Mac OS X security under scrutiny
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2005-11-29

When the SANS Institute, a computer-security training organization, released
its Top-20 vulnerabilities last week, the rankings continued an annual
ritual aimed at highlighting the worst flaws for network administrators.
This year, the list had something different, however: The group flagged the
collective vulnerabilities in Apple Computer's Mac OS X operating system as
a major threat.

It's the first time that the SANS Institute called out an entire operating
system for its vulnerabilities. While the move has raised questions about
the value of such a general warning, highlighting recent vulnerabilities in
Mac OS X was intended as a wake up call, said Rohit Dhamankar, security
architect for TippingPoint, a subsidiary of networking firm 3Com, and the
editor for the SANS Top-20 vulnerability list.

"We are not pointing at the entire Mac OS X and saying you have to worry
about the entire operating system," he said. "It is just that the Mac OS X
is not entirely free of troubles."

The naming of Apple's Mac OS X to the list is the latest warning from
security experts to users that Apple's operating system is not immune to
threats. In its last two bi-annual reports, security firm Symantec has
warned Apple users that the perceived security strengths of Mac OS X will
not withstand determined attackers, especially with mounting vulnerabilities
and at least one known rootkit tailored to the system. (Symantec is the
owner of SecurityFocus.)

Such warnings, however, have to contend with the Mac OS X's impressive lack
of major security incidents. While users of Microsoft Windows have to worry
about the latest viruses, Trojan horse programs, spyware and phishing
attacks, users of Apple's systems have significantly fewer threats about
which to be concerned.

Still, if would-be attackers begin to focus on the operating system, then
it's likely that major security incidents will not be far behind, said
Nicholas Raba, CEO of Mac OS X security information and software site

"Mac OS X is currently more secure than Linux or Windows only for the fact
that the shares of users is smaller thus the (number of) researchers
discovering the flaws is smaller," Raba said.

Others point out that the vulnerability landscape is already shifting.

The number of vulnerabilities patched by Apple in the Mac OS X rivals the
number fixed by Microsoft in its operating systems, according to data from
the Open Source Vulnerability Database. So far in 2005, Microsoft has
released patches for 89 vulnerabilities, while Apple has released patches
for 81 vulnerabilities, according to Brian Martin, content editor for the
OSVDB. Counting flaws offers little more than a rough approximation of the
threat to a particular operating system, Martin said, but it does show that
Apple has gained the attention of the security community.

"A lot of the people who do vulnerability research started with Unix, and a
lot of hackers have moved to Apple Mac OS X because it is cool and they can
do anything they could do on Unix," he said.

Apple adopted its variant of the Unix operating system, the Berkeley
Software Distribution or BSD, as the basis for its revamped Mac OS, which it
first released in March 2001. Since then the number of flaws discovered that
affect the operating system has steadily increased, to 46 in 2004 from 5 in
2001, according to the OSVDB.

However, Mac OS X does not have the same security problems that Windows
does, Martin said. In many ways, Apple's operating system gains the
advantages of Unix, but because Unix has not historically been a desktop
operating system, many of the mistakes made by Microsoft--such as Active X
controls' poor security model and unsecured services--are not present, he
said. Instead, Apple users primarily need to worry about malicious Web sites
that attack through the Safari browser and media files that exploit
vulnerabilities in the operating system's applications.

The SANS Top-20, for example, called out five different parts of the Windows
operating system, including Internet Explorer, the broad Windows services
category, and Windows configuration weaknesses.

Poor configuration of Mac OS X computers is also a worry, according to some
network administrators.

"The problem is that there are enough OS X boxes on networks that are not
patched, firewalled, and configured that they pose a clear and present
danger to the networks they reside on," said one university
information-technology specialist posting to the Full Disclosure security
mailing list.

Security researchers also worry about Apple's hesitation to speak publicly
about its operating system's security. Apple has infrequently commented on
the topic of its operating system security or the company's security
policies. Apple also declined to comment for this article.

Yet, including the entire operating system as a to-do item on a list of
top-20 vulnerabilities is not entirely fair, OSVDB's Martin said.

"In 2005, they have about the same number of vulnerabilities in the
operating system as Windows, but Microsoft has a much greater market share,"
Martin said. "The Mac OS doesn't deserve a spot any more than any other
operating system."

SANS's Dhamankar stressed that the intent was not to call the Mac OS X
operating system a threat, but to give Mac users a wake up call. If they
have not been paying attention to security, then they should start today, he

"There are some people that feel that, if they are running Mac OS X, then
all is well," Dhamankar said. "That is no longer true."

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