two popular approaches for companies to consider leveraging ethical hackers: bug bounty programs and penetration testing. By comparing the two, companies will understand which methodology is better for their particular situation.
- Organizations launch bug bounty programs to find and report vulnerabilities through crowdsourcing by external, unpaid individuals or companies.
- Penetration testing (pentesting) is the practice of simulating an attack on a computer system, network, or web application by a team of security experts, typically paid, internal, or external security professionals, to find weaknesses and evaluate the effectiveness of the organization’s security controls.
- Both methods can identify vulnerabilities, but bug bounty programs focus strictly on research. In contrast, pentesting includes a more comprehensive security assessment and may consist of attempts to exploit vulnerabilities.
- Bug bounty programs are cost-effective, bring in large amounts of independent security researchers, provide continued testing, and can build loyal security communities.
- Pentesting supplies a comprehensive security assessment, can help with compliance, offers a customized approach, and is done by trusted internal or external security professionals who understand the organization’s specific needs and environment.
- Bug bounties may be a better option for organizations that want to engage continuously with a large pool of security expertise. In comparison, pentesting may be a better option for organizations that need a comprehensive security assessment and must comply with regulations.
- Organizations should consider combining both methods to achieve more comprehensive security coverage.
What is a bug bounty program?
Bug bounty programs are launched by organizations looking to find and report vulnerabilities through crowdsourcing. The company sets a scope for the program, which defines what bug hunters will do in the system. The company can offer rewards for valid and unique vulnerabilities found.
In January 2022, Apple paid $100,000 to hunters to crack into Safari’s webcam security. On the other hand, in the same month, the password manager 1Password increased their bug bounty program from their average $900 reward to a $1 million bounty to deepen their security.
What is a pentest (or penetration test)?
Penetration testing, also known as “pen testing,” is the practice of simulating an attack on a computer system, network, or web application to find weaknesses and evaluate the effectiveness of the organization’s security controls.
A team of security experts typically does this through manual and automated techniques to test the system from inside and outside the network perimeter. They will identify potential entry points such as open ports, unpatched software, and misconfigured systems and attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or disrupt normal system operations.
The testing results are then analyzed to name the root cause of any weaknesses found, and recommendations for remediation are provided to the organization. An expert-level pen-test also includes Social Engineering, Phishing, Physical security testing, and reporting.
Similarities and Differences
Let’s dive into their similarities and differences further to understand the two methods.
The most obvious similarity is that both are methods of finding vulnerabilities in a system, and they can use them to improve the security of a system.
However, the two differ in how they perform these methods.
External, unpaid individuals or companies usually do bug bounty programs. In contrast, pentesters are typically paid, internal or external security professionals.
Bug bounty programs are focused on finding and reporting vulnerabilities. In comparison, pentesting includes a more comprehensive security assessment and may consist of attempts to exploit vulnerabilities.
And lastly, bug bounty programs often have a specific scope and reward system, while pentests may have a particular contract and deliverables.
Now that we know the similarities and differences, let’s dive into the various benefits of each.
Bug Bounty Programs
Bug bounty programs have several benefits that make them an attractive option for companies and organizations:
- One of the main benefits is that they are cost-effective. Bug bounty programs allow companies to access a large pool of security expertise at a fraction of the cost of hiring a dedicated security team.
- Bug bounties bring in large amounts of independent security researchers, who can cover more ground inside a system that a single pentester might not see. This creates networking opportunities but also allows companies to ensure every inch of their system is tested. The best bug bounty programs have thousands of contributors and seek to build loyal security communities.
- Bug bounties provide continuous testing, allowing for constant testing and identifying new vulnerabilities.
On the other hand, pentests also have several benefits that make it an attractive option for companies and organizations:
- One of the main benefits is that a penetration test supplies a comprehensive security assessment. A pentest offers a detailed and thorough evaluation of a system’s security, including attempts to exploit vulnerabilities found.
- Another benefit is compliance. Many organizations must have regular security assessments to comply with regulations such as PCI-DSS.
- Pentesting offers a customized approach, which pentesters can tailor to meet an organization’s specific needs.
- Lastly, as a trusted internal or externally vetted security team, pentesters understand the internal network and can give more accurate recommendations.
When considering whether to implement a bug bounty program or a pentest, it is vital to understand the drawbacks of each method.
Bug Bounty Programs
One of the main drawbacks of bug bounties is the limited scope. Bug bounty programs often have a specific range, meaning bug bounty hunters are likely to not find vulnerabilities outside that scope. These programs can expose a company to potential security breaches if vulnerabilities exist outside the program’s content.
- Companies sometimes have limited control over testing methods. Bug bounty participants may use methods not approved or allowed by the company, which can lead to security breaches or damage to the system. These programs can be a significant concern for companies with sensitive data or critical infrastructure.
- Bug bounty participants may not be held liable for any damage caused by their testing methods.
- Lastly, some participants may still need to be fully committed to finding vulnerabilities and may only participate for the rewards. This choice can lead to a lack of thorough testing and comprehensive results.
On the other hand, pentesting also has drawbacks that organizations need to consider:
- One of the main drawbacks is that it can be expensive. Hiring a professional pentesting firm can be costly and impossible for all organizations. For a basic penetration test, the cost can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the organization and the scope of the test. The cost can be significantly higher for more complex tests, such as a full-scale penetration test of an organization’s entire network, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- Additionally, a pentest may have a specific scope defined in the contract, meaning pentesters may not find vulnerabilities outside that scope. Some programs may have a broad range, covering the organization’s systems and assets. In contrast, others may have a more limited range, focusing on specific areas such as web applications, mobile apps, or particular services. This can expose a company to potential security breaches if vulnerabilities exist outside the test’s content.
- Another drawback of pentesting is the limited testing frequency. A pentest is usually a one-time engagement, meaning vulnerabilities may only be discovered once the next pentest is conducted. This can leave a company vulnerable for an extended time. This can be addressed by working with a provider or implementing a process for continuous penetration testing.
- Lastly, external pentesters may need help understanding the internal network, which may lead to inaccurate or incomplete security recommendations. This can lead to a lack of complete results and thorough testing.
Choosing Between Bug Bounties and Pentesting
When deciding whether to implement a bug bounty program or a pentest, it is vital to consider each factor: cost, scope, objectives, risks, and limitations. Of course, an organization’s specific needs and priorities will also play a significant role in this decision. Weigh each factor carefully.
Here are some questions to consider:
- How much money are you able to spend? If cost is a significant concern for an organization, a bug bounty program may be a more cost-effective option. However, companies should also consider their time and management costs in this option.
- Do you have sensitive data or critical infrastructure? In this case, a pentest may be a better option. Pentesters create a more controlled test and are held more accountable for any damage caused during the test than hunters.
- What exactly do you need to be tested? Bug bounty programs often have a specific area, whereas pentests may have a particular contract and deliverables. This means that bug bounties may not uncover vulnerabilities outside the program’s scope. In contrast, companies can tailor pentests to their specific needs.
- What do you want to come out of the testing? Bug bounty programs focus on finding and reporting vulnerabilities, whereas pentests include a complete security assessment.
- What are the risks of each method for your organization? Bounty participants may use methods not approved or allowed by the company, which can lead to security breaches or damage to the system. On the other hand, pentesting can be costly and may only be feasible for some organizations.
Which is Better?
Bug Bounty Programs are best for companies looking to:
- Keep costs low
- Set scope and range on specific vulnerabilities
- Receive crowdsourced security research
- Gain media attention and PR
- Build a community of loyal security advocates
Penetration testing is best for companies looking for:
- One-time engagements with a part of a system
- A comprehensive overall security assessment
- Security researchers with specific industry expertise
- Certification that they have taken proper security measures to protect systems and data
Both bug bounties and pentesting can be valuable tools for improving the security of a system. But they have different goals, participants, and methods. The choice will depend on an organization’s specific needs and priorities.
It is essential to consider the testing’s scope, cost, and objectives and each method’s potential risks and limitations. Organizations should weigh the benefits and drawbacks and choose the plan that best suits their needs.
If your company can do so, bug bounties and penetration testing should be considered complementary methods for improving the security of a system. A comprehensive and well-rounded security program that includes internal and external testing and regular security assessments is essential to ensure an organization’s overall safety.