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Bug bounty and penetration testing are two complementary approaches to security testing. Find out which one is the best depending on your target and goals.

Bug bounty and penetration testing are two tools for reducing digital risks. They are sometimes put in opposition, whereas they are in fact complementary in the battle against cyber threats. However, one is often more appropriate than the other depending on the objectives, the budget or the maturity of the targeted system.

This is precisely the purpose of these few lines: to contrast pentesting and bug bounty to understand what differs between the two approaches.

Why conduct a pentest or a bug bounty ?

Behind this question is really another one. Why should an organization care about its digital security ? The reasons are legion, so much so that they would deserve a dedicated topic.

So to those who still doubt the compelling need for cybersecurity, we have just one number to give: $4.35 million. That’s the average cost to a company of a data breach due to the exploitation of a vulnerability, according to the latest IBM Cost of a Data Breach 2022 report. Vulnerability management is no longer an option.

When it comes to cybersecurity, there will always be vulnerabilities to find. Two questions remain :

  • who will find them first;
  • and will private actors use all the means at their disposal to reduce their digital risks, starting with penetration testing and bug bounty.

Read also: Penetration testing: why and how to conduct a pentest

Read also: Bug Bounty, why and how to get started?

Pentest and Bug Bounty: different durations

A bug bounty is a permanent program, while a pentest is a temporary program.

A bug bounty is theoretically not limited in time. If a hacker finds a vulnerability in a product subject to a bug bounty, he can submit a report throughout the year to claim a reward. Note that a bug bounty can also be temporary. But this time limit is then intended by the organization, and not intrinsic to this kind of security testing.

A pentest, on the other hand, is by nature time-bound. It is conducted over a period decided beforehand; most often 1 to 3 weeks depending on the scope.

A bug bounty therefore allows organizations to continuously test the security of their systems, whereas a pentest is an assessment of the security level of an asset at a given point in time.

Bug Bounty vs Pentest: pay per vulnerability or pay per service

The business models of bug bounty and penetration testing are completely different.

With a bug bounty, the organization pays per vulnerability found. When a vulnerability report is found to be valid, the hacker receives a financial reward based on the criticality of the vulnerability. Ethical hackers are therefore rewarded for the fruits of their hunts, not for the time spent hunting.

Pentesting is billed to the project. The total price of the project is decided beforehand, depending on the scope, the duration, the skills required and the number of pentesters involved. The amount invoiced to the client organization does not depend in any way on the number of vulnerabilities identified during the pentest.

Bug bounty has a logic of results, while pentest has a logic of means.

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Bug Bounty vs Pentest: distinct objectives

The motivations behind a bug bounty and a penetration test are not the same.

With a bug bounty, the goal is twofold.

  1. Monitor an asset continuously;
  2. To test the asset in depth in order to identify vulnerabilities not detected by previous tests – especially the most complex ones.

The objectives of penetration testing are quite different. Pentesting is used to:

  1. Evaluate the level of digital security of an asset at a given point in time;
  2. Detect possible vulnerabilities that may be hidden in the asset;
  3. Compliance purposes. Pentesting can lead to certifications, which are essential to meet certain standards – such as SOC2 and ISO 27001 – or contractual requirements, e.g. as part of a merger-acquisition.

Pentest vs Bug Bounty: different targets with different maturity

Pentesting is particularly suited to the youngest systems in terms of security, whereas bug bounty is indicated for perimeters that are already mature.

Pentesting, the best approach to the youngest perimeters

Pentest is the best solution for young perimeters whose security has yet to be proven, such as:

  • a new application or website that has never been audited before;
  • a major release, likely to carry new vulnerabilities.

If the asset has never been tested before, security researchers are likely to find many vulnerabilities in it. With a pentest, the company can clear the most obvious ones for a fixed cost. With a bug bounty, each vulnerability would have been reported individually and a separate incentive would have been paid. The budget would have been much higher, but the number of identified vulnerabilities would have been the same.

Bug bounty, an approach best suited to mature assets

Bug bounty is intended for mature assets, whose security is no longer in question. An application is not supposed to be full of vulnerabilities if it has already been tested, or if its defenses have already been polished by an internal Blue Team.

However, this does not mean that the asset is vulnerability-free. All digital assets have exploitable vulnerabilities, they just haven’t been found yet. And there’s a good reason for that. The stronger a system’s defenses are, the more time and skill it takes to find a breach. That’s where the ethical hacker community comes in. 

As part of a bug bounty, some researchers may spend several months hunting on the same scope. Some discover vulnerabilities in the deepest layers of an asset; vulnerabilities that would never have been discovered during a pentest, which runs for only a few weeks.

Launching a bug bounty on a scope that is too young can quickly increase the bill for the company, especially if the hunters find too many vulnerabilities that could have been cleared for a fixed cost with a pentest. On the other hand, bug bounty is ideal for testing mature environments, where the vulnerabilities that may be hidden are far more complex and time-consuming to find.

Pentest vs Bug Bounty : how many researchers are involved ?

A pentest and a bug bounty do not have the same strike force, and this is largely related to the number of researchers that each program can mobilize.

Most of the time, a pentest requires from one to three pentesters depending on the budget and the importance of the project. In the case of a bug bounty, the entire community of ethical hackers can be mobilized – so potentially hundreds of people. Security researchers are numerous, and skills are way more diversified.

Private Bug Bounty and Pentest as a Service: flexible solutions for more nuance

Bug bounty and pentest have their own strengths and weaknesses, at least in their most traditional form. For example, pentesting has the advantage of being more confidential, or to be able to target scopes that are inaccessible from the outside. Bug bounty, on the other hand, offers much greater human resources and a logic of payment by results that is appealing for organizations.

But these differences are not set in stone. There is a whole spectrum of operations between traditional pentesting and public bug bounty. These are all nuances that make it possible to better adjust the slider of budget, confidentiality, scope and skills. We are thinking in particular of:

So, pentest or bug bounty, which approach is better?

Neither method is inherently better than the other and, frankly, this dichotomy makes little sense. On the other hand, both pentesting and bug bounty have specificities that make them a better choice depending on the situation.

Penetration Testing is better for :

  • Assessing of the digital security of a product at a given point in time;
  • Testing targets that are inaccessible from the outside;
  • Meeting compliance requirements and obtaining security certifications;
  • Test younger scopes to identify the most obvious vulnerabilities for a fixed cost, before moving on to a bug bounty.

Bug bounty is better for :

  • Testing an asset continuously, as part of a DevSecOps approach;
  • Identify in-depth critical vulnerabilities, more difficult and time-consuming to find;
  • Optimize research by multiplying skills and human resources thanks to the community of ethical hackers;
  • Test mature perimeters, e.g. which have already been tested beforehand.

Interested by bug bounty or Penetration Testing as a Service? Explore Yogosha’s solutions.