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The Privacy Advisor | What might bug bounty programs look like under the GDPR? Related reading: Using data integrity to preserve democracy

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With GDPR D-day looming, how are large companies going to ensure that they are not breached? There is a lot of speculation about which company will be the first to be hit with a fine under the new rules, and while many data protection authorities will give a certain amount of grace period, data protection officers will need to get their houses in order. If a breach does happen, DPAs will also look more favorably on those organizations that can show they took serious steps to improve cybersecurity and keep data safe.

To date, bug bounty programs — in which ethical hackers identify security lapses for companies before a nefarious hacker can — have been increasingly used by organizations, both public and private, to keep an eye on vulnerabilities in their systems that could lead to data breaches. But at a recent hearing on the massive Uber data breach, there was talk that such programs, which often yield the bounty hunters significant monetary prizes, could create perverse incentives if they're not done right. That is, it could become more beneficial to become a bounty hunter than to create a solid system in the first place, and we might start seeing engineers shifting to the other side. 

So what might this look like under the GDPR's fining scheme? 

“Bug bounties are a good and proactive mechanism for encouraging disclosure of issues and disrupting the threat model,” explains Daragh O’Brien, Castlebridge managing director. “In my view it will depend on how firms implement the bounty program, but it it might be viewed as analogous to consumer product firms using complaint hotlines to spot defects and trigger recalls.”

Lukasz Olejnik, independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and consultant, agrees. “GDPR might incentivize the creation of bug bounty programs at larger organizations. Specifically, those that already have mature and functioning security and privacy teams. Organizations can view bug bounties as an additional strategic component in their risk management process. But if an organization does not have a functioning security and privacy process, running a bug bounty should not be a thing to consider.” 

But even as organizations gear up for May 25, hacker groups could also be rubbing their hands with glee says Meeuwisse. Hacker groups may see GDPR as a sort of bug bounty payday he says.

“Because if they can get in, GDPR is going to make personal data a lot more valuable to hackers, for resale or basic ransom - a substantially more attractive target. You could end up with a trend for people scouring the internet for loose portholes, and we will very likely see an uptick after May,” he warns.

“It’s interesting that GDPR doesn’t explicitly prohibit the payment of ransomware,” he adds.

Given this, could some companies be tempted to pay ransomware extortion and "call it a bug bounty" rather than report a breach? Several DPAs are still trying to work out exactly what happened in the Uber case, but the temptation to pay to make the problem go away must be significant.

“It is certainly “inadvisable practice” to try to avoid the new regulations. And of course it is ethically and morally correct to report, but that isn’t necessarily what every organisation does initially. I feel that you should never pay ransomware. There are a significant number who don’t, but there is a significant minority who do,” said Meeuwisse.

Paul Bernal senior lecturer University of East Anglia Law School, says this possibility is also interesting: “As I understand it, it’s only actual data breaches that have to be reported, rather than potential data breaches, so this looks possible. The GDPR is intended to encourage more security, so that should in theory mean that it encourages companies to find and address bugs quickly, and that could well include offering bigger bug bounties. The proof will be in the pudding, though: How strongly it is all enforced has yet to be seen.” 

Regardless of how strictly the new rules will be enforced, “simply requalifying ‘extortion-like’ requests as bug bounties does not waive the responsibility of communicating a breach to the DPA,” says Olejnik. “GDPR does not allow for laundering of the kind and it is highly unlikely that DPAs would accept this practice. That said, it is pretty much unclear how some of the processes in the bug bounty programs relate to the requirements of Article 33 and 34 of GDPR.

“Bug bounty participants are not agents affiliated with a data controller running the bug bounty program. If a vulnerability is found and reported, is it a potential data breach? Strictly speaking, bug bounties relate to systems, implementations and configurations, and not data that can be accessed. However, if a bug bounty participant exceeds what was allowed and, perhaps, inadvertently gains access to private data, the event may need to be isolated and analyzed by the organization running a bug bounty program. In some cases, I would expect there will be a need to even report such an event to the DPA within 72 hours. Therefore, bug bounties should incorporate the appropriate GDPR rules, to be on the safe side,” Olejnik explains.

Leaving aside GDPR enforcement, O’Brien says “ransomware payouts don't disrupt the economic model for bad actors, so I would suggest that regulators would view this as a less than positive action, particularly as the ransomware attack would only be that effective if there was no backup, no recovery plan, no tested controls, or weak organizational or technical controls. There is a difference between rewarding someone for flagging something you did not catch in design or testing that creates a risk and paying someone off because you failed to plan for and take reasonable steps to proactively mitigate. 

So while we still don’t know exactly how GDPR will be enforced from May 26, and the threat landscape may worsen, the message remains, err on the side of caution.

photo credit: Alberto.. 30 via photopin (license)

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