Apple and Bug Bounties

I know that there are bigger problems to discuss about Apple’s approach to business and partnerships at the mo, but their handling of security researchers seems particularly cynical and hypocritical. See, for example, this post about four reported iPhone 0days that went ignored and the nine other cases linked in that article.

Apple advertise themselves as the privacy company. By this, they really mean that their products are designed to share as much of your data with Apple as they are comfortable with, and that beyond that you should probably assume that nobody else is involved. But their security development lifecycle tells another story.

“Wait, did you just pivot from talking about privacy to security?” No! You can have security without privacy: this blog has that, on a first glance. All of the posts and pages are public, anybody can read them, but I want to make sure that what you read is actually what I wrote (the integrity of the posts) and that nothing stops you from reading it when you want (the availability). On a closer examination, I also care that there are things you don’t have access to: any of the account passwords, configuration settings, draft posts, etc. So in fact the blog has privacy requirements too, and those are handled in security by considering and protecting the confidentiality of those private assets. You can have security without privacy, but not privacy without security.

Something, I’m not sure what from the outside, is wrong with the security development lifecycle at Apple. As a privacy-focused company they should also be a security-focused company, but they evidently never had the same “trustworthy computing” moment that Microsoft did. I’m not going to do any kind of deep dive into CVE counts here, just provide the following high-level support for the case that Apple is, at best, doing no better than anybody else in the industry at this.

Meanwhile, they fail to acknowledge external contributors to their product security, do not pay out agreed bounties, and sue security researchers or ban them from their store. Apple say that the bounty program has doubled in 2019-2020 and continues to grow. You could say that maybe they aren’t doing any better, but they certainly aren’t doing any worse. Every new product announcement, senior managers at Apple up to their CEO tell everyone how great they are at privacy. Their intent is that people believe they are doing the best at this, when they are around the middle of the pack. This is disingenuous.

A bug bounty program is a security process of last resort. You didn’t design, implement, or fix flaws out of your product before it got to customers and attackers: and that happens, that’s fine, but these escapee threats that are realised as vulnerabilities should be a small fraction of the total possible problems, and the lower severity ones at that. You also didn’t detect it yourself once the customers and attackers had access to the product: that also happens and is fine, but again the vulnerabilities that escape your detection should be the lowest down the stack. Once someone else is discovering your vulnerabilities, the correct thing to do is to say thank you for bringing this to our attention before exploiting it yourself, here is compensation for the time and work you put into making our product better.

Apple is not doing this. As seen from the various linked stories above, they are leaving security researchers with a bitter taste and a questioning feeling over whether they would want to work with Apple again, but not doing the heavy lifting to ensure their SDLC catches the highest-severity problems on campus, before or after release. I don’t know what is at fault here, but I expect it’s systemic rather than individual leader/department/activity. The product security folks at Apple are good at their jobs, the software engineers are good at their jobs…and yet here we are.

I suspect a certain amount of large-company effect is at play. “As Tim told you, our products are best in class for privacy,” says anonymous and fictional somewhat high up marketing person, “and if you had any specific complaint I couldn’t hear it over all the high-volume stock cash register sound effects we play in the board room to represent our success in the marketplace.”

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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