Researchers release a study into Bug Bounty Programs and Responsible Disclosure for ethical hacking in IoT

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On September 26, a few researchers from the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, released a research paper which highlighted the importance of crowdsource ethical hacking approaches for enhancing IoT vulnerability management.

They have focussed on Bug Bounty Programs (BBP) and Responsible Disclosure (RD), which stimulate hackers to report vulnerabilities in exchange for monetary rewards. Supported by literature survey and expert interviews, these researchers carried out an investigation on how BBP and RD can facilitate the practice of identifying, classifying, prioritizing, remediating, and mitigating IoT vulnerabilities in an effective and cost-efficient manner.

The researchers have also made recommendations on how BBP and RD can be integrated with the existing security practices to further boost the IoT security.

The researchers first identified the causes for lack of security practices in IoT from socio-technical and commercial perspectives. By identifying the hidden pitfalls and blind spots, stakeholders can avoid repeating the same mistakes. They have also derived a set of recommendations as best-practices that can benefit IoT vendors, developers, and regulators.


The researcher in their paper added, “We note that this study does not intend to cover all the potential vulnerabilities in IoT nor to provide an absolute solution to cure the IoT security puzzle. Instead, our focus is to provide practical and tangible recommendations and potentially new options for stakeholders to tackle IoT-oriented vulnerabilities in consumer goods, which will help enhance the overall IoT security practices.”

Challenges in IoT Security

The researchers have highlighted six major reasons from the system and device perspective:

  • IoT systems do not have well-defined perimeters as they can continuously change.
  • IoT systems are highly heterogeneous with respect to communication medium and protocols.
  • IoT systems often include devices that are not designed to be connected to the Internet or for being secure.
  • IoT devices can often autonomously control other IoT devices without human supervision.
  • IoT devices could be physically unprotected and/or controlled by different parties.
  • The large number of devices increases the security complexity

The other practical challenges for IoT include the fact that enterprises targeting end-users do not have security as a priority and are generally driven by time-to-market instead of by security requirements.

Several IoT products are the results of an increasing number of startup companies that have entered this market recently. This vast majority of startups accounts for less than 10 employees, and their obvious priority is to develop functional rather than secure products. In this scenario, investing in security can be perceived as a costly and time-consuming obstacle. In addition, consumers demand for security is low, and they tend to prefer cheaper rather than secure products. As a result, companies lack explicit incentives to invest in security.

Crowdsourced security methods: An alternative in Ethical Hacking

“Government agencies and business organizations today are in constant need of ethical hackers to combat the growing threat to IT security. A lot of government agencies, professionals and corporations now understand that if you want to protect a system, you cannot do it by just locking your doors,” the researchers observe.

The benefits of Ethical Hacking include:

  • Preventing data from being stolen and misused by malicious attackers.
  • Discovering vulnerabilities from an attacker’s point of view so to fix weak points.
  • Implementing a secure network that prevents security breaches.
  • Protecting networks with real-world assessments.
  • Gaining trust from customers and investors by ensuring security.
  • Defending national security by protecting data from terrorism.

Bug bounty benefits and Responsible Disclosure

The alternative for Pen Testing in Ethical Hacking is Crowdsourced security methods. These methods involve the participation of large numbers of ethical hackers, reporting vulnerabilities to companies in exchange for rewards that can consist of money or, just recognition. Similar practices have been utilized at large scale in the software industry. For example, the Vulnerability Rewards Programs (VRP) which have been applied to Chrome and Firefox, yielding several lessons on software security development. As per results, the Chrome VRP has cost approximately $580,000 over 3 years and has resulted in 501 bounties paid for the identification of security vulnerabilities.

Crowdsource methods involve thousands of hackers working on a security target. In specific, instead of a point-in-time test, crowdsourcing enables continuous testing. In addition, as compared with Pen Testing, crowdsourcing hackers are only paid when a valid vulnerability is reported.

Let us in detail understand Bug Bounty Programs (BBP) and Responsible Disclosure (RD).

How do Bug Bounty Programs (BBP) work?

Also known as Bug Bounties, the BBP represents reward-driven crowdsourced security testing where ethical hackers who successfully discover and report vulnerabilities to companies are rewarded. The BBPs can further be classified into public and private programs.

Public programs allow entire communities of ethical hackers to participate in the program. They typically consist of large scale bug bounty programs and can be both time-limited and open-ended. Private programs, on the other hand, are generally limited to a selected sub-group of hackers, scoped to specific targets, and limited in time. These programs usually take place through commercial bug bounty platforms, where hackers are selected based on reputation, skills, and experience.

The main platform vendors that included BBP are HackerOne, BugCrowd, Cobalt Labs, and Synack. Those platforms have facilitated establishing and maintaining BBPs for organizations.

What is Responsible Disclosure (RD)?

Also known as coordinated vulnerability disclosure, RD consists of rules and guidelines from companies that allow individuals to report vulnerabilities to organizations. The RD policies will define the models for a controlled and responsible disclosure of information upon vulnerabilities discovered by users. Here, most of the software vulnerabilities are discovered by both benign users and ethical hackers.

In many situations, individuals might feel responsible for reporting the vulnerability to the organization, but companies may lack a channel for them to report the found vulnerabilities. Hence three different outcomes might occur including failed disclosure, full disclosure, and organization capture. Among these three, the target of RD is the organization capture where companies create a safe channel and provide rules for submitting vulnerabilities to their security team, and further allocate resources to follow up the process.

One limitation of this qualitative study is that only experts that were conveniently available participated in the interview. The experts that participated in the research were predominantly from the Netherlands (13 experts), and more in general all from Europe, the results should be generalized with regard to other countries and the whole security industry.

For IoT vulnerability management, the researchers recommend launching BBP only after companies have performed initial security testing and fixed the problems. The objective of BBP and RD policies should always be to provide additional support in finding undetected vulnerabilities, and never to be the only security practice.

To know more about this study in detail, read the original research paper.

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