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Plug pulled on Mac hacking challenge

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A University sysadmin in the US who set up a Mac hacking challenge reckons the project established the security credentials of the operating system despite having to pull the plug on the contest before its scheduled end. Dave Schroeder, a senior systems engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, set up his challenge in an attempt to prove an earlier Hack-My-Mac contest was too easy.

A contestant in the first (Swedish) Mac hacking challenge claimed victory after breaking into a test system in just 30 minutes. But every potential hacker had been given a head-start by been given an account to the system. This meant hackers needed only to find a way to elevate their privileges to super-user status, and remove files, before the could claim victory.

Schroeder's contest, by contrast, invited contestants to breach a PowerPC Mac mini (running Mac OS X 10.4.5 with the latest security updates) which was connected to the net with open SSH and HTTP ports and two user accounts, neither of which were handed over to potential attackers. This test system Information Week withstood 4,000 log-in attempts, SSH dictionary attacks, numerous scanning probes and two denial-of-service attacks in the first day of the challenge before Schroeder was forced to pull the plug on the challenge on Tuesday after just 38 hours and days before its scheduled conclusion.

The sysadmin had failed to clear the challenge with university authorities, who told Schroeder to kill it. Nonetheless Schroeder felt that the hacking contest proved his point about Mac OS X security despite its premature conclusion.

"Mac OS X is not invulnerable - it, like any other operating system, has security deficiencies in various aspects of the software," Schroeder wrote, Security Focus reports. "However, the general architecture and design philosophy of Mac OS X, in addition to usage of open source components for most network-accessible services that receive intense peer scrutiny from the community, make Mac OS X a very secure operating system."

The security of Mac OS X has been under intense scrutiny of late because of recent attempts to create malware targeting the platform and, shortly thereafter, a critical (and for a few days unpatched) vulnerability in Apple's Safari web browser. Disinterested observers judged all three threats to be far less serious a practical danger than first impressions might have suggested. ®

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