Apple Finally Launches Bug Bounty Program

Security researchers will be eligible for bounties of up to $200,000. But for the moment the program is invite-only

BLACK HAT USA—Las Vegas—Security researchers who find vulnerabilities in the latest iOS technologies will now be eligible for cash rewards of up to $200,000 under a new Apple bug bounty program announced Thursday at the Black Hat security conference.

Initially, at least, the long-awaited program is invitation-only, meaning it is open only to researchers who Apple specifically selects for participation. But the goal is to eventually make the bug bounty program open to all bug hunters, Apple’s head of security engineering and architecture Ivan Krstic announced to a cheering crowd.

“We have had great help from researchers in improving iOS security,” Krstic said. However, with iOS security mechanisms continuing to get stronger it has become increasingly difficult to find the most critical types of security vulnerabilities in iOS, he said. By launching the bug bounty program, Apple is increasing the number of security experts looking for vulnerabilities in its products. The company will make it a top priority to fix flaws reported to it under the program, Krstic said.

Bounties are available for bugs that are reported to Apple in a total of five technology categories. Four of the bounties are for device specific vulnerabilities while one is for vulnerabilities reported in Apple’s iCloud service.

The highest payout is for bugs reported in Apple’s secure boot firmware, a technology for preventing unauthorized applications from running on a iOS device. Security researchers who report a flaw in secure boot will be eligible for cash payouts of up to $200,000.

The next highest reward is for any bug that allows for the extraction of confidential material protected by Apple’s Secure Enclave Processor (SEP), a hardware component that provides several critical functions like cryptographic operations and key management on Apple’s mobile devices. Bugs reported in the SEP will be eligible for cash rewards of up to $100,000.

Bug hunters who report flaws that allow arbitrary code execution with kernel level privileges, or those that enable unauthorized access to iCloud account data on Apple servers will qualify for up to $50,000.  Any vulnerability that enables access from a sandboxed process to user data outside of the sandbox, will qualify for a $10,000 payout.

All of these are maximum payments.  Apple’s security engineers will determine the actual payout amount after reviewing the reported flaw and verifying it is present in the latest version of iOS. The novelty of the reported issue and the severity will both be factors that determine the actual reward that a bug hunter receives for reporting a flaw to Apple under the bug bounty program, Krstic said.

Apple is among the very last of the major technology vendors to announce a bug bounty program. Almost all other technology companies including IBM, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and Oracle have fairly mature programs in place for rewarding security researchers who find vulnerabilities in their platforms.  The rewards that Apple is offering under its program however appears to be more generous than many of the other programs.

Krstic’s announcement of the bug bounty program represented only a small portion of a larger talk devoted to some of the new security features that will become available with Apple’s upcoming iOS 10 operating system.

The upgrades include stronger memory and data protections and new features for protecting customer data stored in iCloud. The new functions are designed to make it almost impossible for anyone, including Apple, to access customer data stored on iOS devices or in the cloud without the customer’s permission.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio

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