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  • A Warning About Mac Security Fear Merchants

    September 22nd, 2008

    You’ve heard the same sad tale over and over again: Now that Macs are finally becoming really popular, it’s inevitable that malware will soon infect this platform in a significant way. Just you wait, and all this crying wolf will soon become up close and personal. No tilting at windmills, but real, honest to goodness virus threats and other dangers are imminent.

    Certainly the fact that Apple releases security updates that address a slew of potential sources for exploits every few months must surely demonstrate that these fears have a basis in fact. After all, why would Apple fix something that doesn’t need fixing?

    Before you batten down the hatches and hide your head in the sand, consider the word “potential” in the previous paragraph, because that’s pretty much the story right now.

    Now I remember that silly Consumer Reports survey some time ago, saying that over 20% of Mac users had been infected by computer viruses. You take those figures and then look at the known fact that few Mac OS X viruses have spread into the wild, and only small numbers have been impacted, and you have to wonder just what’s going on.

    Well, I didn’t read that Consumer Reports survey question, so I don’t know what they were getting at. It may well be, as I’ve seen from time to time, that people who encounter crashes or other untoward behavior on their Macs might blame them on a virus. In fact, a local photographer and long-time client will often write me and express her fears about a potential virus whenever something goes wrong with her computer.

    So why won’t the fear merchants just give up and go away?

    Well, if you just take a gander at the list of exploits in any recent Apple security fixer-upper, you have a right to feel concerned. Every nook and cranny of the Mac OS, including the Finder and QuickTime, has been impacted at one time or another. It seems as soon as one security leak is closed, another one seems to appear in its place. It’s almost as frustrating as stomping out a colony of insects. Rest assured, many more will replace them soon enough.

    The biggest issue here is that fact that no computer operating system is 100% secure, however hard you try. Apple also builds its operating system with lots of open source components that, themselves, may suffer from potential security lapses. Even though some of those components, such as the Apache Web server, have been tested and proven for years, something new will almost always appear. So developers around the world are busy writing patches to address those problems.

    Apple will take these fixes, bundle them into the operating system and release the updates. Sometimes they come in a matter of weeks, and sometimes Apple assembles a bunch over a longer period before committing to a release.

    At the same time, whenever a serious serious hole is found that may be exploited in a test lab, or anywhere on the planet, security software companies will produce their own fixes. Those fixes will be accompanied by press releases that are no doubt meant to inform, but they may seem lurid enough to induce you to buy their products.

    This is not to say that the Mac OS X landscape is perfectly safe. Beyond malware, there are those phishing scams, where people send you letters asking you to update your personal information at your bank or other financial institution. If you click on the link, you’ll be taken to a bogus site made up to look like the genuine article. You enter your login information, social security number or other personal data, and your bank accounts may be quickly depleted before you discover what’s really going on.

    You can easily avoid phishing scams simply by not clicking on links of this sort in your email. Go to the company’s site directly and if you have further doubts, call their customer service people for verification. That will help combat schemes that depend on social engineering. And, no, no fallen Nigerian dictator’s heirs are ready to deposit ten million dollars in your bank account because your name was picked at random. I wonder how people fall for that silliness, but they do.

    Even before the scourge arrives, though, you may still want to install security software on your Mac, if only to keep from sending infected email to your friends who are still saddled with Windows. Maybe it does serve them right for choosing an inferior platform, but why give them more misery than they already have?

    In addition, some companies might just have proactive protection policies in place where both the Mac and PC users on their corporate networks must have security software installed and kept up to date.

    Even if the effect is placebo so far, the latest group of Mac security products don’t seem to seriously impact speed or reliability. That’s quite different from the old days, where certain virus protection apps would exact a stiff penalty on startup and application launch speeds, and cause lots and lots of crashes. As near as I can tell from doing a little random research, the products you buy today from such companies as Intego and Symantec seem to be pretty robust. So the only downside in protecting yourself in advance of any real threat is perhaps the loss of a small amount of money, including the original purchase price and the annual update contracts.

    More to the point, when and if a true virus threat appears that might impact lots of Mac users, having software already installed may not be a bad idea. That way, you don’t have to download a copy, or get a copy from a local dealer after it’s already too late!

    Then again, I still haven’t seen any compelling reason to install security software on any of my Macs, although I do keep the system’s built-in firewall active.



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    8 Responses to “A Warning About Mac Security Fear Merchants”

    1. gopher says:

      In the 8 years since Mac OS X was released, and 23 years since NeXT was introduced, and 38 years since Unix was introduced, the opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities in elements of Mac OS X have presented themselves to Unix programmers.

      And what do we have? No non-user induced viruses have affected any Mac running Mac OS X. And it isn’t because the Macs aren’t as popular as Mac OS X. The foundation is pretty darn good.

      By default, you can run a port scan on your Mac from any site on the internet, and you’ll find all your security holes to the net are blocked. A remotely initiated attack is impossible. Furthermore, if you enable Mac OS X’s built-in firewall, additional holes are blocked. It is in Apple menu -> System Preferences -> Sharing. Finally, unless you have some excuse to enable root account, the most common hole found on Windows is not going to affect Macs. The operating system core is secured by root only applications that no one can operate except the operating system itself on its own, and no one else can have access to them.

      Sure some e-mails may initiate malicious scripts, but only if you let them have access to your administrator password. Furthermore, application executibles that run on Windows do not run on Macs without virtualization or emulation installed.

      So really the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. Don’t open spam. Don’t open chain letters. Don’t forward chain letters. Don’t use Peer 2 Peer file sharing, as beta versions of the operating system with potential non-tested bugs can be lurking there, and you are giving other people access to your computer whom you don’t know. As long as you follow those rules, your Mac will be safe.

    2. Ross Cottrell says:

      Thank you Gene, and thank you Gopher, for cutting through the immense fud pile regarding OS X security. I’ve been using OS X since the public beta and have never used antivirus software for any extended amount of time. It usually seemed to cause more problems than it solved. Even the old .Mac antivirus software was pulled by Apple. I’ve never had any security issues. Like you guys mentioned, just keep the firewall activated and don’t fall prey to scams.

      I used to support a very large bank’s computer users. They all used XP, and I spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning out malware. And we also had the occasional Outlook attack, which was fun.

      Windows users that I know just cannot fathom the fact that OS X doesn’t require them to waste time worrying about security issues, though it doesn’t stop me from proselytizing to them.

      I do run antivirus software on my Parallels XP drive however.

    3. Jim says:

      “I wonder how people fall for that silliness, but they do.”
      Greed!

    4. Keyword says:

      It’s important not to minimize the danger from social-engineering exploits (which would include phishing as a subset). Some phishing is getting pretty persuasive – you really have to think about what you’re reading before responding to anything that requests information of any kind.

      And – if you have kids using your computer – be very careful indeed.

      I’ve gone to the extreme of giving the kids their own machine, which is NEVER used for any financial transactions. If they pick up a keylogger the worst that can happen is they’ll hack the World of Warcraft account.

      My prediction for the first massive Mac exploit? Some kind of social engineering lure that fools a lot of people and opens their machines to being taken over. Second on the list (but much more damaging) would be someone figures out how to pose as software update.

    5. AdamC says:

      Another informative read, thanks.

    6. badgerbadger says:

      and now with this article — make that “over and over AND OVER” again — and the song remains the same…

    7. JohnnyG5 says:

      Great article, as was the article on the ‘Mac Troubleshooting Websites’ article. Keep up the great work!!

      John

    8. gopher says:

      In the 8 years since Mac OS X was released, and 23 years since NeXT was introduced, and 38 years since Unix was introduced, the opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities in elements of Mac OS X have presented themselves to Unix programmers.

      And what do we have? No non-user induced viruses have affected any Mac running Mac OS X. And it isn’t because the Macs aren’t as popular as [Windows]. The foundation is pretty darn good.

      By default, you can run a port scan on your Mac from any site on the internet, and you’ll find all your security holes to the net are blocked.

      A remotely initiated attack is impossible.

      Furthermore, if you enable Mac OS X’s built-in firewall, additional holes are blocked. It is in Apple menu -> System Preferences -> Sharing. Finally, unless you have some excuse to enable root account, the most common hole found on Windows is not going to affect Macs. The operating system core is secured by root only applications that no one can operate except the operating system itself on its own, and no one else can have access to them.

      Sure some e-mails may initiate malicious scripts, but only if you let them have access to your administrator password. Furthermore, application executibles that run on Windows do not run on Macs without virtualization or emulation installed.

      So really the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. Don’t open spam. Don’t open chain letters. Don’t forward chain letters. Don’t use Peer 2 Peer file sharing, as beta versions of the operating system with potential non-tested bugs can be lurking there, and you are giving other people access to your computer whom you don’t know.

      As long as you follow those rules, your Mac will be safe.

      Just realized I had to correct my prior post!

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