Michal Zalewski, a security engineer at Google, characterizes the initiative as an effort "to improve the security of key third-party software critical to the health of the entire Internet."
The program covers a limited set of open-source projects: core infrastructure network services (OpenSSH, BIND, ISC DHCP); core infrastructure image parsers (libjpeg, libjpeg-turbo, libpng, giflib); the open-source foundations of Google Chrome (Chromium and Blink — sorry, WebKit); and other important libraries (OpenSSL, zlib).
In time, Zalewski says the program will be extended to include: popular Web servers (Apache httpd, lighttpd, nginx); SMTP services (Sendmail, Postfix, Exim); toolchain security improvements for GCC, binutils, and llvm; and OpenVPN.
[ Will doctors soon wear Google Glass? Read Google Glass Enters Operating Room. ]
Patches that have been accepted by project maintainers and merged into the project repository qualify for a reward ranging from $500 to $3,133.70, to be determined by Google's rewards panel, based on the sophistication and significance of the patch.
For open-source contributors who have grown accustomed to working for self-satisfaction, karma and gratitude, Google's largesse will probably be appreciated. But it's a pittance given the prices being paid for bugs these days, unless Yahoo's generosity is the yardstick.
Last month, High-Tech Bridge, a security company based in Switzerland, reported four security vulnerabilities to Yahoo. Yahoo responded by offering the company $25 for two of them, or $12.50 per accepted vulnerability. Adding insult to injury, the funds were offered in the form of credit in the Yahoo Company Store.
High-Tech Bridge subsequently published a blog post to shame Yahoo and the ploy worked: Yahoo revised its bug bounty program and now offers rewards of $150 to $15,000.
But that's still significantly less than what Microsoft is paying through its Mitigation Bypass Bounty and BlueHat Bonus for Defense Program: up to $100,000 for bypass techniques, with a bonus of $50,000 for applicable defense techniques. Last week, Microsoft said it would pay $100,000 to James Forshaw, a security researcher with Context Information Security, for the discovery of a new mitigation bypass technique.
A UC Berkeley study of vulnerability reward programs, released earlier this year, found that bug bounties are cost-efficient. Google's program, the paper says, costs the company roughly $500 per day, about the same as a full-time security engineer paid $100,000, with 50% overhead. But Google's program leads to the identification of far more flaws than a single researcher could find.
Other companies appear to have caught on, with dozens now offering rewards to security researchers.
Technology companies might have to go higher still to outbid the U.S. government. In August, The Washington Post reported that so far this year, the National Security Agency has spent more than $25 million buying software vulnerabilities from security vendors. A report last year in Forbes said zero-day vulnerabilities ranged in price from $5,000 to $250,000.