Fear and Loathing About Mac Security

November 6th, 2014

Some months back, a high-profile tech journalist and talk show host posted an overwrought spiel about the possibility of getting malware on a Mac. The few malware outbreaks over the years, such as Flashback, a Java exploit, were cited, and a certain unnamed Mac security app was recommended to protect you from possible misery.

Now the 2012 Flashback trojan affair reportedly impacted 600,000 Macs, although it’s not at all certain independent researchers were actually able to verify that figure, which came from one of the security software companies. It’s very true Apple should have acted sooner than it did to block the trojan, even though the security lapse was actually the responsibility of Oracle, who publishes Java.

It’s also clear in the way that Apple acted, when it finally acted, that it is taking such threats seriously, even though those impacted by Flashback probably didn’t suffer serious damage and were able to remove the trojan fairly easily. But they could have had their data compromised as a result of such malware. Watching this episode play out taught me to stay away from Java.

Without much in the way of malware outbreaks on the Mac platform, it also demonstrated how security companies will fear monger to sell more apps.

There is also an article posted by one of those security companies about the dangers of having a Mac that can’t run OS X Yosemite or older versions of OS X that are still receiving security updates. The article correctly states that Mountain Lion, Mavericks and Yosemite can be run on a similar collection of Macs dating back to 2007, 2008, and 2009, depending on the model.

Those Macs will continue to get security fixes most likely until OS 10.11 arrives, which might support fewer older models. Or maybe not.

But if your Mac is stuck with OS 10.6 Snow Leopard or earlier, you’ll find that security fixes are no longer being released. Are you in danger of being infected? Does it mean your vintage Mac, while still working great, might be compromised?

How do you protect yourself? Or must you buy a new Mac to get with the program?

One of the most foolish suggestions in the article is to install Windows 8.1 under Boot Camp, so you are free of OS X and can run an OS for which security fixes are still being released. The other suggestion is even more curious, which is to follow some online instructions to install Ubuntu Linux.

Talk about lame solutions. Now the failed Windows 8.1 is bad enough. I suppose you could hold out till next year and try Windows 10, assuming the version of Boot Camp that runs on your older Mac will support that OS. And remember we’re talking of Intel-based Macs. What about PowerPC Macs?

Such suggestions aren’t just off the rails. They are out of this world. Solutions of this sort, and the suggestion to buy a cheap Windows PC or a Chrome-book, completely overlook the reasons people buy Macs in the first place. Being able to run a guest operating system on a Mac under Boot Camp, or a virtual machine such as Parallels Desktop, is a great accommodation for folks who need to occasionally run another OS for a specific app. But you buy Macs primarily to run OS X and Mac apps.

Besides, can anyone believe someone would tell a Mac user that it’s safer to run Windows?

What is not stated, however, is whether users of those older Macs should consider buying security software from the company who published the blog. Unfortunately they can’t, because the latest products from that company require OS 10.7 Lion or later.

So what’s the point?

Yes, it’s true that older Macs won’t receive security updates, however critical. It’s also true that Apple hasn’t, up till now, officially declared the end of support for an older OS. You have to discover by inference, that a new security update isn’t released for that system.

Still, most malware these days gains control of a computer via social engineering. You are enticed via email or an online link to visit a site where the infected payload is delivered to your Mac or PC. It doesn’t just happen, even though there are occasional security leaks that might allow someone to gain root privileges on your Mac and take it over.

One example is Rootpipe, recently discovered, but said to potentially impact OS X Yosemite and some unmentioned older OS versions. Now if your Mac can only be exploited by physical access to your machine, that’s one thing, and something that isn’t likely to happen to anyone who isn’t personally targeted by a thief who breaks into somone’s home or office.

If it could be done remotely, the offender would still have to somehow break into your router and discover the hardware address of your Mac. I suppose that could happen in a public Wi-Fi setting, but that assumes Rootpipe can be made to function remotely, and the security researcher who discovered the vulnerability, Emil Kvarnhammar, is not talking. Evidently he’s giving Apple time to fix the bug before things get out of hand.

But the lurid prose doesn’t mean your older Mac is no longer safe. If you practice safe computing, you probably have little or nothing to worry about. The sky isn’t falling.

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3 Responses to “Fear and Loathing About Mac Security”

  1. Monotonous Langor says:

    After 25 years of malware-free computing thanks to our Macs, I’ll worry about other things.

  2. Granville Kennedy says:

    The one bit of sensible advice I’ve heard and always followed has been not to run in an admin account for general purposes. And if something does get onto your machine and you are asked for the admin password to do an installation, better safe than sorry. Unfortunately, some Peoplesoft stuff from my employer requires Java, which I never had to install until a dust-up on some alleged missed punch outs occurred – but even Java apps ask for permission to run. It’s amazing how many people fail to understand the basic security of user accounts in the UNIX underbelly of Mac OSX, and as for groups, don’t even go there, I haven’t grokked them yet!

  3. Lawrence says:

    If it sounds to good to be true, it’s malware. Human greed is the biggest security threat, period. Almost ALL malware these days are trojan horses masquerading as copyrighted software. Repackaged commercial software with malware added is the primary vector for spread. The user thinks they are downloading an expensive software suite for free (Photoshop, Office, Games, etc) from a pirate site. The user’s greed and lack of ethics is what compromises them,not the software or the operating system.

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