Penetration Test or Bug Bounty: Which One to Choose?

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Both a penetration test and a bug bounty program are simulations of a cyberattack designed to identify and fix vulnerabilities in an organization’s system, thus improving their security posture. And both are serving the same basic need: Testing an organization’s systems against main cyber risks threats. So, which one should you choose? To help answer that question, we will review the two security testing approaches, from what they are and what their respective duration, cost, and scope are to what their business benefits are.

What are penetration testing and bug bounty?

A penetration test, also known as a pentest or ethical hacking, is an authorized simulated attack on a computer system to identify and fix security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.

To carry out a penetration test, penetration testers need access to the target system and its network infrastructure. They will use this access to attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in the system, such as unpatched software, weak passwords, or misconfigurations.

A bug bounty program is a crowdsourced security testing initiative where organizations invite ethical hackers to test their systems for vulnerabilities and rewards them for any bugs they find. Bug bounty programs differ from penetration testing in that they are not authorized by the organization and bug bounty testers do not need prior access to the target system. Instead, ethical hackers test the system for vulnerabilities from outside the network using publicly available information, such as website directories and search engines.

What is the scope, duration, and cost for each approach?

The scope of a penetration test is determined by the organization and can be as large or small as the organization desires, from their external and internal networks to their web applications and remote work infrastructure. Penetration tests can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the systems being tested. Penetration testing costs depend on the scope of the test and the expertise of the penetration testers.

The scope of a bug bounty program is also determined by the organization, but unlike penetration tests, bug bounty programs do not have a set end date. Instead, they run continuously until the organization decides to end the program. The cost of a bug bounty program depends on the size of the bounty rewards and the number of ethical hackers participating in the program.

However, the two approaches may differ in terms of methodology, as penetration testers typically use a more formal and structured approach within a predefined scope, while bug bounty programs are more informal and can adjust to an evolving scope as the organization grows.

What are the required expertise and management for each approach?

The required expertise for a penetration test is dependent on the scope of the test. For example, if an organization is only testing their web applications, they would need a penetration tester with experience in web application security. If the organization is testing their entire network infrastructure, they would need a penetration tester with experience in network security. The required management for a penetration test is also dependent on the scope of the test.

That being said, professional penetration testers usually hold industry-recognized certifications, such as the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP).

For a bug bounty program, the required expertise is also dependent on the scope of the program, which means that the organization can choose to test only their web applications or their entire network infrastructure. Penetration tests require less management than bug bounty programs, but they do require some security expertise to understand the findings of the testers. Bug bounty programs, on the other hand, require more management as ethical hackers will need to be coordinated and their findings verified.

Bug Bounty “hunters” typically don’t need any security certifications but can be highly-skilled hackers or developers with a deep understanding of computer systems and security vulnerabilities.

What are the business benefits of each approach?

The main benefits of penetration testing can include the following:

Reduced risk of data breaches: By identifying and fixing vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers, penetration tests can help reduce the risk of data breaches. Data breaches can be costly, not only in terms of the financial losses incurred but also in terms of the damage to an organization’s reputation.

Improved security posture: Penetration tests can help organizations identify gaps in their security controls and improve their overall security posture, namely through the remediation of your vulnerabilities but also through the implementation of new security controls and cybersecurity best practices.

Enhanced reputation: Organizations that undergo penetration testing show that they take cybersecurity seriously and are committed to protecting client data. If you have an e-commerce website, a penetration test becomes essential to ensure your compliance with many regulations, including the PCI-DSS payment card security standards.

The main benefits of bug bounty programs can include the following:

Increased coverage: Bug bounty programs allow organizations to tap into the vast pool of ethical hackers to test their systems for vulnerabilities. This is especially beneficial for organizations with limited security resources or those who want to supplement their penetration testing efforts.

Cost savings: Bug bounty programs can be cost effective, as they can be run continuously and only require payment when a bug is found. However, several factors could make their costs unpredictable, through a larger number of discoveries leading to higher payouts or staffing costs for internal management.

Improved reputation: Like penetration testing, bug bounty programs can also improve an organization’s reputation, as they demonstrate a commitment to security. That commitment can help attract new customers and business partners, as well as help retain existing ones.

Wrapping up

So, which one is best for you? The answer depends on your organization’s needs, goals, and resources. If you’re looking for a comprehensive assessment of your system’s security, a penetration test could be the way to go, or, if you’re looking for continuous monitoring of your systems, then a bug bounty program might be a better option.

And a more specific, in-depth exercise such adversary simulations could also be a better option for your needs and goals. Our adversary simulations replicate specific hacking scenarios providing a much deeper and accurate perspective of your day-to-day cybersecurity risks.

Contact us if you need help improving your network security.

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