Apple’s bug bounty program favors quality over quantity

The company will pay between $25,000 and $200,000 for exploits

After years of reluctance to pay researchers for exploits, Apple has given in and is ready to hand out up to US$200,000 for critical vulnerabilities found in the latest version of iOS and the newest iPhones.

Apple announced the program Thursday at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. It starts in September, and unlike bounty programs run by other large technology companies it will be invite only.

The program will start with a few dozen researchers hand-picked by Apple, though any outsider who submits a flaw that qualifies can receive a reward and be invited to join the program, said Ivan Krstić, the head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture.

"It's not meant to be an exclusive club," he said.

Apple said it was willing to double the payouts for researchers who donate their reward to a charity.

Rich Mogull, CEO of information security firm Securosis, noted that bug bounty programs can have downsides, and said it's not something Apple necessarily had to do. But he said it's a good start and something Apple can benefit from.

Some companies "don’t really want to get into a bidding war with governments and well-funded criminal organizations, some of which are willing to potentially pay up to a million dollars for certain exploits," Mogull said in a blog post.

Public bug bounty programs can also produce a lot of noise in the form of low-quality reports that don't necessarily lead to bug fixes, but that still consume engineering resources to investigate, he said.

Mogull believes Apple's program focuses on quality over quantity and has a clear objective: to find exploitable bugs in key areas of iOS that are considered a high priority. It also forces researchers to prove the impact of any flaws they find with working proof-of-concept exploits. That's harder than simply submitting bugs that might be critical and leaving it to the company investigate.

Apple will pay up to $200,000 for critical flaws in the secure boot firmware components, up to $100,000 for exploits that can extract confidential material from the Secure Enclave Processor -- the secure chip that performs cryptographic operations in iPhone 5s and later, $50,000 for bugs that can result in arbitrary code execution with kernel privileges, $50,000 for ways to access iCloud account data on Apple's servers without authorization, and $25,000 for vulnerabilities that provide access from inside a sandbox process to user data outside of that sandbox.

This bounty structure reflects the difficulty of finding each of the five types of flaws, Krstić said.

Apple hasn't always had the best relationship with the security community. While many researchers acknowledge the solid security of Apple products, it has often been criticized for the way it communicates about security issues, or for not communicating enough. Apple is also one of the last big companies to launch a security rewards program.

Vulnerabilities that can completely compromise iOS command some of the highest prices on the gray market. When iOS 9 came out, one exploit broker who counts government agencies among its customers offered $1 million for a browser-based jailbreak -- an exploit that can gain root access to iOS simply by visiting a website. The FBI has also bought an iOS exploit from hackers in order to access the data on the locked iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Asked by the audience at Black Hat why Apple waited so long to launch a bounty program, Krstić said the company has heard from researchers that finding critical vulnerabilities is increasingly difficult, and it wanted to reward those who take the time to do it.

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