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Big Bucks Bug-Brokering Program Shuttered

'Cadillac' buyers were taking too long to close the deal

It turns out that the high-end zero-day exploit market isn’t so lucrative anymore: Netragard LLC as of yesterday had shut down its bug-brokering program aimed at getting researchers big bucks -- anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 -- for exploits they developed.

Adriel Desautels, who founded the SNOSoft research team that ran the so-called Exploit Acquisition Program, says Netragard’s zero-day buyer clients had begun taking an excessive amount of time to close the deal and pay for the bugs they had either commissioned Netragard to get from researchers, or that Netragard had sold to them on behalf of researchers.

“An exploit has a short shelf life,” says Desautels, chief technology officer for security firm Netragard. “To successfully broker exploits and be able to broker to a buyer, we need to be able to move within one week or one month… three months can be okay, depending on the item.”

The last straw was a recent deal that went unpaid for seven months and left the researchers and Netragard empty-handed. “The buyer just didn’t get its act together fast enough, and seven months elapsed and suddenly all of the issues were suddenly fixed,” so the zero-day exploit was basically worthless, he says.

Desautels can’t reveal any of the businesses who were buying exploits through the Netragard program, but he says they were legitimate U.S.-based organizations, many of which he had known for 15 years. He first launched the bug broker business in 2000 under the name Secure Network Operations; Netragard took it over a year ago.

He says the high-end, Cadillac-type bug brokering market isn’t “viable” unless the buyers move more quickly to close the deals. “The slowdown killed the whole program,” he says. The average transaction time with a buyer jumped from a month or less to four months, and that’s too long, he says.

HD Moore, director of security research for BreakingPoint Systems, says the $50,000 price tag that was often associated with Netragard’s bug-buying program was too high. “Personally, I think $50K for a bug was ridiculous and the bottom was going to drop out anyway,” Moore says. “[But] the $10,000- to $15,000 exploit market is alive and well.”

The danger, of course, is that researchers who had been working with Netragard may get tempted to peddle their zero-days on the dark side, where cybercriminals may be willing to pay top dollar. “I absolutely worry” about that, Desautels says. “The threat that could be created by these items can be significant.”

The high-end black market is alive and well. Moore (who doesn’t buy or sell vulnerabilities) says he was recently approached by a sketchy potential buyer interested in a browser vulnerability he had posted in the Month of Browser Bugs.

“I was approached about a browser exploit by a firm that said they wanted to do training and they ‘needed’ a zero-day exploit to verify it,” he says. “I went through enough of the motions to check it out, mostly because I was curious how it worked. Even though this person had a real business, the reason for wanting the exploit didn't make sense, but it was easily ten times the price that iDefense or ZDI would have offered.”

iDefense, ZDI, and Immunity Inc., for instance, each run their own bug-buying programs, where they purchase vulnerabilities for internal use. Immunity rolls the exploits it buys into its penetration testing tools, for example.

"Immunity buys a lot of vulnerabilities. We also find that people who are interested in selling their information want lots of different ways to do so,” says David Aitel, CTO of Immunity. "For example, you may not be able to get an exclusive license to information. Lots of people sell to Immunity who do not want Immunity to handle going to the vendor for them the way TippingPoint or iDefense would. Flexibility is key.”

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  • BreakingPoint Systems
  • Immunity Inc.

    Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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