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7 August 2023 - 5 minutes

What Are Bug Bounty Programs? (And How Much Do They Pay?!)

Find out how to join the wild, wild west of security and make money doing it

Juliette Carreiro - Tech Writer

Interested in using your hacking skills for good? Want to gain skills, recognition, swag, and cash to safeguard your favorite company sites? Feel the need to compete against other hackers to see who can penetrate security systems first? Bug bounty programs might be for you! Let’s go over how you can make money through “ethical hacking” with bug bounty programs.

What Are Bug Bounty Programs?

Imagine you’re in the wild west. You see a sign “Wanted: Dead or Alive. Reward $50,000.” You’re intrigued... what has this outlaw done, who else is trying to find him, how can you stop him instead, and how will you get your reward? You have the skills to capture him and you’re itching to get started. 

Much like the bounty programs of the Wild West, bug bounty programs are deals put up by companies to offer monetary compensation for hackers to report exploitable software vulnerabilities. Companies use bug bounty hunters to discover and resolve bugs before the general public becomes aware of them and try to take advantage of them. Companies within various fields, such as e-commerce, mobile payments, cloud computing, social media, and more, will implement bug bounty programs to ensure their information is secure. These arrangements are a bit more proactive than Wild West wanted outlaw programs – they set out to patch any security holes before hackers can infiltrate them.   

Like the relationship between the bounty hunter and the sheriff’s office, companies use bug bounty programs to supplement the company’s cybersecurity testing. Often, security companies do not have a large enough team to combat all the possible security vulnerabilities, much like how the sheriff employs outside help to capture outlaws that are likely to break the law – over and over again – to prevent further abuse.  

Bounty hunters can be considered the predecessors to current ethical hackers, both of which use their – one would consider nefarious – skills for good. Similar to Wild West bounty hunters, today’s ethical hackers work for not only monetary compensation, but recognition as well. Instead of word of mouth, hacker leaderboards tell the world of their progress. The programs encourage a healthy level of competition – many ethical hackers will attempt to exploit the same vulnerabilities, but only a few will succeed.  

What Are the Benefits of Bug Bounty Programs?

Much like bounty programs of yesteryear, bug bounty programs come with benefits for both the companies that offer them and the individuals that take part. Companies gain access to a wide pool of talent with varying skill sets and expertise that can perform increased vulnerability protection with realistic threat simulation at a reduced cost.  Individuals, both experts and novices, can earn money and receive recognition based on the severity and number of the bugs discovered. Top hackers can make up to a full-time salary and receive elite recognition, while newbies can use bug bounty programs to get started in the cybersecurity field while being rewarded. This symbiotic relationship allows companies to promote application dependability where the sheer number of targets is impossible for any size security team to combat while security researchers receive monetary compensation and technological recognition for their work.   

How Do Bug Bounty Programs Work?

A wanted poster tells you all that you need to know using simple expectations and clear rewards. But how does a hacker know what is required of them? Just like the bounty programs of the wild west, companies set the scope and budget of their program. 

If you looked at a wanted poster, you could clearly tell two things: who the sheriff wants you to capture (scope) and what you will be rewarded for achieving the goal (budget). A company bug bounty posting works in a similar fashion.  

Some key information that’s included: 

  • Program Description 

  • Eligible Submissions 

  • Bounty Awards 

  • In-Scope Vulnerabilities 

  • Out-of-Scope Vulnerabilities 

  • Disclosure Reporting 

Through the posting, a company defines targets in scope, targets out of scope, rewards and payouts, and bug reporting procedures. It basically outlines what systems a hacker can test, how a test is conducted, and how a hacker is rewarded. After finding a posting that fits their skills and compensation requirements, a hacker legally investigates vulnerabilities to discover bugs. If they find a bug that falls in the previously defined scope, the hacker fills out a disclosure report, which includes a bug description; impact; risk breakdown, using a CVSS – common vulnerability scoring system; and recommendations. Before the business releases the bounty, which may be cash, company swag, or even leaderboard recognition, a company developer must first replicate and validate the bug.  

Since companies are allowing you to infiltrate their software defences, they must set strict protocols to ensure hackers focus on the security aspects that they’d like to test. Going outside of that scope is illegal. If you were a bounty hunter, you wouldn’t capture a man that isn’t wanted by the sheriff, just like you wouldn’t exploit a target that is not within the aforementioned scope.  

Where To Find Bug Bounty Programs

In this day and age, there isn’t a sheriff’s office to visit to find the list of outlaws to capture. It’s actually much easier – most companies’ bug bounty programs can be found online. Not all bug bounty programs can be found with a simple Google search, however; only public programs will be listed on a company website or bug bounty database, to garner more potential bounty hunters. Private programs, on the other hand, are usually invite-only, to ensure a company’s confidentiality and verify a hacker’s expertise. 

So, where can you take part? Bug Crowd posts a public database of bug bounty programs found here, but some sought-after company programs include: 

Becoming a Bug Bounty-Hunter

Do you have what it takes to be a 21st-century bounty hunter? Starting off, much like the bounty hunters of the Wild West, you’d have to make sure you have the know-how. To be successful, bug bounty hunters should know the ins and outs of cybersecurity, including how to implement tactics to detect flaws and vulnerabilities in applications and software. 

Our cybersecurity bootcamps cover some essentials to get you started: 

  • Networking traffic basics, communication principles, network and routing protocols and services, and network security fundamentals 

  • Threat detection and prevention strategies, access controls and hardening techniques, and firewall configuration principles 

  • Cybersecurity and privacy principles, risk and security management processes, and digital evidence handling  

Check our cybersecurity bootcamps to see if you’re ready to tackle the wild, wild west of today.

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