3Com's intrusion prevention arm TippingPoint today announced it will pay a bounty to anyone who sends it information on unannounced and previously unpublished vulnerabilities.
TippingPoint will also rate those who find vulnerabilities with a silver, gold or platinum status and use a scoring system to track the amount of productivity of those who post the vulnerabilities.
The Zero Day Initiative, which begins globally next Monday, requires vulnerabilities to be posted on a Web portal which 3Com will then analyze and either confirm or debunk the threat within one to three days.
If the threat is verified a monetary reward is sent via transfer, like PayPal. Accepting the reward requires that the person who discovers the vulnerability keeps the details quiet while 3Com blocks the vulnerability and notifies affected vendors.
TippingPoint ANZ sales director Brett Hunter said the amount paid for the vulnerability will be based on the expected impact on network, systems and applications and price determined on a case-by-case basis.
"The money is not the key motivator - the motivation is to make technology safer for users through the responsible disclosure of threats, otherwise people may pass the vulnerabilities to the wrong types," Hunter said.
"We want to disclose vulnerabilities in a responsible way and this way we (TippingPoint) have an opportunity to advise the vendor to issue a patch and at the same time add the vulnerability to our intrusion prevention filter.
"This is a conduit for those aware of vulnerabilities and a way for those who discovered them to get recognized. TippingPoint said it will not associate or buy from any black hats, but we do want to know of all possible vulnerabilities so if a black hat offered information we will not offer them money."
Sophos head of technology Paul Ducklin warned against the pitfalls of paying for vulnerabilities and said one would have to be extremely careful that a company does not by design or accident encourage or cause the creation of malware.
Ducklin added there is a trend in virus testing to change the existing structure or environment of code and have it posted as a new vulnerability - which may create a totally new virus in the dash for cash.
"If you are encouraging people to come up with vulnerabilities through offering bounties then it may not be the moral and technical high ground to have them on your payroll," Ducklin said.
Frost & Sullivan security analyst James Turner said offering money to post vulnerabilities undermines the principal of IT security and using bounty hunters to stay a day or two ahead of the market is a process Turner finds "uncomfortable".
"Everyone has the pressure to be first to market, but the reality is this using carrot-and-stick psychology is not acceptable any more. Why not just use a stick to ensure products on the market will not need patches within months or minutes of going live," Turner said.
"Using bounties to gain market advantage is like exploiting the exploits - what would be more interesting is if vendors were fined when they create vulnerabilities. Ideally the company offering a service like this [harvesting vulnerabilities] should be an independent organization that does not stand for financial gain."