Private vs. Public Bug Bounty Programs: Which one’s right for you?

Yokai
3 min readAug 29, 2023
Private vs. Public bounty by Yokai

As technology advances, so do the vulnerabilities that malicious actors can exploit. To counteract these threats, organizations employ various strategies, one of which is bug bounty programs. These programs incentivize security researchers and ethical hackers to identify and report vulnerabilities in exchange for rewards. When setting up a bug bounty program, organizations have the choice between two primary approaches: private and public programs. In this article, we’ll delve into the intricacies of both approaches, highlighting their differences, pros, and cons.

Private Programs

Private bug bounty programs are invitation-only initiatives where security researchers are specifically invited to participate in the program by the organization. These programs are not accessible publicly. Organizations usually reach out to a select group of security experts, hackers, or security researchers who have demonstrated their expertise in the past.

Pros of Private Programs:

Enhanced Security Control: Private programs grant organizations the power to regulate information pertaining to their scope or assets. With restricted access to a handpicked group, there’s a reduced risk of critical details falling into the wrong hands.

Streamlined Reporting: Through private bug bounty initiatives, organizations can finely tune the scope, manage the number of participating researchers, and simplify the volume of reports they handle.

Confidentiality: Private programs empower organizations to tackle vulnerabilities discreetly, avoiding public scrutiny that might negatively impact their reputation.

Cons of Private Programs:

Limited Scope: Private programs might not cover as much ground as public ones. The restricted number of participants can limit the diversity of testing and the range of vulnerabilities discovered.

Resource Intensive: Organizing private programs requires identifying and inviting suitable participants, which can demand significant time and effort.

Public Bug Bounty Programs

Public bug bounty programs are open to a broader audience, including security researchers, ethical hackers, and the general public. Anyone can participate by submitting vulnerability reports based on the organization’s defined scope and rules.

Pros of Public Programs:

Broader Testing: Public programs leverage the collective knowledge and skills of a larger and more diverse group of researchers. This can result in the discovery of a wider range of vulnerabilities.

Scale and Speed: With a larger pool of participants, organizations can cover more ground in terms of testing and vulnerability identification. This approach can be particularly useful for organizations with extensive digital footprints.

Innovation through Competition: Public programs frequently foster a competitive spirit among researchers, encouraging them to uncover the most significant vulnerabilities. Such competition can stimulate inventive methods and novel strategies for detecting security issues.

Cons of Public Programs:

Increased Participation Challenges: A broader participant base can result in a higher volume of reports, including duplicate findings, which may require additional organizational resources for efficient resolution.

Risk of Public Disclosure: Public programs come with a higher risk of vulnerability information becoming public before the organization has a chance to address it, potentially exposing the organization to attacks.

Reputation Management: Ensuring effective management of public programs is crucial to prevent potential public disclosures of vulnerabilities before their resolution.

Choosing the Right Approach

The choice between private and public bug bounty programs depends on various factors, including the organization’s size, industry, security posture, and risk appetite.

Private programs are suitable for organizations that prioritize controlled testing, need to maintain confidentiality, and can afford the resources to curate a list of skilled participants.

Public programs are ideal for organizations seeking a broad assessment of their security landscape, have the resources to manage a potentially larger volume of reports, and are willing to handle the associated public attention and risk.

Conclusion

Bug bounty programs are a powerful strategy for bolstering cybersecurity by harnessing the collective expertise of the security community. The decision between private and public bug bounty programs ultimately boils down to striking a balance between controlled testing and broad coverage. Organizations must carefully consider their unique circumstances, risk tolerance, and goals before embarking on either approach. Regardless of the chosen path, bug bounty programs remain an essential tool in the ongoing battle against cyber threats in today’s interconnected world.

Yokai, backed by Druid Ventures and Coinbase combines security, crowdsourcing, and emerging, distributed technologies to secure systems & software, by streamlining security collaboration across personas.

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