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Bug Bounty vs. CTF [Understanding Differences & Benefits]

What Are the Differences Between a Bug Bounty and CTF?

A bug bounty is a financial reward a company offers to ethical hackers for discovering vulnerabilities. A Capture the Flag, or CTF, is a game where hackers compete to find bugs and solve security puzzles.

You can think of a CTF as a training and educational opportunity to help hackers refine their skills in a simulated environment. Many of the same skills used in a CTF exercise help hackers find bugs in the real world.

The most significant difference between bug bounties and CTFs is that bug bounties are claimed in real-life applications, whereas CTFs reward hackers for finding bugs in simulated environments.

How Bug Bounties Work

A bug bounty program allows organizations to leverage the hacker community to help find and disclose vulnerabilities in exchange for payment. Bounty payments range depending on the severity of the bug discovered. Bug bounty programs can pay out hundreds or thousands of dollars. For some vulnerabilities, the payout is even higher. Over the lifetime of a program, companies can pay out millions of dollars in rewards.

Bug bounty programs allow a wide range of hackers to find vulnerabilities. They are a cost-effective way to improve security because payments can be spread throughout the year and only pay when vulnerabilities are reported and validated.

Bug bounty programs have many expert hackers attempting to compromise your system. Instead of relying on a single security professional, bounty programs bring diverse professionals with varying degrees of expertise to test systems.

Organizations start bug bounty programs by first selecting scope, which defines which networks, systems, and applications are included in the test. Typically programs start as private where companies choose hackers based on their skill and domain expertise. If you’re testing your mobile app’s security privately, you can select hackers with more experience in mobile app penetration testing. Only invited hackers can see these programs, and reports remain confidential. Private bug bounty programs limit report submissions allowing your organization to create efficient processes around receiving and triaging vulnerabilities. Opening programs to the public is not a necessary or always indicated step. 

Public programs are open to the entire hacker community and can bring a substantial and often overwhelming number of new report submissions. With report volumes increasing up to five or ten times from a private program, it’s important to ensure your security team is prepared before a public program launch.

There are numerous bug bounty examples across the internet. For example, Google uses bug bounty programs to secure their businesses and pays up to $150,000 for a single vulnerability compromising a Chromebook or Chromebox. The HackerOne platform helps companies launch their bug bounty programs and provides a live dashboard for companies to measure the impact and progress of their programs.

What Do Bug Bounty Programs Test?

Public bug bounty programs test public-facing applications and networks, allowing any hacker to find bugs. Web servers, mobile apps, and web tools are some of the most common systems in scope for bounty programs.

Private bug bounty programs provide the same services but without divulging vulnerabilities publicly. In a private bounty program, organizations can select from a broad range of hackers and invite them to hunt for vulnerabilities on both internal and external systems. Because internal systems include more sensitive assets, organizations can do more thorough system security testing. These internal systems could include Active Directory servers, database servers, and private cloud environments.

How Capture The Flag Works

CTF events challenge the hacker community in a simulated environment and reward those who successfully solve problems, discover bugs, and hack through multiple levels. When a hacker completes a challenge, they win a flag and then submit that flag for points.

CTF events are open to any hacker who wants to test their skills or explore opportunities in cybersecurity. Companies usually hold CTF events to learn how their security departments can improve and promote their commitment to cybersecurity. Since challenges vary in difficulty, there are opportunities for hackers of all skill levels. CTF events are a way for hackers to advertise their skills and for employers to find new hires.

Many challenges reflect real-world systems and events, making CTFs valuable learning tools for new hackers. CTF scenarios can involve exploiting a web server to access a database or even apply penetrating physical security. While hackers can enter CTF events alone, many hackers enter team-oriented challenges.

Types of Capture the Flag Events

Hackers play CTFs in many different ways. Let’s look at a few game modes for CTF events.

Red Team

One of the most popular modes is known as “red teaming.” A single hacker or small team of hackers works to solve challenges and capture flags in a red team scenario. Teams must also do this within a set timeframe.

Attack and Defend

Attack and Defend games involve two teams: a red team and a blue team. The red team captures flags while the blue team defends flags from being captured.

King of the Hill

In a King of the Hill (KotH) scenario, multiple teams attempt to maintain control over a single application or server for the game’s duration. When time runs out, the team that held the server longest is the winner.


Jeopardy-style CTF events can involve any number of teams. Each team tackles different challenges that scale in difficulty and reward points. Teams find multiple flags and exchange flags for points. When the time is up, the team with the most points wins.

Bug Bounty vs. CTF: Which Pay Hackers?

Bug bounty programs use payments to incentivize hackers from around the world to put systems to the test. There is no limit to the number of bugs hackers can disclose, creating a challenging and extensive opportunity for hackers.

CTF events are fun challenges and sometimes give monetary rewards as a bonus. Teams can receive cash prizes, notable titles, badges, trophies, and even invitations to private bug bounty programs.

Payments for bug bounty hunters depend on the type of programs and discovered vulnerabilities. Hackers earned $40 million in 2020, with nine hackers surpassing over $1 million annually.

For newer hackers just joining the community, CTF events can be an excellent way to network with other hackers and discover companies who are looking for new talent. On the other hand, bug bounty programs provide seasoned hackers an opportunity to earn a full-time income.

Bug Bounty vs. CTF: Which Is Better for Business?

CTF events can draw in hackers who want a challenge and help departments fill internal security positions and train their people. Setting up and hosting CTF events require businesses to create a mock scenario, establish technical challenges to hide flags, and promote the event.

On the other hand, bug bounties provide a structured and streamlined approach to vulnerability discovery and remediation. When organizations set up competitive bug bounties publically, word spreads fast in the hacker community. This approach reduces the cost of promoting your bug bounty program by using word-of-mouth referrals instead.

How HackerOne Can Help

HackerOne harnesses hacker-powered security to help keep businesses safe. The HackerOne all-in-one platform gives you a live look into the progress of ongoing security testing and allows you to track critical metrics from bug discovery to remediation. 

The HackerOne bug bounty program is streamlined and convenient, bridging the gap between hackers and businesses. The program supports everything from disclosure to payout in a single dashboard.

HackerOne’s hacker-powered pentests drive the world’s largest and most diverse community of hackers in the world. You’ll get more coverage, instant results, and seamless remediation in one platform. Sign up for our penetration test demo to learn more.

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