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We have been contacted by an "independent security researcher" through the Open Bug Bounty project. First communications were quite OK, and he disclosed the vulnerability found. We patched the hole and said "thank you", but declined to pay a donation (see below).

The researcher then sent a follow up email saying that he has found more vulnerabilities, but because we didn't make a donation, he will keep those vulnerabilities for himself.
In other words, he only told us he had more vulnerabilities, but would not disclose them, after we made the decision to not pay the suggested voluntary donation.

To my understanding, this is no longer in line with responsible white hat behavior. Am I right in this assertion?


Update
Yes, the person has been quite explicit in the suggested amount for the donation.

The various reasons include for not paying the requested 'donation' are:

  • the suggested height of the 'voluntary donation' in combination with the severity of the vulnerability found,
  • the vulnerability in question was, according to our logs, not found by a 'highly skilled' individual, but rather by an automated tool,
  • the fact that the Open Bug Bounty project explicitly mentions that no payment is required,
  • the passive aggressive tone of voice.

The above, in combination with the fact that, while we are in the process of setting up a bug-bounty budget and associated policy, we haven't completed this yet.

Let's be clear: we did not set a bounty, nor promise one and we did not sign up for this project. The Open Bug Bounty project is an unaffiliated project, that explicitly says: "There is, however, absolutely no obligation or duty to express a gratitude".

Also, note: While I'm in support of some sort of legal framework to protect bona fide security researchers, this legal framework does not, at this moment, exist in our jurisdiction; a fact our legal person was all too keen to point out.

closed as primarily opinion-based by schroeder Oct 31 '17 at 8:08

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 46
    If you think the researcher is behaving unethically, then you can report them to the Open Bug Bounty people, I believe. And I'll grant you that someone saying 'I've got bugs, pay up if you want to know what they are' is acting poorly (to me that feels a little like extortion). On the other hand, since you haven't specified why you declined to pay a bounty on the first bug, I'm unclear why you think this researcher would give you the time of day - these people ARE in it for the money. – Michael Kohne Oct 30 '17 at 11:51
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    I have a problem with the "because we didn't make a donation, he will keep those vulnerabilities for himself". Sounds like a childish behaviour at best, or extorsion at worse. Of course he is not threatening anyone, but it tells implicitely "next time pay or deal with unknown vulnerabilities." And if the guy is not dumb he could still disclose these vulnerabilities else where, without explaining it beforehand. – Kaël Oct 30 '17 at 13:52
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    @Kaël It's an interesting conundrum. If the researcher just buries the findings, then it's as it they never did the research so it's hard to call foul. If they created exploits and sold them to criminals, that would definitely seem like extortion. If they just publish them to the world, the OP will get to know about them too, they just won't have a head-start. A completely different way to look at it is that the OP already got some free help. Why should they expect to get more for free? I do think referring to it as a 'donation' makes things seem more seedy, though. – JimmyJames Oct 30 '17 at 14:01
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    @Jacco given the involvement of a 3rd party bounty program, which provides legitimacy and shifts the whole context of the scenario, nothing is clear - this could be a black hat or a frustrated white hat – schroeder Oct 30 '17 at 15:36
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    Once the other party has put a condition on receiving money, it is no longer possible for that money to be accurately called a "donation". It would be fair and more polite and honest for them to say, "I think I found some other vulnerabilities, which I will happily sell to you. Here is a list of my previous satisfied customers. Feel free to contact them to verify that I am honest and experienced." – Todd Wilcox Oct 31 '17 at 2:29
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I'm a bug hunter and I have no idea why everybody here thinks it's perfectly fine of him to attack your website without permission, determine a bounty amount himself, and threaten to hold back potentially dangerous flaws because he doesn't get the money he wants. Why didn't he ask about your policy beforehand? You never claimed to run a bug bounty program, or to be able to pay anyone for anything in the first place.

To clarify again, OP did not sign up for the Open Bug Bounty project. The project offers to be an intermediary between researchers and websites that don't run a bounty program. Also, they explicitly mention that you are not obliged to pay anything, and the researcher should be well aware of that if he read the guidelines.

A website owner can express a gratitude to the researcher in a way s/he considers the most appropriate and proportional to the researcher's efforts and help. We encourage website owners to say at least a “thank you” to the researcher or write a recommendation in the researcher’s profile. There is, however, absolutely no obligation or duty to express a gratitude.

(Emphasis my own)

If he expects a monetary reward, he should be searching for bugs at companies that actually run a bounty program. There are plenty of reputable programs paying high rewards.

The researcher then sent a follow up email saying that he has found more vulnerabilities, but because we didn't make a donation, he will keep those vulnerabilities for himself.

If he already found them and it's not much effort to put them in a list and let you know, then yes, I find it unethical to hold the bugs back.1 You didn't ask him to do work for you. He could have inquired if you pay for bugs beforehand. And he didn't so much offer you his expertise for a donation - from your description it sound more like a mild threat that if you don't pay him, your website is in danger.

Take that incident as a hint that you need to invest more in your security. Consider setting up a real bug bounty program with small bounties or hiring a professional penetration tester. But don't let him extort money from you if you never promised any.

1It's not that he should do free work for you. It's the fact that he mentions that there is something he won't tell you unless you pay him a particular amount that makes it unethical, especially if an exploitation of these bugs could threaten the future of your company.

  • 17
    The linked page also mentions they have "a zero tolerance policy for any unethical activities around submissions. If researcher's behaviour borders on extortion[...], such submissions will be deleted immediately." So the researcher is definitely out of line. – HAEM Oct 30 '17 at 14:30
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    Just a question from someone outside of this domain. I assume that the reporting process for these found bugs is not a trivial amount of work. Why would a researcher be ethically required to contribute further effort when there is misalignment on how they "express a gratitude to the researcher in a way s/he considers the most appropriate and proportional to the researcher's efforts and help"? If I don't feel the expression of gratitude is appropriate and proportional why would I be obliged to put any further effort into improvement of the code? – Myles Oct 30 '17 at 14:38
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    He was not obliged to search for the bugs. OP is actually better off now than before the security researcher contacted them. OP now knows about one vulnerability and also knows that others exist. All this valuable information OP got for free. I even found vulnerabilities by accident and didn't report them for various reasons. Am I a evil black hat now? I probably could use them to create monetary losses to this companies. This would be black hat behaviour. But nowhere am I required to share the information about the vulnerabilities. – Josef Oct 30 '17 at 14:53
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    @Myles I clarified my line of argumentation in the answer. The reporter should not do extra work. But he clearly uses his knowledge of more security bugs as a leverage to get money. He decided to mention the bugs to put pressure on OP with the implicit threat "you don't have to pay, but then I can't guarantee for your security". Also, it's usually not that expensive to compile already found bugs into a simple list. – Arminius Oct 30 '17 at 15:44
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    @Arminius I disagree with that being obvious. I think it's a jump in logic based on an unfounded assumption. Thanks for the clarifications, I have a much better understanding of your reasoning. – Myles Oct 30 '17 at 18:24
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To my understanding, this is no longer in line with responsible 'white hat' behavior. Am I right in this assertion?

White (and grey/black) hat are vague terms. There is no fixed universal definition. By the wikipedia definitions most researchers would be viewed as Grey Hat seeing as its not uncommon to publish if the software publisher refuses to patch.

The easy answer to your question is no. If your aim is to make the world more secure then this clearly does not directly align. There is an indirect argument - that by encouraging financial reward it encourages a healthier relationship between businesses and researchers as well as encouraging more people into the field.

Why do you even ask? The researcher is in no way obliged to disclose to you. Unless you can prove he broke the law in finding the vulnerabilities you have no leverage to force him to. To date you have received several hours worth of work from a (hopefully - otherwise that casts yourselves into a bad light) high skilled individual entirely for free. Either you view it as worth paying him to continue offering services or you don't.

*Seeing the title I would argue this is not Black Hat behavior unless he deliberately exploits the vulnerabilities for his own gain or your own harm (/gives them directly to someone with that intention). If he just refuses to disclose the argument would be between white/grey hat definitions.

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The researcher did not create the vulnerability and has not threatened to release or exploit what he has found. If you do not wish to pay for his work then don't and your company is no worse off than it was before he contacted you. In fact he has given you a gift of telling you that there is a vulnerability which you can find yourselves or through another contractor.

So no, he has not done anything unethical.

  • 4
    Wouldn't it be considered unethical to align yourself with an organization that claims donations are not mandatory and then demand a donation? – corsiKa Oct 30 '17 at 20:13
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    @corsiKa "align yourself"? On Open Bug Bounty website I was not able to find anything about ongoing dependency between organization and person who reported. – Mołot Oct 30 '17 at 23:16
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He doesn't need to disclose- but he knew coming in during the second round you don't pay. So what is his motivation? You cannot know- so he is using that gap to create pressure on you to pay.

However- since he hasn't threatened to release malware or sell to black hats,he is potentially clear legally and maybe even ethically if he never does so, or if he just does an open dump of the exploit without selling it to black hats.

He could sell it legally to nation-states and security companies, but not knowing the importance of your code, its impossible to say if that is a saleable venue for the 'researcher.'

Paying a fair market value is probably your best bet. The person has spent time doing the research and the information does have value for you. Even if they release it in the open he is in the legal clear. It gets down to what harm a no-notification release would do to you. If the answer is not much, then ignore it. Otherwise come up with the cash. This is purely utilitarian BTW- not really speaking to the ethics. Ethically he should have dropped researching your app/site one he knew you weren't interested in paying, unless there is public data he feels you are putting at risk.

  • 2
    An actual ethical analysis! Welcome to the site. – schroeder Oct 30 '17 at 19:10
  • Even if they release it in the open he is in the legal clear. Are you sure about that? In all jurisdictions? – tim Oct 30 '17 at 22:44
  • A related version of this might be to hire the individual as a contractor (since the OP is worried about it being extortion). If simple automated tools are sufficient to find exploits in your software, then maybe it makes sense to put someone on the payroll to run such software. I would argue that it shouldn't qualify as extortion if you identify a business need, look at his resume, and pay him a fair wage based on his actual skills and reputation. If all he does is run automated tools, that price might be low (even lower than the "donation"), but it may be repeat business. – Cort Ammon Oct 31 '17 at 0:47
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Even if it's not mandatory by law, many think that not compensating someone for their work is unethical. This is independent of the tools this person used for their work or the tone used to communicate, especially since a tone in written communication can easily been misinterpreted.

This person gifted you a sample of their work, then teased you to have more. That is a common commercial practice and in no way a malicious behavior.

Thus, from the information provided in the question, the researcher might as well act in good faith, without malicious intent. The OP could be biased in the representation of the facts facts and could be trying to frame the researcher as a black hat to legitimate their point of view. That's just a supposition, and the OP could be of good faith and the researcher might have indeed threaten the OP, but that's unclear.

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    That's a lot of value judgments ... aside from those, your final paragraph is covered by the other answers. – schroeder Oct 30 '17 at 16:40
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    So you are saying that if you came home from work one day and someone had mowed your lawn that you would be ethically obligated to pay that person? The company did not ask the researcher to perform this work, so I can't imagine any possible basis for which they would be obligated to pay the researcher. – Itsme2003 Oct 30 '17 at 22:10
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    "Even if it's not mandatory by law, I think that not compensating someone for their work is unethical." - If you had asked for the work and at least implied that there would be some payment, then, yes, you'd be right. Doing work that was not asked for and then demanding some arbitrary payment, however, is a different situation entirely. – reirab Oct 31 '17 at 6:10
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    @A.Hersean how is an unauthorised security test with an automated tool not an intrusion? – schroeder Oct 31 '17 at 10:11
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    @A.Hersean you are actively rejecting the stated facts, replacing them with your own and then making personal judgments about the character of the OP. That's very, very different from accepting the stated facts (even as potentially biased) and moving forward with the thought experiment. You attacked the OP on a personal level. That is simply not ok. – schroeder Oct 31 '17 at 11:57

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