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Apple's in the eye of flaw finders

The year of the OS X exploit?

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Yet, the platform is garnering more attention from the experts who search for vulnerabilities. Driven by the cool look of the Mac OS X and the ability to run most Unix and Linux security tools on the system, Apple's operating system has become popular among security researchers.

That popularity could be the reason that the number of vulnerabilities logged in Apple's Mac OS X surpassed the number of vulnerabilities found in Microsoft's Windows XP in 2004 and 2005, according to data from the National Vulnerability Database (NVD). Apple had to contend with 88 vulnerabilities (29 high severity ones) in the Mac OS X in 2005, up from 54 in the prior year, while Microsoft patched 61 vulnerabilities (38 deemed of high severity) in Windows XP in 2005, up from 44 the prior year, according to the NVD. The data does show that fewer of the flaws in Mac OS X were considered severe.

Such numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt. Differing ways of reporting flaws, different editorial policies on the part of the vulnerability database staff, and differences between what software components are considered part of the operating system all combine to make vulnerability statistics less than authoritative.

However, some security researchers speculate that the number of flaws found in the future will increase. Apple's change to the Intel platform will put many security researchers in their comfort zone in dealing with the architecture. While the change will not mean much for application-level vulnerabilities, flaws in the memory architecture or in processor-specific functions could be found more easily, Reflective's Shostack said.

"OS X running on x86 means that the skills that people have developed and a lot of the tools people have created for finding problems, analysing problems, and writing the code to take advantage of them, will work," he said. "They no longer need to learn a different assembler or a different memory architecture."

Finally, the old adage about market share still holds, said Dan Kaminsky, an independent consultant for Doxpara Research. As Macs become more popular, attackers will tend to target the platform more often, he said.

"There just aren't that many Mac users right now," Kaminsky said. "As it gets put on more and more desktops, it becomes a pretty high-profile target in terms of what is your return on investment for committing an attack against the group."

Ironically, Apple's lack of experience with major attacks might also cause problems for the company and its users, Kaminsky said.

"The reality is that security work does comes from a trial by fire," he said. "And Apple really has not had that experience. It had not had the experience from some 20 years that Unix had and that Linux has absorbed. It has not had the experience that Microsoft had with its summer of worms."

Yet, it's almost certain the experience will come, he said.

This article originally appeared in SecurityFocus

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

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