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Pentesting vs Bug Bounty - what to do and when

Pentesting vs Bug Bounty -  what to do and when

Many people consider bug bounties and Pentests (often referred to as Penetration Testing) as synonymous. If you’re relatively new to cybersecurity, it’s easy to confuse the two and not quite figure out whether you need them and when to perform any of them.

Nonetheless, they are essential practices when it comes to hardening your application or company’s digital assets against data breaches. Companies pay staggering amounts to get these services. In 2020, for example, Apple launched a new bug bounty program where they’ll be paying security researchers up to $1 million for each discovery.

What is Pentest vs. Bug bounty? And how do they Work?

Penetration testing is a cybersecurity risk assessment methodology that leverages the complexity of hacking techniques to detect risk profiles and get them patched. During a penetration test, the (ethical hackers) testers will look at your organization or application/infrastructure from different perspectives to determine the possible ways threat actors can launch attacks on your assets. They also check if the attacks would be successful.

On the other hand, bug bounty hunting discovers bugs in systems/software and then reports them to the company. The company would then reward the bug bounty hunters (security researchers) for finding these security bugs.

In pentesting, the testers primarily focus on individual scopes simultaneously, trying to uncover as much vulnerability as possible for the scoped portion. On the contrary, bug bounty hunters focus on discovering as many bugs as they can across several apps since they’re paid based on the bugs they discover and their severity.

Most companies often consider bug bounty as a replacement for pentesting. In most cases, the driving force behind such moves is to save money and time since, in bug bounties, you only pay depending on the discovered flaw and its severity.

Here’s the booby trap; you have no guarantee that the findings are correct, if the entire scope is covered, and oftentimes you get a lot of false positives. In pentesting, though, you pay for the pentesters’ time. Even though bug bounty may sound attractive in this aspect, replacing pentesting with bug bounty is a wrong move in most cases.

Bug bounty only helps once you’ve launched a program or system/app, and it is accessible to everyone. Therefore if you need protection before the first launch, Pentest must be performed to secure your product. Pentesting the product before launch in this case, would assure you that your application is secure from most common attack scenarios.

An independent 3rd party assessment is always a good idea to get better results and measure your application or product’s security. The bug bounty goal is to have continuous testing done by diversified researchers who would then sell those issues for money to your company.

Consider this; what if your company has a threat model where you are worried about nation-state or other hackers because you may have sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as SSN or other details? In such a case, Pentest assessment would make more sense and then bug bounty to ensure a good security baseline before launch. You should know that nation-state attackers have different motives, and they won’t report any bugs for rewards.

In penetration testing, you explain the rules that govern Pentersters’ engagement and detailed product or application information such as what Pentesters should look for and those they shouldn’t.

Thus, penetration testing would be a recommendable option for a company because you get security experts who dedicate their time to discovering flaws in particular areas instead of researchers trying to find vulnerabilities on several targets to maximize payouts. A Pentest offers in-depth coverage on your project, something you will barely get with bug bounty hunting.

Pentests can also be used in testing your organization’s security policy, its adherence to compliance policies, the employees, and the security team’s ability to recognize security incidents and respond to them appropriately.

After the test, the ethical hacking team will give you a report which will guide you in remediating discovered flaws. With that being said, it is safe to argue that bug bounty has its perks, but then it can’t replace Pentest.

Strategies Used in Pentests

A major determining factor when deciding the strategy or penetration testing method to be used is the scope. The scope here determines specified locations that the ethical hackers will operate in, the techniques or tools they will use, and the systems they will be focusing on.

Depending on your preference, you may limit the scope of a penetration test so the team and defenders can focus on just the systems which the company has full control over. Here is a rundown of some of the testing methods that are commonly used.

  • External Penetration Testing
  • Internal Penetration Testing
  • White Box Testing
  • Grey Box Testing
  • Black Box Testing

For more details on the types of Pentesting and their value, take a look at our detailed blog post here.

Why Pentests are Necessary vs. Bug Bounties

In 2020, it is estimated that the average cost of a data breach is $3.86 million, with the healthcare industry having the highest average cost of $7.13M.

Interestingly, most businesses are not prepared to defend against most known attacks, with a recent report pointing out that the US suffered 1,473 cyberattacks over the last year, leading to 164.6 million successful data breaches. Most small businesses also fail to patch known network vulnerabilities with faint hopes that “they’re small” thus won’t be targeted. In reality, though, attackers create new and better exploits each day to detect most security holes from afar.

Therefore, to be safe, you must take proactive measures to safeguard your businesses against different forms of cyber attacks. This is where Penetration tests and bug bounties also come into play. Pentest are necessary since they help you discover risk profiles that your security team couldn’t spot or may have missed. Pentest answers a straightforward question: “Can we be breached? If so, how?” On the other hand, Bug Bounty complements the pentest and offers continuous security coverage to the application.

Pentests are necessary since they help you gauge how your employees and security teams comply with the laid down security policies. They would also help test your employees’ awareness of security risks and how they would respond if there were a breach. Depending upon the type of Pentest, you may need to answer questions like “How secure is our external infrastructure from hackers or how safe is our internal infrastructure against malicious insiders? Current Bug-bounty programs are not focused on these assessments though.

How Does Bug Bounty Programs Differ from Penetration Testing?

Bug bounty hunting differs from pentesting in several ways. Here are a few notable differences between bug bounties and penetration tests.

  • In penetration testing, you can decide the scope of tests and be sure that the scope will be covered. On the contrary, with bug bounty hunting, you will still define the scope, but there is no guarantee that the entire scope will be assessed.

  • In penetration testing, the security experts involved are usually part of security firms. On the other hand, in bug bounty hunting, the researchers can work individually and not be part of any security firm. So you may hire other companies who manage bug bounty on your company’s behalf. Bounty hunters can participate via those companies or directly work with your company if they are managing the program independently.

  • Hundreds of testers. This is one of the most standout differences between these two security practices. In bug bounties, you deal with hundreds of testers who focus on different company assets simultaneously. In penetration testing, you only work with a small group of dedicated testers. Availability. In Bug Bounty, the service or application must be available online for these hundreds of testers to assess. This may not be feasible if the targeted solution consists of hardware, embedded systems, or have other complex requirements.

Pentest vs. Bug Bounty Hunting; Which One Should I Choose?

Both penetration testing and bug bounty hunting are becoming increasingly popular, and it can be not very easy trying to pick the best one for your company. Both are important, but there are a few instances where one may be preferred to the other. Real quick, let’s compare them.

Pentesting Pros Pentesting Cons
It is universal: Penetration testing doesn’t explore just the vulnerabilities in one program, like in bounty hunting, where hackers only specialize in detecting specific bugs. Instead, it aims at helping you expose weaknesses on multiple fronts, right from network infrastructure and application configurations and weaknesses due to employee behavior that could lead to data breaches. You can do network pentest, internal pentests and meet the compliance and independent 3p testing requirements using pentesting. It’s Costly: The scope of the testing mostly determines the cost of penetration testing. On the baseline, you can expect to pay a premium price for a quality test. This makes it a bit costly for most small-sized businesses compared to bug bounty, where you only pay for discovered flaws and their severity. However, lower rewards in Bug Bounty don’t help either since researchers won’t be interested in low payouts.
Third-Party Help: In penetration testing, you’ll be working with a third party, mostly an accredited agency that will discover the risks and present a report for the necessary amendments, while in bug bounties, you’ll be working with independent testers who only report bugs. They may also not be part of an accredited agency. Not 100 Percent: Even though your pen testers will help you discover many flaws, it is unlikely that they will find all the system flaws at once. That’s why it is recommendable that you perform regular Pentests with bug bounties.
Legal Compliance: Rules vary between industries. Suppose you’re in an industry that requires a specific number of penetration tests in a year; for example, in the Payment Card Industry (PCI), regular penetration tests will ensure that you’re always legally compliant and avoid hefty fines. Bounty hunting is usually not covered in legal compliance guidelines. It May Disrupt System: A quality penetration test mimics a real-life cyber attack. Because of this, you may experience system downtime or disruption. However, you can minimize the disruption by selecting the areas to test at a time.
Bug Bounty Pros Bug Bounty Cons
You may get a Bug Patched for Free: There are cases where hackers participate in free bug hunting programs and if you are lucky, you may get a major bug patched for free. Here’s the twist, the bug bounty hacker may decide to sell their discovery on the dark web for massive profits or publish the reports for publicity and this would only inconvenience you in the long run. Trust: There’s a risk of malicious testers failing to report the discoveries for their selfish motives though this is very rare. Besides, there is no guarantee that they will report that immediately or sell it on the dark web for high dollars than the reward you’re offering compared to Pentesting, where you’re assured of getting the risks’ report with recommendations or guidelines on how to remediate them.
Specialization: Just like pentesters, bug bounty hunters are cybersecurity pros who specialize in discovering specific flaws. For example, a bug hunter would specialize in just finding XML External Entity Injection (XXE) flaws. Therefore, if you launch a bounty-hunting to supplement your pentesting program, you’ll have experts in multiple areas evaluating varied risk profiles on your network. Control: Bug bounty significantly limits your control. To begin with, you can define a scope for testing, but you aren’t sure if it will be all covered. Besides, it limits you to only testing pieces of software or hardware that are available online. This isn’t the same case with pentesting, where you can also test your products before the official launch.
- Complexity: In a bug bounty program, your security researchers only specialize in detecting specific flaws. It is, therefore, less complex when compared to penetration tests, where the testers cover broad areas.

Wrapping Up

Both penetration testing and bug bounty hunting are essential. However, penetration testing is not replaceable with bug bounty programs. Bug bounty supplements pentesting and improve your product/application’s security posture.

Contrary to what some people think, bug bounty isn’t sufficient on its own. Note that; bug bounty hunters focus on many apps at a time, and they try to find one issue across many apps. On the flipside, pentesters dedicate time and effort to understand the business logic and try to break the application from the attackers’ perspective.

This implies that if you wish to maintain higher cybersecurity levels for your customers, it would be better to use penetration testing and bug bounty hunting to get stronger security. Eager to see how Penetration testing can improve your security landscape? Check our definition for quality & cost-effective Pentest here or contact us to find out more about ioSENTRIX Pentesting.