Cybersecurity is not easy. As applications become more complex to meet the growing needs for efficiency and features, it is much more likely that unintended errors in the code will lead to vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can result in serious damage to a company, including granting unauthorized parties access to sensitive information. It’s because of this threat that we need security bug hunters.
What Are Bug Hunters?
Security bug hunters are “white hat hackers,” meaning that they engage in penetration testing (“pentesting”) ethically. Specifically, they try to break into systems with the permission of the owners. They search for exploits less ethical hackers can use, then inform the owner.
While many bug hunters work for security companies that contract out their services, much more common are bug bounty hunters.
A bug bounty hunter is somebody who contracts with either the developer of a product or a third party using that product to find vulnerabilities. Typical bug bounties can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for a successful hacker. There are several bug bounty services like Hackerone that connect clients and hackers. Companies post bounties and test specifications, then hackers work on a way to meet those requirements. Generally, the first person to find a unique flaw gets a payout, though sometimes companies will pay for multiple instances of the same flaw to see just how easy it is to find.
There is a very high demand for security bug hunters, and for good reason.
Why Do Companies Want Them?
In recent years, despite the Coronavirus pandemic forcing an even greater reliance on online work, zero-day flaws have become more prevalent. Hackers have found major flaws in the software of huge vendors, including Google and Microsoft.
The problem with the online ecosystem is that no one company can do it all. They must work with vendors, which means that somebody from outside the company has a direct impact on internal operations. Moreover, vendors don’t disclose their development notes or processes with clients.
Security bug hunters can find flaws in software and allow companies to either inform the vendor or find a workaround patch. It not only exposes these flaws but can even put a client in a better negotiating position for licenses or partnerships.
Even if this weren’t the case, keeping up with cybersecurity advances is nearly impossible. People are always discovering new hacking tools. For example, Symantic just discovered a tool they are calling Daxin. It has been used for over a decade to hack into non-Western government agencies in Asia and Africa.
Assuming it didn’t take more than 10 years to even realize this was being used and it was discovered immediately, a new tool would have been built to take advantage of other system flaws. Every attack can be blocked and every block can be countered.
Using bug bounties puts the onus on independent contractors to find these flaws. This further frees up internal resources that would otherwise go to hiring and running a dedicated cybersecurity team.
What Do Bughunters Look For?
Security bug hunters, like other bounty hunters, use sophisticated pentesting methods to find their quarries. Websites like overthewire.org provide a series of “wargames” to help people learn how to perform pentesting well and ethically. There are countless pentesting tools bounty hunters use to find vulnerabilities in a system.
Typically, bug bounties include detailed information about the target system and what testing methods to use. This also eliminates known security flaws from tests.
Smart companies don’t open their systems up to hackers willingly. Most will create dedicated sandbox systems disconnected from their full network for testing. It might be a clone of the particular system with dummy data put in. Or it could be a unique system that hasn’t been implemented yet. Either way, part of what distinguishes white hat hackers is that they stay on specified networks and report any flaws.
Security bug hunters can be looking for anything from an error that allows somebody to ignore a password screen, to flaws in firewalls, to ways to break a system and force it to shut down, and more. Some bug bounties are for social engineering, i.e. testing how easy it is to get logins and passwords from employees.
Of course, ethical hackers aren’t just in it for the money. Prestige is also a valuable commodity in the pentesting industry, opening up the possibility of more and better jobs. Many bug bounty services even operate leaderboards to highlight the most successful hunters.
No one entity can keep up with all of the complexities of cybersecurity. Fortunately, there are countless white hat hackers looking for an opportunity to test their skills and make money doing it.
Security Bug Hunters Keep You Safe
You might not even know how many applications on your own computer would be open to black hat hackers if it weren’t for the efforts of security bug hunters. And you never need to.
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