"It blurs the lines between gray and white and black hats," said Mike Puterbaugh, vice president of marketing for eEye Digital Security. "It creates a market for vulnerabilities, and almost legitimizes the black market."
Not surprisingly, iDefense's Greene disagreed. "We don't deal with any groups [of researchers] known to have anything to do with illegal activity. Interestingly enough, a lot of these people aren't that interested in the money, but are people who don't want to deal with the vendors, which have ignored them in the past."
And paying for bugs may get some dangerous vulnerabilities "off the street," so to speak, Greene said. "You always have to assume that a given vulnerability is in the hands of more than one person," he said, noting that a handful of the bugs iDefense paid for in 2005 were used to actively exploit software after the Reston, Va.-based company received a heads-up from a bounty hunter.
iDefense uses the bounties to provide advance notice to clients on developing threats. "In one case last year, a vulnerability [in the VCP program] gave our customers 60 days of advance warning before it was made public," said Greene.
eEye Digital Security, well known for discovering vulnerabilities in Microsoft and Apple software, gets to the same result -- early warning for customers -- but relies instead on its own internal research team.
"We take a lot of pride in our primary research," said eEye's Puterbaugh, who claimed that internal research led to protections against the recent Windows Media Player vulnerability for customers as far back as June 2004.
"iDefense may have the best intentions, but paying for vulnerabilities is definitely a slippery slope," Puterbaugh concluded.