The Advantages of a Bug Bounty Program Over a Penetration Test

Bug bounty programs are becoming an increasingly popular tool that organizations are using to help prevent a data breach. In comparing bug bounty programs to penetration testing, there are several advantages of a bug bounty program that deserve our attention. In this blog, we will explore several of the advantages of a bug bounty program that you cannot get from a typical penetration test.

What is a Bug Bounty Program and How Does it Differ from a Penetration Test?

Before we discuss the advantages of a bug bounty program, we first need to understand what a bug bounty program is and how it differs from a penetration test. As someone with penetration testing experience, if I wanted to do some side-work, I could sign up to be a part of a bug bounty program. After having a background check, and maybe an informal interview (depending on the program), I can be admitted to be one of their testers. Once I am admitted to be a part of their testing program, I can test as often or as little as I want against the targets approved by companies who are part of their program. Instead of being on a salary, I get paid only for the findings I produce. My earnings will vary depending on the severity of the finding. Some testers only work for bug bounty programs and are not actually a part of a security firm, but most security professionals are a part of a security firm, allowing them to get a steady salary and benefits that come with full-time employment. If this sounds similar to Uber, you are not far off. Although it varies from program to program, bug bounties are essentially the Uber of penetration testing.

Advantages of a Bug Bounty Program

Continuous Testing

One of the advantages of a bug bounty program is that it is continuous testing. A penetration test is typically a one-time assessment of your security at a point in time. While it gives you a good understanding of your security and the weaknesses of your network, it is only accurate while the network remains unchanged. Each change you make to configuration and each software patch you apply will inherently make your security posture different from the last penetration test that was performed. For this reason, your security assessment program should include regular vulnerability scans, on top of penetration tests after major architectural changes. Also for this reason, many compliance organizations, such as PCI, require this type of regular scanning and penetration testing. On the flip side, bug bounties are typically open for continuous testing. This means that penetration testers are constantly evaluating your network. Each time you make a change or add new functionality, it will be evaluated without having to sign up or wait for your next penetration test. This allows you to constantly have an up-to-date understanding of your risk.

Specialized Expertise

If I were a part of a bug bounty program, I would be paid not for the amount of work I do, but rather for the vulnerabilities I discover. Because of that, the most successful bug bounty testers specialize in one thing, and go from organization to organization looking for only that one thing. For example, I may specialize in XML External Entity Injection (XXE) attacks, and I will quickly go through all of the open tests and look for XXE vulnerabilities. Over time, I would naturally become an expert in XXE attacks and evasion techniques. Because of this, if your organization signs up for a bug bounty program, you will likely have several experts in specific vulnerabilities evaluating your application/network.

1000s of Testers

One of the main things the bug bounty programs flaunt in the penetration test vs bug bounty debate is that in a bug bounty program you will have “1000s” of penetration testers evaluating your network. While that may be a slight exaggeration, the fact remains that you will theoretically have more eyes on your in-scope targets than you would in a penetration test. In a typical penetration test, you will have two sets of eyes on your network, maybe slightly more depending on the size. Bug bounties make the case, and rightly so, that with more testers there is more of a chance to explore every vulnerability, go down every rabbit hole, and check every nook and cranny of the target.