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Mac OS X security under scrutiny

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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 said.

"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."

Copyright © 2005, SecurityFocus

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